The King, The Baron, The House painter and Boris!

14 Jun

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On the afternoon of 7th July 1985 it finally happened and in truth it was a little unexpected. Late that afternoon, a 17 year old boy from Lieman in North West Germany became the first German to be crowned Champion of Wimbledon.

Boris Becker had just blown away Kevin Curran in 4 sets of tennis and in so doing he had broken all sorts of records. He had become the youngest ever grand slam finalist that day, became the youngest grand slam winner, was the first German to win the title and had won it from an unseeded position in the rankings.

A fortnight before, Becker had won his first ever major title at Queens Club in London and the back to back wins really did announce the emergence of a major force in tennis.

Back in Berlin, a crowd had gathered to watch the Wimbledon final in the famous Rot-Weiss Club ( or to give it its full name The Lawn Tennis Turnier Club Rot-Weiß ) on the outskirts of the city. With its sixteen clay courts, the Rot- Weiss — or Red and White — ranks amongst one of the elite tennis clubs in the world. There was a huge cheer when the winning point was made and the announcement of “Game set and match, Becker” sparked huge celebrations and the champagne began to flow.

Only when the newly crowned boy champion made an innocent remark in a celebratory interview was there a slight murmur which marked a dampening of the celebrations. When asked what his win meant for tennis in Germany Becker had somewhat innocently said “in Germany, we never had an idol before in tennis.”

The crowd in the Rot-Weiss fell a little silent at the remark, and one man in particular was seen to shake his head just a little. Wolfgang  Hofer raised his glass for the umpteenth time since the winning point and turned to one of the many portraits on the wall. He drained his glass and said “ We have a winner my friend, a bright new star! Yet like most other tennis players and most other men, I doubt he is fit to string your racquets!” He refilled his glass, and added “Anyway – happy birthday. It is appropriate that the boy should win on this of all days!”

The portrait on the wall didn’t reply. It showed a handsome man in white tennis slacks and the red and white blazer of the Rot-Weiss Club. The same figure could be seen in numerous photographs around the club, many of which were taken with an older, taller, upright man who always seemed to be sporting a white hat.

“What do you think Mr G?”

Wolfgang knew the answer to his own question. Mr G also did not answer but Wolfgang knew that he agreed. No matter what Becker might go on to achieve he would never be the man in the portrait  and in truth Wolfgang would never want him to have to consider coming close.

The game of tennis has always had eras. In the modern game there was the Borg era, the era of McEnroe and Lendl, Sampras and Agassi, the Federer years, followed by the era of the hard hitting big four Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and our own Andy Murray. Tennis has always had eras.

Back in the 1920’s, Tennis was dominated by Big Bill Tilden of the United States who won 6 consecutive US Opens and three Wimbledon titles.

However Tilden could never master the clay of Roland Garros and despite being a beaten finalist twice, the French clay courts were dominated by the four musketeers from France who give their name to the modern trophy that is presented to the winner of the French Open each year – and which is then placed straight back in the cabinet immediately after the presentation.

This year Rafael Nadal lifted that trophy for a record ninth time and held aloft the Coupe des Mousquetaires, named after Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste – The Four Musketeers who laid siege to clay court tennis for the decade between 1922  and 1932 and who shut everyone else out at Roland Garros year after year.

It is often said that the era of the Frenchmen was followed by the era of Fred Perry – and we in Britain, in particular, are very apt to ignore everyone else from the world of tennis at that time.

Yet, it is in this era we find that the record books contain the name of possibly the bravest, most gallant, most stylish, most controversial, and one of the most forgotten about players in the history of the game. So forgotten, that even the newly crowned Wimbledon champion of 1985 did not know of his existence despite his sharing Becker’s nationality.

Yet his is a story which should never be forgotten by anyone.

The name of this mystery man?

Gottfried Von Cramm – or to be more precise Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm , Son of a German Nobleman, groomed as a future diplomat, member of the aristocracy, and a tennis champion like no other in history.

Von Cramm took up the game of tennis in his teens playing on the manicured court that was to be found on the grounds of his considerable family estate. The family’s Arian nobility could be traced back to the twelfth century, but throughout his career Von Cramm would go out of his way to distance himself from any suggestion of snobbishness, being privileged,  being upper class or superior to anyone else in any way.

In fact he refused to be addressed as Baron, never used his full name and even dropped the Von part of his name introducing himself in perfect English as simply Gottfried Cramm.

By the age of 20 ( 1929 ) he had come to Berlin supposedly to study law but in truth to further his tennis career, and it was in the capital city he came to know and love The Rot-Weiss Tennis Club.

At the time, Berlin was the decadence capital of Europe with there being nightclubs of every type and catering for every taste. Berlin was party city, but whilst young Von Cramm could be seen out on the town, come midnight he always made his excuses and left any party as the following day he had to train and practice, practice and train.

It was during this period he first shared a tennis court with the slightly eccentric Mr G who appeared to travel throughout Europe playing in Tennis tournaments by invitation—despite being far too old to have any chance whatsoever of actually winning anything. Mr G was simply an eccentric tennis fixture across Europe.

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In 1931 Cramm, having gained his Law Degree, turned his back on the law and the diplomatic service and opted to become a full time tennis player joining the amateur tour.

By 1932 he had won a place in the German Davis Cup team, and in the same year he won the first of four consecutive German titles.

However, it was not just what Cram won which made him stand out. It was his very appearance, his demeanour, his humility and simple presence that made Gottfried Von Cramm a true world star like no other before or since.

