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Books | Sports

October 3, 2011

All the World's a Court

Author Marshall Jon Fisher started with an epic tennis match and expanded from there, encompassing homophobia, World War II, and the incomparable Bill Tilden.

Andrew Golding

More than 70 years ago, Don Budge, an American, and German Baron Gottfried von Cramm engaged in an epic tennis match at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, England. The match essentially would decide the winner of the 1937 Davis Cup, pitting Budge—the No. 1 ranked player in the world—against Cramm, who was No. 2 in the world. The winning team would then be the overwhelming favorite against Great Britain in the final round of the Davis Cup.

Marshall Jon Fisher. Photo by Stefan Hagen.
"It seems impossible that there hasn't been a major gay male player since Cramm, and yet I don't know of any, and no one I interviewed knew of any."

Marshall Jon Fisher. Photo by Stefan Hagen.

In A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played, author Marshall Jon Fisher sweepingly describes the match, plus much more. Fisher, a former varsity tennis player at Brandeis University, uses the match as a centerpiece, an entry to telling the story of each combatant: Budge, the exemplary American champion; Cramm, the well-regarded sportsman who would later be imprisoned by the German government for his homosexuality; and Bill Tilden, perhaps the great tennis player ever, a closeted gay man, who—despite being American—served as the coach of the German team.

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Fisher discusses why Budge-Cramm was the greatest match ever, the prospect of an openly gay male player today, and the books that have had the biggest impact on his own career.

Gelf Magazine: What inspired you to write A Terrible Splendor?

Marshall Jon Fisher: I always knew about the Budge-Cramm match, but that wasn't what got me started. I was considering writing a bio of Bill Tilden, but quickly discovered that Frank Deford had already written a good one in 1976. Reading that book, however, I noticed one sentence that caught my attention. It said that during the Budge-Cramm match, Tilden was coaching the German team. And that really struck me, because I knew Tilden had been gay, and I knew the Nazis were deporting homosexuals to the concentration camps at that time. Also, Tilden had been the face of American tennis for a long time. So it seemed very interesting that the Nazi team would have a gay American as their coach. Then, as I began to learn more about von Cramm, and realized that he, too, was gay, I knew there must be a good story here.

Gelf Magazine: Tilden is the character in the book that fascinates me most. He was an extraordinary player, and twice convicted of crimes involving underage boys. I like him, despise him, and feel sorry for him. Your thoughts on Tilden?

Marshall Jon Fisher: Tilden certainly was one of the most fascinating American characters of the 20th century: the most famous athlete in the world at one time; a dominating, domineering personality; yet he was completely repressed sexually. His life described a great tragic arc, from a privileged background to the heights of fame and fortune, and eventually down to a disgraced, penurious end.

Gelf Magazine: Which of today's players were Tilden, Cramm, and Budge most similar to in playing style? In personality?

Marshall Jon Fisher: In terms of playing style, Cramm might most resemble Novak Djokovic, in that he was primarily a baseliner, with wonderful strokes on both sides, and a very effective serve. Also, he would come to net when he got a short ball and had excellent volleys. Budge was somewhat similar, but he might have been more like Roger Federer, in that his serve was even more of a weapon, and he was probably more aggressive about getting to net. Neither serve-and-volleyed in singles. Nor did Tilden, who, although he had a great all-around game, did not particularly like playing the net. In that respect, I might compare him to Rafael Nadal, which might seem strange at first, since of course Tilden didn't use anything like Nadal's topspin; however, Tilden was an acknowledged master of spin for his time, and probably used it more than anyone.
As far as personality, I think Federer is the player of today who most exemplifies Cramm's sportsmanship and elegance. Maybe Andy Roddick is more like Budge, a middle-class American who learned something of worldly sophistication as a result of his tennis-ball-bludgeoning skill. Roddick ended up marrying a fancy model, just as Budge married a Hollywood screenwriter's daughter. Tilden's a tougher one. Not sure there's ever been another personality like his.

Gelf Magazine: Some would say that the Federer-Nadal match at Wimbledon in 2008 was the greatest of all time. Others may mention Sampras vs. Agassi, Borg vs. McEnroe, or perhaps Chang vs. Lendl. Why is Budge vs. von Cramm tops in your mind?

