Born: July 7, 1909
in Hanover, Germany
Died: November 8, 1976
Long before there was Boris Becker for German tennis fans to idolize, Baron Gottfried von Cramm was the face of a nation that adores its champion athletes. He was enormously popular throughout Germany, not just for the five major titles he earned in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, but for his matinee idol good looks, his sportsmanship, his demeanor both on and off the court, and his grooved tennis strokes that were so picture-perfect that many observers called them elegant.
At 6-foot, with blonde hair, green eyes, and a sleek, athletic build, von Cramm had the type of magnetism and persona that drew a legion of admirers. “Gottfried was always a joy to be with,” said longtime rival and close friend Don Budge, who played von Cramm in the 1937 Davis Cup, considered by tennis historians as one of the best matches ever played. “Anyone who ever really knew him could not help but feel close to him.”
What made von Cramm a rarity was his combination of tennis brilliance and a gentleman’s approach to competition, considered the arbiter of court etiquette and fairness. In the 1935 Davis Cup Inter-Zonal Final between Germany and the United States, von Cramm placed sportsmanship above victory. In a key doubles match against Wilmer Allison and John Van Ryn, von Cramm and partner Kai Lund had apparently won the match when both German players went for the same ball, von Cramm missing his swipe, but Lund connecting on his and nailing home a winner. When the umpire had announced Germany’s victory, von Cramm made a startling and astonishing confession. He said the ball had ticked his racquet before Lund’s shot, awarding the point to the Americans. The U.S. squad won the decisive set, 8-6. German captain Heinrich Kleinschroth was not pleased with von Cramm’s honorable decision, shouting, “You’ve disgraced your country.” Von Cramm had a stoic and non-committal response.
“When I chose tennis as a young man,” von Cramm was quoted in a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, “I chose it because it was a gentlemen’s game, and that’s the way I’ve played it ever since I picked up my first racquet. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racquet 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 am letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I am doing them credit.”
Von Cramm’s elongated strokes off both sides, a common technique for European players during the era, earned him seven Grand Slam singles final appearances, and a pair of French Championships in 1934 and 1936. Both of von Cramm’s victories were titanic, marathon matches that went five sets. In 1934 the German was seed No. 4 and never had a breather during the championships. Leading up to his championship match against No. 2 seed Aussie Jack Crawford, von Cramm played 212 games in five rounds (he had a first round bye) and played another 56 games in coming back to defeat Crawford, 6-4, 7-9, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
As the No. 2 seed in 1936, von Cramm had a much smoother and less taxing road to the championship, winning all of his matches in straight sets leading up to a climatic final against No. 1 seed Fred Perry of Great Britain, who had defeated him in the 1935 French finals in four sets. Von Cramm and Perry played an uneven, topsy-turvy match, with von Cramm winning a second French title, 6-0, 2-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-0.
Perry would become von Cramm’s major foil in his attempt to win a Grand Slam singles title outside of the French. On two occasions, in 1935 and 1936, Perry defeated von Cramm at Wimbledon, all coming in straight sets, and none of the matches particularly close. Budge said that “Gottfried was the unluckiest good player I’ve ever known.” Budge contributed to von Cramm’s fate, though, defeating him at Wimbledon in 1937, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 and at the 1937 U.S. Nationals, 6-1, 7-9, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.
The personal and professional bond between von Cramm and Budge was elevated to legendary levels when the pair squared off in the deciding match of the 1937 Davis Cup played on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Von Cramm’s worldwide appeal was so magnetic that prior to the match, he was featured on the September 13, 1937 cover of Time Magazine. Pre-Davis Cup match prognosticators predicted an easy victory for Budge, especially given the ease in which he defeated von Cramm previously. The match oozed with political overtones. Budge was the American who stood for democracy and von Cramm, the aristocrat born into nobility, who “represented” Nazi Germany, despite his repeated refusal to join the party. The U.S. had not won the Davis Cup in 10 years, and Budge felt a huge responsibility to bring the cup back home. German dictator Adolph Hitler was obsessed with winning the cup, allegedly phoning von Cramm before the match to dispense some encouraging, or threatening, words. The details have never been substantiated.
However von Cramm gleaned his inspiration, it worked, as he won the first two sets, 8-6, 7-5, creating a tense atmosphere. In the face of huge adversity, Budge won the next two sets, 6-4, 6-2, but fell behind 4-1 in the decisive fifth set. As darkness began to engulf the court, he forged a comeback that was both heroic and clutch. He altered his tactics, attacking von Cramm’s serve on every opening and had confidently held his own serve to roar back and take a 7-6 lead. Von Cramm fought off five match points on Budge’s serve, but on the sixth, a lunging Budge forehand winner after a lengthy rally sent the American sprawling to the grass with an 8-6 victory and a 3-2 U.S. triumph. Afterwards, a gracious von Cramm told Budge, “Don, this was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life. I am very happy I could have played it against you, whom I like so much.”
The match captivated the tennis world. Seven decades later, author Marshall Jon Fisher chronicled the accounts of that remarkable match in A Terrible Splendor, published in 2009. “The brilliance of the tennis was almost unbelievable,” wrote esteemed tennis writer Allison Danzig in his novel, 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.”
Von Cramm played 111 Davis Cup matches for Germany, one of only 14 players in history to surpass the century mark. He won six German Championships titles, the last coming in 1949 at age 40. Von Cramm and partner Henner Henkel won two Grand Slam doubles titles , one at the French and one at the U.S. Nationals in 1937, the U.S. victory achieved over Budge and Gene Mako, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. He won the 1933 Wimbledon Mixed Doubles championship with compatriot Hilde Krahwinkel.
Following the Davis Cup in 1937, von Cramm’s life took a dour turn, as he was imprisoned in 1938 after declining to speak for Nazism. Accounts suggest that reason was a guise. In actuality, von Cramm returned home and found the Gestapo waiting for him with a charge of “sex irregularities.” It had been widely known, and confirmed by von Cramm, that he was a homosexual, and that was the real reason for his imprisonment. The stigma remained with him, despite two marriages to Lisa von Dobeneck in 1930 and Barbara Hutton in 1955. He returned to tennis in 1939, defeating Bobby Riggs at the Queens Tournament, 6-0, 6-1.
Von Cramm became the President of Lawn Tennis Club Rot-Weiss in Berlin. He suffered a tragic death in an automobile accident while on a business trip in Cairo, Egypt, in 1976.