Tennis at the time was mostly an amateur sport with all the participants wearing white.

However, standing at just less than six feet, with dark blonde hair, Cramm always appeared with razor sharp pressed slacks and wearing the red and white blazer of his beloved Rot-Weiss club. He was instantly recognisable for his sense of style, panache, charm and wit.

Cramm also had an excellent tennis game and was recognised amongst his peers for having classic long ground strokes and a wickedly kicking serve making him among the very best players on the planet.

However, even beyond his classy play and spectacular appearance, Gottfried Von Cramm was known for his scrupulous fairness, absolute manners, complete and open integrity, and his gentlemanly conduct — so much so that others were said to be in awe of his very presence simply because he was such a gentleman.

Personally, he was funny, supremely loyal, generous to a fault and was regarded as one of the circuits truly nice guys, if not absolutely the nicest of all players.

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Yet despite all of these traits he was fiercely competitive and by 1933 he served notice of his intention to win at tennis by picking up the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon when he triumphed with Hilde Krahwinkel  in an all German team.

The following year he entered the world’s greatest clay court championships at Roland Garros with a degree of confidence.

Le Stade Roland Garros (“Roland Garros Stadium”)  was constructed in 1928 to host France’s first defence of the Davis Cup and is named after Roland Garros, a pioneer aviator who completed the first solo flight across the Mediterranean and was the inventor of the first forward-firing aircraft machine gun. Garros was a World War I hero (the first pilot to shoot down five enemy aircraft, and to be called an “ace” for doing so) who was killed in aerial combat in 1918.

In 1933 the Australian Jack Crawford had brought to an end the dominance of the four musketeers in the French open. Prior to then the Frenchmen had shared the spoils for over a decade, and having lost to the Australian the year before, the Paris crowd knew there would be a stiff challenge from a new set of local heroes from France in an attempt to reclaim the title.

Also competing would be a strong British contingent including Fred Perry, Bunny Austin, Patrick Hughes ( The only Britain ever to be crowned Italian champion ) Mohammed Sleem ( who was technically Indian but who played under the Union Jack ) and Daniel Prenn, who until the emergence of Cramm had been the predominant player in Germany.

Added to these there was a strong international field.

Yet by the end of the tournament Crawford would be in the final once again and standing across the other side of the net was the slim, elegant figure of Gottfried Von Cramm who had simply played blistering tennis throughout.

In what was one of the most thrilling finals of all time, the reigning champion was defeated by the little fancied German over 5 sets 6–4, 7–9, 3–6, 7–5, 6–3.

Von Cramm was the King of Clay and was hailed as a hero back in Germany.

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Thus began what may well have become the era of Gottfried Von Cramm – yet it was not to be despite his remaining at the very top of the tennis tree in terms of sheer talent for years to come.

Von Cramm’s victory at Roland Garros put German tennis on the map far more than Becker’s much later win at Wimbledon, and along with other great German players Herman Henkel and Kai Lund, Germany were seen as a real force in the Davis Cup which was considered far more prestigious than any of the four individual Grand Slam tournaments at the time. However, in the eyes of Gottfried Cramm there was one name missing from the German line up and that was the name of Daniel Prenn.

Prenn had been a mainstay of German tennis for a number of years and was only replaced by Von Cramm as the best player in Germany. Not only that, Prenn had represented Germany at Table tennis and was a noted amateur boxer and runner as well. He had represented the country on many occasions in the Davis Cup and had achieved a very handsome winning record. However, by 1933 Prenn was banned from representing his country in any sport on the simple grounds that he was a Jew.

For Gottfried Von Cramm, Prenn’s exclusion was to be the first cause celebre which lead him into immediate conflict with someone who took a direct and personal interest in everything that Cramm did – Adolf Hitler.

Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933 and he openly rejoiced when Von Cramm won at Roland Garros in 1934 but very quickly realised that the new Tennis star was about to be a constant thorn in the Fuherer’s flesh.

1935 saw Von Cramm reach the finals at Roland Garros once again only this time he faced England’s best – Fred Perry. Perry won in 4 sets, much to the annoyance of Adolf Hitler, taking the game 6–3, 3–6, 6–1, 6–3.

Three weeks later, the two met in the finals of the Wimbledon Championships and once again Perry triumphed, this time making short work of the German who was all at sea on grass. Fred was champion after three sets -6–2, 6–4, 6–4 and English tennis was seen to crow from the rafters that Perry was the best tennis player in the world. This was something that did not please Herr Hitler.

However, these defeats did not diminish Von Cramm’s hero status at home amongst the German populace as it was recognised that suddenly Germany had a tennis player who would be in and around the business end of the major tournaments on a regular basis – even if Hitler did have private concerns about the Baron.

Later in the same year, the German people, Adolf Hitler and indeed the whole world of tennis would be amazed by the actions of Gottfried Von Cramm and his single minded and controversial devotion to personal integrity the spirit of fair play in tennis.

Germany had drawn the United States in the Davis Cup and of course Hitler and his Reich wanted to show the world that they were the superior race in all matters.

The teams were even after the opening-day singles competition,  Donald Budge having defeated Henner Henkel in a marathon, 7-5, 11-9, 6-8, 6-1 match and Von Cramm having beaten Wilmer Allison in straight sets. In the doubles the next day Allison and John Van Ryn faced Von Cramm and Kai Lund, and the match went to five sets. At match point for the Germans, Von Cramm and Lund both lunged for a shot hit down the middle of the court. The Baron fell short, but Lund got to the ball and drove it home for an apparent winner.

