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BARON OF THE COURT
Ron Fimrite
July 05, 1993
BARON GOTTFRIED VON CRAMM, THE GERMAN TENNIS STAR OF THE HITLER ERA, WAS A SPORTSMAN WITHOUT PEER
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July 05, 1993

Baron Of The Court

BARON GOTTFRIED VON CRAMM, THE GERMAN TENNIS STAR OF THE HITLER ERA, WAS A SPORTSMAN WITHOUT PEER

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As the players approached the court, a locker-room boy intercepted them to say that Von Cramm was wanted on the telephone. Tinling protested that there wasn't time, that a queen was waiting. But the baron, unflappable as ever, said the call might be important. He answered it. Budge insists that he distinctly heard his friend say, "Ja, mein Führer." It's true that a call from Hitler urging a victory would not have been unlikely. Von Cramm said later, however, that the call was from someone else, although he never publicly revealed from whom. At any rate, the conversation was brief. The match began on time.

Budge broke Von Cramm's serve to lead 5-4 in the first set, but Von Cramm broke back with four winning returns. Four games later he again broke Budge's serve to win the set 8-6. The baron also won the second set, 7-5, with his own serve fairly crackling. "I was playing tennis as well as I ever had before," Budge wrote later, but "the fewer mistakes I made, he made fewer still."

Down two sets and sorely frustrated, Budge rallied to win the third set 6-4. After the customary rest break Von Cramm seemed oddly off his game, and Budge breezed past him 6-2. But in the decisive fifth set, the baron's touch returned, and he moved to a 4-1 lead. At this point Tilden—who, to the displeasure of U.S. tennis officials, had been hired to coach the German team—rose from his scat in the gallery and, looking past Benny and Sullivan, gave Henkel an "it's in the bag" signal with his thumb and forefinger. This tactless gesture so enraged Sullivan that he removed his coat and, shouting, "You dirty son of a bitch!" started for Tilden. With some difficulty Sullivan's friends restrained him as Tilden looked on impassively.

Budge, after holding serve to make the score 4-2, decided he must gamble to pull himself back from the abyss. The baron's serve, particularly his second delivery, tended to kick high off the grass and at a tricky angle. To nullify that high hopper, Budge moved a step closer to the net, hoping to catch the ball on the rise with his superb backhand, which may have been the best the game has ever known. Luck was also with Budge, for Von Cramm, in his eagerness to close out the match, began missing his first service. Only once in the critical seventh game did the baron get his first serve in, and that was the only point he won. Budge took each second serve on the rise and drove Von Cramm deep, setting up a volley.

The momentum had shifted, and Budge held serve to tie the score at four games apiece. But Von Cramm regained his composure and held his service as the score moved to 6-6. Budge broke the baron's service in the 13th game and was now serving for the match. On match point Von Cramm drove Budge back with a serve return and hit a winning volley for deuce. The game had gone five minutes by the time Budge reached his fifth match point, and, wrote Budge, "five minutes under circumstances like these are like a month of 3-2 counts in baseball."

"The brilliance of the tennis was almost unbelievable," wrote Allison Danzig of The New York Times in his book Budge on Tennis. "The gallery...looked on spellbound as two great players, taking their inspiration from each other, worked miracles of redemption and riposte in rallies of breakneck pace that ranged all over the court. Shots that would have stood out vividly in the average match were commonplace in the cascade of electrifying strokes."

Budge's 175th first serve of the day was a lightning bolt, but Von Cramm hit an equally crisp return. The two traded ground strokes until Von Cramm finally hit what appeared to be a perfect cross-court forehand. Budge chased the shot on a dead run and was pitching forward onto the grass when he finally caught up with the ball. Miraculously, he hit a solid shot as he fell, the ball slipping past Von Cramm's outstretched racket at the net and landing less than six inches from the corner. Budge heard the roar of the crowd as he lay facedown on the turf. He knew then he had hit "the one possible winning shot," he said.

The baron, a loser in the most important match of his life, approached the net smiling sunnily, looking for all the world as if he, not his opponent, had hit that impossible shot. "Don," he said, extending his hand, "this was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life. I'm very happy that I could have played it against you, whom I like so much. Congratulations."

Budge embraced the vanquished baron. "I think," he said later, "we both wanted to cry."

Von Cramm's graciousness in defeat only added to his renown as the game's premier sportsman in an age when sportsmanship was considered a prime virtue. But he had once more angered his Führer, a man who had little use for a gracious loser. The baron could not have known it at the time, but his fall from grace was already being orchestrated.

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