Dec

17

 A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher.

Picture the all-seeing eye looking down on the crucial third match of the 1937 Davis Cup with the two best players of the world, Don Budge and Baron Gottfried Von Cramm playing, with the greatest of all time, Bill Tilden, in the stands rooting for his beloved German student, along with Barbara Hutton the Woolworth heiress, deeply in love with Gottfried and showing it at every shot as her second husband gets more and more furious, as Europe prepares for war, Germany recovering from hyperinflation, homosexuals and Jews gradually being stripped of their property and lives, and fighting for their lives on and off the court. It's two all in sets, extra games, and Von Cramm has volleyed a sharp angle 10 feet wide to Budge's weak forehand on the Wimbledon grass with the Queen's interlocutor in the royal box trying to restrain his enthusiasm for the German royal's victory, and stock market volume is way down because they're all following the match on the radio with Al Laney from The Tribune broadcasting.

"Take a rest," Tilden had told his very good friend. "I can't," Von Cramm answered. "I'm fighting for my life." As the players walked to the court, Von Cramm had been called back to take a call from the Führer. "We're counting on you to win… or else." Men of homosexuality, like Von Cramm, in those days were being sent to concentration camps and Cramm had been outed by the SS already. In addition his mother was half Jewish and Jews had been forbidden to practice any profession, including finance, as well as having their businesses and money confiscated. (However, they apparently were able to take out 7% of their money upon proper application). Thus Von Cramm really meant it that he was playing for his life.

That's the backdrop for this entertaining and well researched book by a man who loves tennis but doesn't play the game, and weaves the story of the match into the backdrop of the culture of tennis, arts, and economics during the 1930s. Along the way, we learn the true story of Von Cramm's gentlemanly behavior with the linesmen (he liked to thank them for their vigilance in calling his foot faults, and never corrected a linesman, and always called the ball down on himself). The sexual preferences and vices of all the Davis Cup players of the era. "Budge apparently was often three sheets to the wind, but Tilden never drank. "I'll have a Tilden" was the way the French ordered water in those days. The tragic story of all their deaths, the nitty gritty of the home economics of all the players (Tilden was always broke even though he was the highest paid athlete of his day — he insisted, like me, on picking up all checks), and many anecdotes about the tennis players of that era. Very entertaining and revealing. (Part 1).

Charles Pennington adds:

Here is a video of the Don Budge backhand.

This particular backhand looks "flat" to me — not too much topspin.

I think that the reason that the topspin backhand was considered so difficult a few decades ago is that most everyone used a grip that was too "open". It was too much of a wrist-balancing act to keep avoid netting or skying the ball.

Last night I was watching a 1980 US Open Borg-McEnroe match on the Tennis Channel. McEnroe's backhand was very unsteady. Usually he hit weak slices. It is amazing that he could hit topspin at all, since he used the same grip for both backhand and forehand.

Pedja Zdravkovic comments:

Tennis has evolved since that time and the modern day rackets allow you to play with a lot more topspin. However for a recreational player nowadays, it is maybe wise to flatten out the stroke since there is less effort in the shot and strain on the body. But in order to do that you need to have a feel for the ball. It is much more complicated to play with an open grip. Spin is what gives less of a margin for error and also creates bigger problems for the opponent. McEnroe had the best hands in tennis. When I watched him play last year out at the Long Island Tennis club it was amazing. He is able to control each ball and put it within six inches of the line 90% of the time.


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