“Game, set and match to Germany,” the umpire called.

At that point, The Baron lifted his hand in protest and called a foul on himself to the astonishment of all. The ball had ticked his racket before Lund had hit his shot, he told the astonished official, and therefore, the point should go to the Americans. It was one of five match points the Germans would lose en route to a disheartening 8-6 defeat in the final set. The U.S. would go on to win the tie four matches to one and then lose to Great Britain in the shape of Fred Perry in the final Challenge Round.

Once again, Hitler in particular was furious – especially with Von Cramm.

Kleinschroth, the German captain, was apoplectic after the doubles defeat. Germany had never won the Davis Cup, and Von Cramm’s sportsmanship had cost the fatherland a golden opportunity. The Baron had apparently disgraced both his country and his team-mates. Kleinschroth sputtered with complete and utter rage. At this, the normally affable Von Cramm levelled his captain with a frigid stare.

“When I chose tennis as a young man,” the Baron said, “I chose it because it was a gentleman’s game, and that’s the way I’ve played it ever since I picked up my first racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? Never, because I would be violating every principle I think this game stands for. On the contrary, I don’t think I’m letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I’m doing them credit.”

However, the Germany of 1935 was not the country Von Cramm and his kind had grown up believing in, and in his heart he knew it, which makes his stand all the more impressive. This was a Germany controlled by a brutal dictator whose idea of fair play was to murder political opponents, persecute ethnic groups and bully neighbouring countries. Back home, the Baron found himself on increasingly shaky ground.

He had already angered the Nazi regime by protesting about the banishment from Davis Cup play of Daniel Prenn but his popularity was such that Hitler’s regime were reluctant to move against him. Now, however, his actions had cost his country a victory and that popularity was slipping. Hitler started to step up the pressure on the gentleman tennis player.

Von Cramm was politely asked to join the Nazi Party by Herman Goring. Equally politely, Gottfried simply refused. Over months the pressure increased with Goring meeting Cramm again and again at times pleading with him to join the party and show support for Hitler and at the same time warning him that it would not be good for him or his family if he refused. Again, the tennis player rejected the proposals from Goring. Eventually, despite these repeated previous “invitations” from Göring being refused, The Field Marshall stood in front of Von Cramm and ostentatiously ripped up all the mortgages held on Von Cramm’s castles and estates by Jewish bankers. “Now,” the portly field marshal announced with a mixture of pride and menace, “you are free.”

Gottfried Von Cramm’s reaction to this gesture was to simply stare at the shredded documents and say icily, “All the more reason for me not to join your party.”

And with those words,the die was cast. Von Cramm knew exactly what he was doing by refusing to join the party. He came from an aristocratic and influential background which now meant little in Germany but which still held influence abroad. Besides on the international tennis circuit he was adored for his manners, easy wit, his charm, his absolute sense of fair play and for truly great tennis.

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But he was a real problem for Adolf Hitler and knew that Adolf Hitler was a real problem for him – and he had no intention of playing the shrinking violet or the political puppet. He was now a citizen of the world, as one commentator put it, and on the tennis court there was only one who was his equal in terms of play and as long as he remained at the top he might just be safe. Maybe!

However by so clearly refusing Goring’s repeated proposals and advances Cramm knew that every time he walked on to a Tennis court he was literally playing for his life. If he kept winning in the main he might escape censure, if he lost then there would be consequences.

For the third year in a row he made it through to the finals at Roland Garros on his favoured clay court surface, and once again across the other side of the net stood Britain’s Fred Perry.

The Era of the Four Musketeers was gone; the equivalent of the modern Coupe des Mousquetaires was to be fought over by a German and an Englishman in an ever heightening political cauldron.

When play started on the afternoon of the first of June the crowd could barely believe what they were seeing. Von Cramm blasted through the first set without the famous Fred Perry winning a single game.

Perry rallied in the second set and took it 6-2 before Von Cramm regained the ascendancy by winning the third set by the same score. Once again, Perry came back and triumphed in the fourth set by six games to two and so the greatest clay championships in the world would come down to the final set with both men preparing to slug it out for the title.

Except the gentleman German showed sheer grit, style and absolute tennis class and once again blew Fred Perry away without letting him win a single game in the set. He was the official King of Clay for the second time – twice in three years – and his popularity once again soared – except perhaps with Adolf Hitler.

Three weeks later, Perry and Von Cramm met again on the green lawns of the Wimbledon centre court in the men’s singles final. Once again both had shown that there was no one in the tennis world who could stand in their way as the pair battled for the title for the second year in a row.

In the quarter finals and semis Von Cramm had disposed of Britain’s Bunny Austin and Australia’s Jack Crawford, while Perry had dispatched the up and coming Don Budge and Adrian Quist of Australia.

However, luck deserted Gottfried Von Cramm even before the match had started. On his way to the Wimbledon final he was injured in a car crash but insisted on playing even though he was clearly in pain and noticeably limping on an injured leg. On the grass and in front of a home crowd Perry was imperious and won in straight sets but once again Von Cramm had shown he was amongst the very best and noblest in the world despite his injuries.Perry deliberately played to his injured side throughout and won easily as the Baron was no match for him in that condition.

Afterwards Von Cramm refused to accept that the car crash had robbed him of the chance of wining and merely stated that Fred had been better on the day despite it being obvious that he could never have won following the accident.