Marshall Jon Fisher: When I called it the greatest tennis match ever played, I was talking about much more than just the quality of the tennis. For one thing, there was the importance of the match: It decided the Davis Cup, at a time when tennis was a much bigger sport than it is now and the Davis Cup was far more important in tennis than it is now. But even more, the personal and political intrigue behind the match are what makes it stand out for me. The Great Aryan Athlete, who is really a gay man virtually playing for his life; the sophisticated European aristocrat against the callow red-headed American kid; and the Greatest Player Ever, hiding his own personal secrets, and about to fall from the heights of grace, looming in the background. And then, even based on the tennis alone, it was considered the greatest match ever played for 40 years or so afterward.

Gelf Magazine: Was it difficult to balance Budge and Cramm in the narrative, when the latter's back story seemed so much richer and unusual?

Marshall Jon Fisher: I didn't worry about it too much. If Cramm hogged center stage, I just let him. Yes, Cramm (and Tilden) were far more fascinating characters than Budge, but Budge's life story is still interesting, and also he filled the important role of "straight man" (in more ways than one), the working-class American kid against the sophisticated European aristocrat.

Gelf Magazine: How would tennis react today to a gay male player who outed himself or was outed? Do you think he'd get the same reaction as women's players who were known to be, or made it known they were, gay?

Marshall Jon Fisher: That's a good question, and one I've wondered about. It seems impossible that there hasn't been a major gay male player since Cramm, and yet I don't know of any, and no one I interviewed knew of any. Could it be that they just have been able to keep it hidden all these years? Obviously, there have been a number of women who have come out. I guess the only answer is that even in the relatively sophisticated sport of tennis, we still haven't reached the point where a man could play openly as a gay man.

Gelf Magazine: Your book spotlights a 1930s-era match. There's been a ton of Borg-McEnroe nostalgia this year, plus the 20-year anniversary of Jimmy Connors's run at the '91 US Open. Does tennis spend too much time focusing on its history, when its present is so great?

Marshall Jon Fisher: I think just the opposite. When TV commentators talk about career stats now, they almost always include only "the Open era"—as though all the great players before that, from Tilden to Kramer to Gonzales to the amateur Laver, were less significant. And when Tennis Channel broadcasts "classic" matches, they're almost always from the 1990s or later—their recent series of "Classic US Open Matches" was almost exclusively from the 2000s! Unbelievable. It's as though they think the people watching won't have any interest in watching Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe, Smith, Ashe, Gonzales, etc. I couldn't believe they didn't even show Mac/Borg or Borg/Connors. I'd like to see commentators and TC programming reflect more on tennis's past.

Gelf Magazine: What could be changed about Davis Cup today to make it as relevant now as it was then? Do you think it's enjoying resurgence now, as an important competition to Nadal and Djokovic?

Marshall Jon Fisher: I guess that's true, but I think Davis Cup has often had more stature outside of the US in the past couple decades. We just have so many sports here to compete with. It's been suggested before that the DC should be a one-month event, with all the rounds together, and that might help. Also, of course, more prize money, and maybe even counting it towards the ranking points. Why not?

Gelf Magazine: You explain in the Author's Note that some of the quotes and internal dialogue in the book are your own creation, based on research. I'm wondering at what point you decided to use this technique?

Marshall Jon Fisher: My holy grail would have been letters and diaries of my three protagonists, but I never was able to discover anything like that. So my biggest challenge was to deliver material that would get at the interior lives of the characters. Reading Rachel Cohen's book A Chance Meeting, in which she imagined conversations that might have taken place during real meetings between great American writers and artists, gave me the confidence to do something similar in my book.

Gelf Magazine: What is your process for writing? Where do you write, how long do you write each day, and how do you get into the writing zone?

Marshall Jon Fisher: For many years, I've done most of my writing between 9 am and noon. I get the kids off to school, the wife off to work, and I go down to my office in our basement and try to make something happen. Afternoons and evenings are okay for research and other work, but for me the morning is writing time—even though I've never been much of a morning person.

Gelf Magazine: Your website includes a personal reading list showing most of the books you've read since college—667 of them in all, at last count. The list includes books by Agassi, Hemingway, McPhee, Roth, and Kosinski. Of the 667 books, what are the top three that you're recommending to your kids?

Marshall Jon Fisher: That's an almost impossible question; there are so many great books that one could never narrow it down to three. The most important books to me as I was developing into a writer were probably The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and, later, Joyce's Ulysses. Oh, and even later, The Gift by Nabokov. But my kids aren't old enough to appreciate those books yet. The tennis books that I've recommended to my tennis-playing 14-year-old are The Education of a Tennis Player by Laver and Bud Collins, and Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion, co-written by Deford, both of which were favorites of mine when I was a kid. My all-time favorite tennis books: Levels of the Game by John McPhee and A Handful of Summers by Gordon Forbe.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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