America's Don Budge, barely 20 and playing in his first Wimbledon in 1935, had just beaten the second-ranked player in Great Britain, Henry Wilfred (Bunny) Austin, in a quarterfinal match. Elated over his unexpected success, Budge was heading for the competitors' stand when he was approached by Baron Gottfried von Cramm.
The baron, then 26, was already something of a tennis legend. He had won the French championship the year before, and he was a favorite, along with the top-ranked British player, Fred Perry, to win Wimbledon. Von Cramm was an extraordinarily graceful player with a wicked serve and flawless ground strokes. But it was not so much his shotmaking skills as his elegant presence that captured the public fancy. A handsome man just under six feet tall, with perfectly groomed dark blond hair and penetrating gray-green eyes, he dressed for a tennis match—in a red-and-white-striped blazer and cream-colored flannel trousers—as if he were about to entertain at a garden party.
In the 1930s only Perry and Budge were Von Cramm's superiors as players. His record of 82 Davis Cup wins (in 102 matches) is the fourth best in the history of the competition. From 1934 through '37 the baron played a total of eight French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships, reaching the final seven times and winning twice. Three of the five final-round losses were to Perry, and two were to Budge. In that sense, said Budge much later in life, "Gottfried was the unluckiest good player I've ever known."
His luck was equally treacherous away from the court, for along with wealth and position he also experienced the humiliation of imprisonment by the Nazis, the horrors of war on the Russian front, and two failed marriages, the second to one of the richest women on earth. Through it all, though, he remained undaunted, supremely confident, and resolutely impeccable in dress and manners. He was quite simply the most dashing figure tennis has ever known.
"Everyone wore white then," says Billy Talbert, a top U.S. player of the '40s, "but somehow Gottfried stood out."
He was a German nobleman who could trace his lineage to the 12th century. But Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt von Cramm, idol of the haut monde, was no snob. In fact, he habitually dropped both the Baron and the von from his name, and he was one of the most congenial, amusing and popular players on the international tour. He was considered the ultimate sportsman, as gracious in defeat as in victory. At the '35 Wimbledon, Budge, who had admired the baron from afar, was eager to meet him.
Von Cramm, however, was not smiling when he introduced himself to Budge, and after congratulating him on his quarterfinal victory, the baron took the younger man aside for a serious chat. "Don," Budge recalls him saying, "you were a poor sport out there today."
Budge was flabbergasted. The baron was considered the arbiter of court etiquette, and Budge, like most players of the time, sought to emulate him. Budge couldn't for the life of him imagine what he had done wrong. "Do you recall," Von Cramm continued in his perfect English, "that when the linesman gave Bunny a bad call on a ball that clearly hit the chalk, you deliberately double-faulted to compensate for it?" Budge did. It was common then, at a time when linesmen's decisions were seldom disputed, for a player to lose a point deliberately if he felt his opponent had been victimized by a bad call.
Mystified, Budge asked Von Cramm what was so wrong about that. "But you must see, Don," the baron replied, "that by doing what you did, you embarrassed that linesman in front of 15,000 people. It is unthinkable."
"After that," Budge said later, "I played the game the way it was called."