Throughout these years Von Cramm always took to the court in the Red and White Rot-Weiss blazer making it clear that was his uniform rather than the swastika and the flag of Hitler. He was a man of Tennis – not persecution or war.

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1937 saw Gottfried Von Cramm at his zenith in every way. He had started to speak out publicly against the Hitler regime and had openly referred to the Fuherer  as  “The Little House Painter” in a newspaper article.

As a result, The Third Reich banned him from defending his French Open singles Title at Roland Garros after a furious row in which Cramm once again refused to buckle under the weight of the Nazi party. Instead the cup was claimed by his German team mate Herman Henkel who had not been able to stand up to Von Cramm as he won his fourth successive German title only weeks before Paris.

Had he been allowed to play in the French Open singles there is little doubt that Von Cramm would have claimed his third Roland Garros win in four years thus furthering his reputation in the record books.

He was however allowed to play in the doubles with Henkel – who was a confirmed Nazi – and the pair waltzed off with the title proving that Germany was the greatest tennis nation on earth at the time.

Perry had retired to the professional circuit leaving the world of tennis in the hands of the gentleman Baron and the emerging athlete that was Donald Budge of the USA, and so it was that Gottfried Von Cramm faced Budge in his third consecutive Wimbledon final only a few weeks after Roland Garros.

Budge was a new kind of tennis player. At 6 ft 1 he was taller than Cramm. He trained extensively and one might say “professionally” and used a more modern racquet which was heavier and more tightly strung. As a consequence Budge hit the ball harder than anyone before including the experienced German.

In the Wimbledon tournaments of 1937 and 1938, Budge would sweep the board with his style of tennis winning the singles, the doubles and the mixed doubles. He would perform the same feat at the US Championships of 1938.

The son of a Glaswegian who had played for Rangers, Don Budge would become the first man and the only American to date to win the grand slam of tennis holding all the major singles titles at the same time.

However, by 1937 he had won something else, and that was the unending friendship and admiration of Gottfried Von Cramm – and the friendship and admiration was totally reciprocal.

At the Wimbledon final of 1937, Budge defeated Von Cramm in straight sets winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. However, it is the match that the two played exactly a fortnight later that has etched its place in tennis history as arguably the greatest tennis match ever played.

The setting was once again the Wimbledon Centre Court and the occasion was the interzone final of the Davis Cup with the winner going on to meet the British team in the final. However, it was recognised by all concerned that this match was the real final as Britain, without Perry who had turned professional the year before, would be no match for the Germans or the Americans.

What happened before, during and after this tennis match is one of the great stories of sport with there being two distinct and different versions of the most significant of events.

The backdrop of course was the rising political tension between Germany and The United States, Britain and the other soon to be allies.

Max Schmeling had unexpectedly defeated Joe Louis in 1936  in a bout which had been hijacked by both the American and German Governments for propaganda purposes, and of course the Fuherer had witnessed the remarkable feats of Jesse Owens that same year. 1937 saw the two nations square up on the tennis court and Hitler was not keen on the Baron repeating any of his famed sportsmanship at the expense of the Fatherland.

Hitler had severe doubts about Cramm but was determined that Germany would win if at all possible and was determined to use any means to ensure victory.

Accordingly, the tension was such that the centre court at Wimbledon was packed to capacity with even Queen Mary being present for the match. In New York the tie was carried by ticker tape into the stock exchange and the radios of millions of Americans were switched on to hear the news from SW19 as it happened.

Both men 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. As well as Queen Mary, among the nearly 15,000 spectators 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. Also present were journalist Alistair Cooke and the novelist and commentator James Thurber.

Yet with all of this interference, pressure and politics, nothing could shake the friendship of the two protagonists. “Gottfried,” Budge said, “was always a joy to be with. Anyone who ever really knew him could not help but feel close to him.”

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Later, Budge would tell the story that just as the two players were about to enter the Centre Court arena, Von Cramm was told that there was a telephone call for him which he took there and then in the presence of Budge. Whilst Budge states that he did not hear the voice of the person who was on the other end of the phone, nor was told who the caller was, he has gone on record as stating that he is certain Von Cramm addressed the caller as “Mein Fuherer” and that once the call had finished the normally calm and immaculate Von Cramm looked ashen.

For his part, Von Cramm always denied that there had been a phone call of any kind and that he did not speak to Adolf Hitler on that day or prior to the match itself.

No matter what happened before the players emerged before the crowd, the two friends walked on to the famous court and served up one of the greatest matches of all time. If Budge had dominated two weeks before, he would certainly not dominate this match in anything like the same way.

What occurred on court that day was described by the great Bill Tilden as “The most beautiful tennis I have ever seen!” and Walter Pate, the U.S. Davis Cup captain of 1937 said “No other player—living or dead—could have beaten either man that day.”

Later, Alistair Cooke would write “The two white figures began to set the rhythms of something that looked more like ballet than a game where you hit a ball. People stopped asking other people to sit down. The umpire gave up stopping the game to beg for silence during rallies.” James Thurber reflected on the end of the match that it had been “something so close to art that at the end it was more as if a concert had ended than a tennis match. The shouts of `Bravo!’ when it was over came out of an emotion usually reserved for something more important.”

In the first set, the game moved with serve with both men playing out of their skin. Then Budge broke serve to lead 5-4 but unbelievably Von Cramm produced miracle tennis in the next game serving up four consecutive blistering returns to break back immediately. Eventually, the German closed out a thrilling first set taking it by eight games to six.

Surely they could not keep up this standard?

