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But no opponent of Hitler could remain invulnerable for long, and Von Cramm was never as immune from persecution as he might have thought. All the Nazis needed was an excuse to bring him down. In time Von Cramm's personal life would give them one.
By 1937 the baron was at the pinnacle of his career. He had won four German championships and, in 1936, a second French singles title, defeating the seemingly invincible Perry in the final. He had reached the final at Wimbledon in both '35 and '36, losing to Perry both times. Before the '36 match he had been slightly injured in a taxi accident on his way to the All England Club, and then he had pulled a leg muscle early in the first set. Typically, he insisted on continuing, and, limping badly, he was demolished in straight sets. He refused to use the injury as an excuse and praised the British champion profusely.
Perry, now 84, recalls Von Cramm as being an exemplar of "textbook tennis. If you wanted to learn how to make elegant strokes, he was your man. He had those long European swings. We had some great battles. But against me that day, I'm afraid, he was duck soup."
Perry turned pro in 1937, leaving the amateur field to Budge, the emerging titan, and Von Cramm, the wily veteran. Budge defeated Von Cramm in the Wimbledon final that year. Two weeks later, on the same Centre Court at the All England Club, the two men met again in the Interzone final of the Davis Cup—the winner of which would advance to the Challenge Round—and they played a match that is regarded by many veteran observers as the best in tennis history. In his 1969 autobiography Budge wrote, "I never played better tennis, nor did I ever play anyone as good as Cramm."
Said Walter Pate, the U.S. Davis Cup captain in '37, "No other player—living or dead—could have beaten cither man that day." Even the egotistical Bill Tilden, the dominant player of the 1920s, called the match "the most beautiful tennis I've ever seen."
That Interzone final had repercussions beyond tennis. Hitler badly wanted Germany to win its first Davis Cup. For its part the U.S., which had once dominated Cup play, winning seven championships in a row from 1920 to '26 thanks to Tilden, had since been reduced to perennial runner-up status by the French and the British. At a time when Europe seemed once more on the brink of war, the U.S. tennis establishment wanted to bring the Cup—donated, after all, by an American, Dwight Davis—back home.
"The greatest thing in our day was to play for your country in the Davis Cup," says Perry now. "It's hard to believe that is no longer true. I'm afraid what the) play now is monetary tennis."
With Perry gone, there seemed little doubt that the winner of the Interzone final would go on to beat Britain, the defending champion, in the Challenge Round, so tension was palpable as play began. In the singles competition on the first day Von Cramm defeated Bryan (Bitsy) Grant and Budge took Henkel. On Day 2, Budge and Gene Mako defeated Von Cramm and Henkel in a four-set doubles match. On the third day Henkel beat Grant in four sets, tying the teams at two wins apiece. The final singles match between Budge and Von Cramm would determine the winner.
By this time the two players had become close friends and mutual admirers. "Gottfried," Budge says today, "was always a joy to be with. Anyone who ever really knew him could not help but feel close to him."
The baron no longer felt the need to chastise the younger player for his manners, Budge having become virtually his mirror image in court behavior. Both were dressed in cream flannels, with Von Cramm in his Rot-Weiss blazer, as they were escorted from the players' quarters by Ted Tinling of the All England Club. Queen Mary was among the nearly 15,000 spectators. So were the German ambassador to Great Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the German minister of sport, Hans von Tschammer und Osten. Among the U.S. rooters were comedian Jack Benny and newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan, who would become better known in the television era as a variety-show host.