Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Great Men of Tennis: Gottfried von Cramm

Posted on April 05, 2010 by Claudia Celestial Girl
Barbara Hutton

In this series we’ve talked about how tennis in the early days (late 19th and early 20th century) was a game for elite members of society. Dwight Davis, a Harvard student and tennis innovator was wealthy enough at the age of 20 to purchase from his own funds an enormous sterling silver ‘pot’ to serve as trophy for the Davis Cup. Fred Perry was the son of a leading member of the British Parliament, and self-made 1930s-style British millionaire. An exception – Don Budge was an unassuming middle class kid who learned to play tennis in a public court in Oakland California. (If you’ve never been to Oakland, it is where the docks associated with San Francisco Bay are actually located. Few would confuse Oakland, California, with … San Francisco.).

No elite athlete in tennis’ long history probably had a loftier pedigree than that of Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm. He usually dropped the ‘Baron’ and the ‘von’ when interacting with his peers – asking people to call him ‘Gottfried Cramm.’ He was the third son of Baron von Cramm, a title inherited by his eldest brother, Aschwin in 1936 associated with a Saxon region of Germany in what is now the county of Lower Saxony (created by the British after WWII).

In the 1980s, the late Jack Kramer listed Von Cramm as one of the 21 greatest tennis players of all time. And Von Cramm played perhaps the greatest tennis match in history in 1937 in front of the British King at Wimbledon, representing of all things, Nazi Germany in a Davis Cup final (WWII broke out in 1939). He was devastatingly handsome, he was blond, he was athletic, he was aristocratic (ever the gentleman on court). Though he was everything the Aryan race was supposed to be (and his wins are listed next to a Nazi flag on websites such as wikipedia [see Fred Perry]), von Cramm was anything but a Nazi.

Despite playing for, and representing Hitler in 1937 on the world stage, von Cramm was arrested, tried and convicted by the Nazis of homosexuality in 1938, served six months of a year sentence, and was prevented by the Nazis from defending his title at the French Open, and from playing in the US Open, as the USTA followed the Nazi example and prevented a convicted homosexual from playing in the tournament.

In 1939 von Cramm could not obtain a visa to play in Australia. Von Cramm was prevented by Germany from playing in an international tennis tournament in 1940 that would feature fellow German (an presumably Aryan) champions Henner Henkel and Rolf Goepffert out of fear, according to reports of the day, that he would show them up on the court. He was allowed to play at Queen’s Club in 1939 (but not Wimbledon) where he beat Bobby Riggs in the final 6-0; 6-1. (Bobby Riggs would go on years later to play perhaps the most famous tennis exhibition of all time in the 1970’s against Billie Jean King, after maintaining that the woman’s game was inferior and that the top woman could not beat him at the age of 55.)

The trophy at Queens club (now called the Aegeon Championships), one of the few places where von Cramm could play, and where he defeated Bobby Riggs.

The trophy at Queen's club (now called the Aegeon Championships), one of the few places where von Cramm could play, and where he defeated Bobby Riggs.

Even as late as 1951, von Cramm was denied a visa to participate in a French indoor tournament in Lyon, France.

We’ll never know how many majors von Cramm might have won if his career had taken place under ‘normal’ circumstances. He won two Grand Slam titles, both French Open titles, one in 1934 (Hitler had just become Chancellor of Germany), and again in 1936 (Hitler had repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, and was remilitarizing the Rhineland). The war caused interruptions in the majors, with The Championships at Wimbledon not played from 1940 to 1945, a whopping five years, an incredible amount of time in a tennis player’s career, and the years 1941-1945 are not counted in the annals of the French Open as the tournament was a shadow of its traditional self, open only to French players of the Vichy regime. The tense political environment wreaked havoc with someone like von Cramm, of German descent in an international game such as tennis when playing in England, France, and America. Drafted into the German armed forces in 1940, Von Cramm saw action on the Eastern front, but was later dismissed from military service on account of his conviction for homosexuality.