In the second set, Budge raised his game but Von Cramm raised his higher still and eventually he won another marathon set by seven games to five.

Budge would later say that during this game he played the best tennis of his life but added “the fewer mistakes I made, Gottfried made fewer still!”.

Budge narrowly won the third set 6-4 to stay in the match, which seemed to knock Cramm of his stride as the fourth set was the easiest of the day with Budge winning 6-2.

And so the crowd were set for a 5th and deciding set.

The Baron raced out to a 4-1 lead and things were looking good for Germany at that point but Budge then staged a remarkable comeback.

After holding serve to make the score 4-2, Budge 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 was a loser in this the most important match of his life, yet he approached the net smiling with great pleasure, 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.”

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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 downfall from the world of tennis was already being planned and prepared.

One month later, Von Cramm and Henkel would win the US Doubles title at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston again advancing the notion that Germany was the greatest tennis nation. Shortly after that, the US Singles final took place at Forrest Hills and once again Budge and Von Cramm served up a 5 set thriller which the American won 6–1, 7–9, 6–1, 3–6, 6–1 .

By now we were deep into 1937 and everyone could sense that war was coming and that Germany was a very dangerous place to be—especially for Jews.

After their doubles success in America, Von Cramm and Henkel toured the world playing tennis as the all conquering German doubles team. During the tour the players travelled to Chicago and then on to Los Angeles for the Pacific Southwest tournament where they were met with an anti German protest from a celebrity group which was headed by Groucho Marx. The demonstrators intended to protest against the Nazi regime by interrupting the match with the plan being to stand up as one and walk out of the arena the minute Von Cramm walked onto the court for the first game. Yet when the Baron appeared, the protesters stayed rooted to their seats as if Von Cramm’s mere presence, gentleness and gentlemanly conduct  held them fast. Afterwards Groucho himself admitted that upon seeing Von Cramm, “I felt ashamed of what I had planned to do.”

From Los Angeles, Von Cramm and Henkel sailed aboard the Japanese ship Tayo Maro for the Far East. When the Baron was asked to give a speech in Tokyo, he pointedly did not mention Hitler at all and praised the German people instead. And in Australia, where Von Cramm played Budge in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, he spoke critically of his government but praised Germany and its people once again. “He was an honest man,” says Budge, “and he offered what he thought was constructive criticism.”

However, word of Von Cramm’s betrayal quickly reached Berlin, possibly through Henkel, who was by then an ardent Nazi. The players returned to Germany on March 4, 1938 only to find that a proposed banquet in their honour as the reigning US Doubles Champions had been cancelled.

Instead, when Von Cramm went to visit his mother on 5th March, he received an unexpected visit from two members of the Gestapo who immediately arrested him and took him to Moabit Prison in Berlin.

Hitler had finally ran out of patience with the tennis star and Baron, and he now decided to effectively bring his career to an end when he was at the very height of his powers on the court.

On 1 September 1930 Gottfried Von Cramm had married  Baroness Elisabeth “Lisa” von Dobeneck, a daughter of Robert, Baron heirevon Dobeneck and his wife, the former Maria Hagen, and a granddaughter of the Jewish banker Louis Hagen. However, the couple had divorced in 1937 and this gave Hitler his opportunity to bring Cramm down.

Apparently Von Cramm had collapsed after his arrest for some reason and as a result he had to be hospitalised. However by 14th March he had apparently signed a confession admitting to homosexual acts of indecency with a young actor called Manasse Herbst, and he further admitted sending money to Herbst allegedly when the former had tried to blackmail him about their clandestine relationship.

There is little doubt that Von Cramm had indeed had a relationship with Herbst however the exact status of Von Cramm’s sexuality remains the subject of a little conjecture as he later married Barbara Hutton, the American socialite and heiress to the Woolworth five-and-dime fortune. The couple married in 1955 and divorced in 1960 with Von Cramm saying to friends that he had only really married her in order to “help her through substance abuse and depression but was unable to help her in the end.”

What is clear, is that at the time of his first marriage, the night life in Berlin had a very laissez faire and promiscuous tinge to it. Berlin was awash with gay night clubs, lesbian only night clubs, bisexual night clubs and night clubs where all sorts of sexual partners of both sexes were ten a penny.

Unlike Bill Tilden, who was always overtly gay and who surrounded himself with numerous young men ( something that would bring him into trouble with the law in later years ) Von Cramm kept his private life and whatever sex life he had extremely private and under wraps. Many believed him to be homosexual, yet many young women fell at his feet too. The Baron simply said nothing and kept such things to himself.

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Accordingly, it is somewhat suspicious that he should be arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 in connection with homosexual acts which occurred between 1931 and 1934 especially when you consider that Herbst had lived in Palestine from 1936 onwards and that the Nazi Party only came to power in 1933 and so were not in a position to delve into Von Cramm’s life prior to that date.

Notwithstanding all of this, Von Cramm had signed a confession which admitted sending money to Herbst as a result of him being blackmailed by the latter in regard to sexual acts which they had performed together and which acts were illegal in the eyes of the law in Hitler’s Germany.

However, this was really no more than a device to silence a well thought of, respected and popular pure Arian critic and tennis star who could trace his family back through the centuries.

Hitler had wanted to stop Von Cramm’s criticism and so he decided to shut him up with the charges referred to above.

Homosexuals were the second most persecuted group in Germany after the Jews, yet as mentioned before homosexuality was very very common in the swinging Berlin scene of the 1920’s and ‘30’s.

