A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played
By Marshall Jon Fisher. 304 pp. Crown, 2009. $25.
What a subtitle! Or is it a pitch for an HBO miniseries? Marshall Jon Fisher tries mightily to pack it all together, using a framing device à la John McPhee’s magnificent tennis book Levels of the Game (1969): a single contest that seems to come loaded with significance. Disappointingly, Fisher’s book doesn’t quite cohere, despite its promising puzzle pieces.
On the eve of World War II, a 1937 Davis Cup match at Wimbledon pits a top German player, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, against a top American, Don Budge. Another top American, Bill Tilden, is secretly coaching the Germans. Cramm and Tilden are both closeted gay men. The tennis is fantastic; we know this because Fisher says so. Great shots, dramatic reversals, screaming crowds. But since nearly all the matches are described in the same tone, Fisher undercuts his own “greatest match” framing device. Worse, he’s telling three stories that don’t really connect: Cramm, Tilden, and Budge knew each other, but weren’t close. That makes the book less than the sum of its parts.
The good news: two of the personal stories—Cramm’s and Tilden’s—are fascinating. Both led shadow lives in the spotlight, struggling to avoid the personal and legal consequences of being gay men. Cramm had the added risk of doing this in Nazi Germany, but both men suffered for their sexual preferences. So the final irony is that only when A Terrible Splendor gets clear of its unworkable subtitle and Budge’s boring personal story does it truly live up to its title.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.