His romantic liasons included Manasse Herbst, a Jewish actor who blackmailed him for $12,000 before moving to what was then known as Palestine (before the state of Israel) in 1936; first wife, Baroness Elisabeth “Lisa” von Dobeneck a granddaughter of the Jewish banker Louis Hagen (seven years); and Barbara Hutton, American heiress to the Woolworth five-and-dime fortune (four years).

A scene from The Barbara Hutton story featuring a depiction of Gottfried von Cramm; with Farrah Fawcett and Sascha Hehn (3 minutes). von Cramm talks about being an anti-Nazi.

In 1979 Jack Kramer wrote that von Cramm’s abilities ranked in a category of greatness with such legends as Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Bjorn Borg. In 1935, no less of an expert than Bill Tilden ranked von Cramm’s tactical skills and all-court abilities as the greatest in the world, and Fred Perry listed von Cramm ahead of Don Budge in 1936.

His chief competitors in the Grand Slams of the day were Fred Perry and Don Budge. He lost to Fred Perry in the 1935 French Open finals, and twice in Wimbledon finals, 1935 and 1936. He lost to Don Budge in three successive historic finals in 1937: Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Davis Cup (semi-final). After the war was over, von Cramm resumed playing Davis Cup tennis for West Germany until 1953 – a record for Davis Cup participation by any player.

Long before Borg/McEnroe, Agassi/Sampras, or Evert/Navratilova, the ‘match of the 20th century’ was the all-time classic played by Gottfried von Cramm against Don Budge in the Davis Cup semi-finals in July, 1937. Hitler was two years from invading Poland, Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister of Britain, Heinrickh Himmler was forming a German security force around the notion of Aryan racial supremacy (a notion for which von Cramm was a look-alike poster-boy), and tensions between Britain and Germany were at an all time high. The match would be played at Wimbledon before a packed house, including the English king.

Von Cramm and his partner had lost the doubles tie the day before.

Evidently, Don Budge reported that von Cramm got a phone call from Hitler just before the tie, and came out to play white as a sheet.

After winning the toss, von Cramm began to play as if his life depended upon it. Time and again he went after Don Budge’s backhand, then volleyed the ball to the forehand side for a winner. He passed Budge on every occasion when Budge ventured to the net. Von Cramm would take the first two tightly contested sets 8-6; 7-5.

But Don Budge was younger. Just twenty-two years old, Budge was at the beginning of his time on the world stage. Von Cramm, twenty-eight, tired in the 3rd and 4th sets, allowing Budge back in the match 4-6; 2-6.

Reports of the time suggest that Budge expected to hold serve and then break von Cramm, as the German was weakening. But the German played according to a different protocol, breaking Budge instead to go up 3-1. There followed a return break, then a series of suspenseful deuce games that visibly tired von Cramm. Nonetheless, at 6-6, he began to play like the von Cramm of the first set. At 6-7; 30-30, von Cramm drove the ball out, and Budge had match point. But he could not convert.

Then came the most nerve wracking series of deuce games, twice with advantage going to von Cramm, and once going to Budge and back to deuce again. Long rallies. But von Cramm turning whiter and whiter as the contest progressed.

Finally von Cramm charged the net, was passed with a Budge winner, and the match was over.

Reports of the day say he lost all but honor. When, a few months later, charges of homosexuality were levied against von Cramm and he was hospitalized briefly with nervous fatigue, it was Don Budge who submitted a letter of to Adolf Hitler to express the outrage of von Cramm’s colleagues and friends in the tennis world.

Von Cramm was a much beloved tennis star in his day, popular with fans and fellow players. Though he doesn’t have the numbers to back up is evident prowess on the court, hopefully history will be kinder to his memory and continue to count him among the great men of tennis.

Here’s a collage of great players from those days, including Budge and von Cramm (in French, but with the visuals to provide a sense of how they swung their forehands and backhands!).

History of the French Open – with visuals from bygone times

Read about other men in our ‘Great Men of Tennis Series’ at this URL:

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