As a result of his conviction, Von Cramm was sentenced to 1 year in prison in May 1937 and so, thought Hitler, a nuisance and a critic had been silenced at least for a while.

However, almost immediately the international tennis and sporting world began to lobby for his release. Don Budge organised a petition and a movement for Cramm’s release and he secured the support of 25 of the leading sportsmen in the world who all stated that Von Cramm’s imprisonment was an outrage.

The Nazis had simply needed an excuse to punish him publicly. It could well be that if he had beaten Budge and brought the Davis Cup to Germany, the Baron would have been such a national hero that not even Hitler would have dared bring him down. Budge often speculated on how different his friend’s life might have been if he had won their famous match.

However, the man that really came to Von Cramm’s aid was his elderly, white hatted, playing partner of a few years back—the tall and willowy Mr G.

As mentioned before, this elderly gentleman was a tennis nut who was allowed to participate in competitions although he had absolutely no chance of winning. The G stood for Gustav and Gustav just happened to The King of Sweden! – although no one on the tennis circuit mentioned his royal title, as on court he was just plain Mr G.

King Gustav now lobbied Hitler with regard to Von Cramm, just as he had lobbied years before in relation to another friend — Daniel Prenn.

Hitler had ambitions for Sweden, and whilst he could not invade the country unlike Poland or France, he could make alliances and gain access to their naval ports.

Gustav, in retrospect was not nearly anti Nazi enough, but at the same time he was not pro Nazi and did not roll over when Adolph Hitler asked. However, when it came to Gottfried Von Cramm, Gustav was relentless and used his friend’s imprisonment as a bargaining chip saying that he might be inclined to accede to German requests in certain areas but only when Von Cramm had been released.

So it came to pass that the German tennis champion spent only six months in prison – a dramatic six months admittedly – before being reluctantly released from jail and effectively into the custody of King Gustav of Sweden.

Von Cramm missed virtually all of the 1938 season leaving the tennis world to be ruled over by the unchallenged Budge, but returned to competitive tennis after his enforced break in May 1939.

He could not compete in the French Open where he had triumphed so spectacularly before and so his return was destined to be on the grass of Queen’s club, London.

By this time, Budge had turned professional and was no longer on the main amateur circuit. The French Open had been won by American Don McNeill who had beaten the up and coming Bobby Riggs of America in the final at Roland Garros, and at Queens it was Riggs who made it through to the final to face the now veteran Von Cramm.

Despite all his talent, new equipment and modern training methods, Bobby Riggs found that he was not anywhere near the same league as the German master and Von Cramm took no time at all in lifting the silver cup at Queens with a 6-0, 6-1 Victory.

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It looked as if he at long last would get his hands on the Wimbledon Crown, but it was not to be. To their eternal shame, The All England Club refused to allow Cramm to play at Wimbledon on the basis that he was a convicted felon. Later it was claimed that he had not applied to enter the competition but that was a cover up to save the face of those based at SW19.

In the end, Bobby Riggs became Wimbledon Champion, but everyone in London and elsewhere knew that his victory was somewhat hollow as there was a far better tennis player who was not allowed to compete under shameful circumstances.

Yet, far worse was to come in so many ways: The United States now refused to grant Von Cramm a visa to enter the country on the grounds that he had been convicted on moral charges and so he was prevented from competing in the US Open either in the singles or the doubles. Riggs went on to win at Flushing Meadows in the absence of Von Cramm and was hailed as a home grown American champion. It seemed that although Hitler had not succeeded in banishing Cramm from the world tennis stage, unbelievably the various tennis authorities themselves and the allied Governments would do the job for him.

However, Von Cramm’s victory at Queens ( supposedly under a Swedish Flag ) had further embarrassed The Fuherer and his ideology, and the following year Hitler’s anguish was shown in full.

Von Cramm was due to play at a tournament in Rome where he would come into direct competition with the likes of Henkel and other German players.  Pressure was put on Von Cramm not to play and he was effectively withdrawn from the tournament against his will by the Third Reich. The New York Times reported that his abrupt departure “was attributed to the German authorities’ desire to prevent the former champion from meeting Henner Henkel, Rolf Goepffert, and other German players … Berlin decided it would be embarrassing if Cramm beat his compatriots…”.

It seemed that various Governments were determined to simply prevent Gottfried Von Cramm from playing tennis for their own purposes.

In the end, Adolph Hitler was left with only one way to prevent Von Cramm from playing tennis and so in May of 1940 the Baron  was conscripted into the German army and sent to the Russian front. Deprived by his criminal record of his reserve commission, he served as an ordinary private  in the heart of the action and in all likelihood his despatch to the front was seen as a death sentence. In the winter of 1942, he fought as a machine gunner in the gruesome battle raging outside Moscow where many in his company died.

According to his German biographer, Egon Steinkamp, the Baron, by then a sergeant, anticipated a Russian victory, and so he urged the eastern Germans, Poles and others in his company to seek refuge after the war at his Bodenburg Castle in western Germany where he assured them they would be given refuge and would be safe from the consequences of the Nazi regime.

Von Cramm suffered frostbite in both legs that winter in Russia and was taken to a hospital in Warsaw. Amazingly, he was awarded the Iron Cross for outstanding bravery and then promptly given a dishonourable discharge from the army on the instructions of Herr Hitler. It appears that it would not be good to have ordinary German soldiers mixing with the likes of Gottfried Von Cramm the decorated war hero!

An aura of mystery remains about his unexpected release. His nephew, Burghard von Cramm, believes that Gottfried was let go because he was suspected of conspiring with the enemy.

“My uncle was one of 500 aristocrats dishonourably discharged by Hitler in 1942,” says Burghard, who later inherited the title Baron von Cramm. “It was common knowledge he was against the Nazi regime. It was known that he had been in touch with underground leaders. And it was suspected that he was at least on the periphery of the group plotting against Hitler’s life. He knew about some of those assassination attempts before they took place. I think the only thing that saved his life was his friendship with the king of Sweden. Hitler wanted to do business with Sweden, and my uncle knew all the important people there.”

Von Cramm hated the Nazi regime and he spent the rest of the war commuting between Bodenburg Castle and Sweden, where, his nephew says, he conspired with underground leaders to do as much damage to the Reich as possible.

Once, at Bodenburg, he rescued a U.S. pilot who had been shot down nearby.

“Why are you helping me?” the American asked.

“Because,” the Baron replied, “I once played tennis with Don Budge.”

“Oh,” said the pilot, “then you must be Gottfried von Cramm.”

Such was his fame.

When the allies eventually won the war effort they did indeed find dozens and dozens of German and other soldiers who had all found their way to Bodenburg at the suggestion of the Baron who had reminded them throughout the war “You are a German – not a Nazi!”

While the war and the regime of the Third Reich had robbed Cramm of some of his best years for tennis, he astounded everyone after the conflict when he won the German national championship in 1948 and was 40 years old when he repeated the victory in 1949.

Eventually,in, 1951, Von Cramm returned to the centre court at Wimbledon after a gap of some 14 years. He was no longer a contender for the title and was paired in the first round against Jaroslav Drobny, the beaten finalist in 1949 and who had recently won the French Open at Roland Garros.

Once again, Von Cramm walked onto the centre court in the immaculate white slacks and the Red and White blazer of the Rot-Weiss club which had been completely destroyed during the war. It is reported that the younger Drobny held back and allowed the Baron to enter just a fraction in front of him. Maybe Gottfried was nervous about how he would be received as an ex German soldier by a British Crowd? However, he need not have feared as when he walked out into the court the entire Wimbledon centre court stood to applaud him. This was not a soldier, or a German, or a veteran – This was Gottfried Von Cram who had been a finalist three times – starting 19 years previously. He had been wrongly imprisoned, discriminated against, shunned, been used a political tennis ball and had survived the war ——- and here he was back doing what he did best. Playing Tennis, with impeccable sportsmanship and cutting a dash with his good looks and charm.

He would never beat Drobny of course, but in that first set the crowd wondered if a miracle was on the cards as Von Cramm pushed the French champion all the way only losing the set 9-7. It was thrilling stuff yet again from the German.

However, the younger man prevailed and at the end the German Baron bowed to the crowd one final time and left the Wimbledon stage for good.

Yet, he continued to play Davis Cup tennis until retiring after the 1953 season and still holds the record to this day for most wins by any German team member winning 82 out of 101 rubbers.

“He was an incredible player in his 40’s,” says Dick Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon and Australian champion, who played Von Cramm in a tournament in Cairo in the spring of ’51, “and he dressed so well that I hated to walk out on the court with him. The other thing was, my being Jewish, I wasn’t sure how he’d react to me. I needn’t have worried, because he went out of his way for me. In fact, he sent me a telegram when I won Wimbledon. The Baron didn’t care what a person’s background was. He just cared how people acted.”

One thing that Von Cramm had been determined to do after the war was to rebuild his beloved Rot-Weiss club from the rubble he found when he returned to Berlin. He and his friend Hofer, who had been a prisoner of the Russians during the war, they set about rebuilding the demolished club. “We started with nothing,” says Hofer. “Gottfried was amazing. He seemed absolutely untouched by the war. He never talked about the horrors of the Russian winter. He never talked about being in jail or the Gestapo. To do so would have been out of character for him.”

Hofer did the work and Von Cram raised the money to restore the club to its former Glory. They rebuilt the courts, erected a 7,000 seater stadia( now expanded and called the Steffi Graf Arena ), and generally brought the old club back from the dead. Today it hosts the German woman’s championships and plays host to many international matches.

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“Gottfried was an angelic man,” says Hofer. “He wanted to help all of his fiends. When Kai Lund, his old doubles partner, came back from the war missing an arm and a leg, Gottfried bought him a small hotel near Baden-Baden. The Baron constantly gave money to former servants to get them started in business. He opened up his castle to those East Germans and Polish soldiers. I think he really believed he could help Barbara Hutton by marrying her. Some people would say he married her for her money, but that’s not true.”

Von Cramm became Hutton’s sixth husband on Nov. 8, 1955. He was her first Baron, following two princes, a count, Cary Grant and the notorious Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (She had one more prince to come, her seventh husband, Raymond Doan Vinh of Laos.)

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Once acquired, the Baron, of course, quickly lost his allure for Hutton. She divorced him in January 1960, leaving him $600,000 as a going-away gift. Von Cramm had little use for the Hutton fortune. His Cotton business was prospering, and he divided his time between his office in Hamburg and his suppliers in Cairo and Alexandria. A bit paunchy now in middle age,  Von Cramm still cut a dashing figure on the court. He also served as an administrator for the German Tennis Federation for many years.

On Nov. 9, 1976, Gottfried arranged for a car and driver to take him from Cairo to Alexandria on business. He planned to leave at one in the afternoon, but another driver appeared at 11:30 a.m. and offered to make the trip. The Baron agreed to the earlier start and, as always, joined the driver in the front seat. Sitting in the back was unnecessary ostentation, he thought. Besides, he enjoyed talking with his drivers.

The two-lane blacktop road was as straight as an arrow, with very few intersections. It was also never busy; a driver could go miles without seeing another car. On this day, though, a military truck coming from the opposite direction suddenly swerved out of control into the wrong lane, apparently after turning too late toward a gas station, and collided with Von Cramm’s car. The driver was killed instantly. Von Cramm who hated hospitals, true to his long held wishes, died not in a hospital but in an ambulance taking him to one.

“His death,” says his nephew, “hit the family like a stroke from hell.”

Don budge is of the view that Von Cramm was the unluckiest player in the History of tennis. He argues that there were few his equal on the court and that events far removed from tennis unfairly restricted his mention in the record books. In his opinion he would have won many Grand Slam titles were it not for the politics of the time.

Perry said he had the classiest of tennis swings.  “The Baron played 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.”

In his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer, the long-time tennis promoter and great player himself, included Gottfried von Cramm in his list of the 21 greatest players of all time.

What is certain is that no other tennis player in the history of the sport to date ever played under such personal pressure and threat. None have been imprisoned at the height of their career or have been threatened by a monster such as Adolph Hitler. That Von Cramm was able to reach the top of his chosen profession was remarkable, that he drew such huge loyalty from virtually all who met him was even more remarkable, and that amongst leading sports stars of the time he was so open about his criticism of Hitler was astonishing.

The question remains however, did he receive a phonecall from Hitler before the famous Davis Cup match with Budge in 1937. Budge says yes, Von Cramm  always said no.

The refusal of Von Cramm to acknowledge that the call was made was typical of him however. He never discussed his imprisonment, The Russian Front or any other threat or hardship he experienced. He was always at great pains to be as sporting as possible and never sought out any excuse for being beaten—even being injured in a car crash immediately before a Wimbledon final. To admit that the German chancellor had threatened him before that famous match would have been to perhaps diminish the quality of the tennis and the achievement of Budge in winning – and that he simply would not do.

Of course there is only one salient and indisputable fact that points to the call being made – and that is the fact that the very next time Gottfried Von Cramm set foot on German soil after that match he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo without warning – and that is a fact.

More than half a decade on however he has almost been forgotten—except at the Rot-Weiss where Hofer made sure that his friend will always have a place in history.

Photographs of him adorn the walls of the clubhouse. His memorabilia are preserved there. A plaque donated by Perry celebrates a memorable Davis Cup tie between Britain and Germany at the Rot-Weiss in 1932—won by the Germans. The short street leading past stately homes to the club’s entrance gate is not called Boris Becker Way or Steffi Graf Strasse – It is called Gottfried-von-Cramm-Weg.  “We perpetuate his name here,” Hofer says. “This, you see, is Gottfried’s club. It always will be.”

However, despite all of the testimonials and praise mentioned above there has recently been a suggestion that Von Cramm did something that makes his stature even more remarkable, even more magnificent.

He confessed to sending 20,000 marks per month to Manasse Herbst and his family supposedly on the basis that he was being blackmailed about their homosexual affair. Recently, it has been suggested that when asked about this Von Cramm simply said that in Hitler’s Germany of 1937 it was better and safer to admit to homosexuality and blackmail than to financially supporting a Jew and his family in exile!

In 1985 the 17 year old Boris said that Germany had never had a tennis idol like him before, and at the Rot-Weiss they looked at the portraits on the wall and silently agreed. No matter how well he swung a racquet and whatever success he achieved, Boris would never be fit to carry or string the racquets of Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm. Boris might be a tennis idol — but he would never be a hero in the Von Cramm mould or anything like it.

Gottfried Cramm, of course, would have disagreed with them. He would simply have rejoiced at the 17 year olds victory as he never thought himself superior to anyone regardless of rank, station, religion or birth and did not compare himself to anyone living or dead.

He was just plain Gottfried — the tennis player.

No matter who triumphs in the coming three weeks in the 2014 tennis championships held in South London at SW19, none will be as brave, sporting or truly magnificent a human being as Gottfried Von Cramm — the forgotten superstar.

Footnote:

The International Tennis federation award the Von Cramm Cup  to the best international team for the men’s 60 and over age category. The cup was donated by the German Tennis Federation (DTB) in 1989.

In 2013, the Von Cramm Cup was held on 9-14 September in Poertschach, Austria. The USA successfully defended their title defeating France in the final

The year after his death, Von Cramm was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as one of the world’s all time leading master players.

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3 Responses to “The King, The Baron, The House painter and Boris!”

  1. Numpty June 22, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    Entertaining and educational !
    How come learning stuff at school was never this interesting ?

  2. João Victor Araripe April 13, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    Hi, there!

    First, let me congratulate you for AMAZING job in Histoire du Tennis
    I’m a journalist student and creator of a brazilian tennis website, Break Point.

    I want to make a monograph for my final project in graduation about tennis. My idea is to write about german tennis players in the Nazi period, specially about Baron Gottfried Van Cramm. Do you know if there’s any special material about it?

    I already write a lot about tennis, so I wanted to do something related to tennis, but I’m not finding material for bibliography support.

    Could you help me? It’s kind of urgent. Hope you read this. I’d be REALLY greatful. Thanks!

    Contact: breakpointbrasil@gmail.com

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