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1937: With a World War looming and one man playing for his life, Don Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm stage a Davis Cup decider for the ages
This classic match, considered by some to be the greatest ever, wasn’t contested during Wimbledon. But the sport’s officials understood that Centre Court was the only stage big enough to host it.
Published Jun 15, 2022
Centre Court turns 100 this year. During that time, this bastion of propriety and tradition has also borne witness to a century’s worth of progress and tennis democratization.
For its centennial, we look back at 10 of its most historic and sport-changing matches.
Don Budge d. Gottfried von Cramm
6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6
1937 Davis Cup Inter-Zonal Final
This classic match, considered by some to be the greatest ever, wasn’t contested during Wimbledon. But the sport’s officials understood that Centre Court was the only stage big enough to host it. Before 1937, whenever Davis Cup ties were held at the All England Club, matches were played on Court 1 or other outer courts; Centre was reserved for the Challenge Round. This time, when the two best teams in the world, the U.S. and Germany, and the two best players in the world, Budge and Cramm, met in the Interzone final—for the right to play Great Britain in the Challenge Round—the gates to the game’s most prestigious arena were thrown open.
Which was fitting, because this was more than a mere tie between two nations, and Budge vs. Cramm was more than a mere fifth and deciding rubber. As Budge said, “War talk was everywhere,” and the three nations in this tennis drama, the U.S., Germany, and Britain, would soon be at the center of a global conflict. More specifically, Cramm was already being used as a propaganda tool by the Nazi regime. A blond, blue-eyed aristocrat, he fit the Aryan image that Hitler wanted to promote. At the same time, Cramm, a gay man, detested the Nazis and spoke out against them. For Germany, there could be no greater publicity victory than for Cramm to lead the country to its first Cup title. Which meant that, when he took Centre Court to face Budge, he was playing for his life.
“The Gestapo had made it clear to him that as long as he kept winning and that Germany had a chance to win the Davis Cup with him, he would be safe,” Marshall John Fisher, author of A Terrible Splendour, a book about the match, told CNN. “But if things didn’t go too well with him on the tennis court, that might not be the case.”
As expected, Budge and Cramm won their opening-day singles rubbers; the U.S. team of Budge and Gene Mako beat Cramm and Henner Henkel in the doubles; and Henkel started the third day by beating American Bryan Grant. That left the tie at 2-2, as Budge and Cramm readied to take the court on a warm July 20th afternoon. Queen Mary was in the royal box, and an American, Bill Tilden, who was a friend of Cramm’s, was coaching the German team. The U.S. and German teams were both considered to be superior to Great Britain, so the winner of this match was expected to become the Davis Cup champion for 1937—an expectation that would prove correct. Budge would later claim that Cramm received a good-luck call from Hitler just before they walked into the arena.
Budge and Cramm were opposites in many ways, but after the German introduced himself to American at Wimbledon in 1935, the two became friends.
“Cramm was from the old German nobility, whereas I had grown up learning tennis on the courts at Bushrod Park in Oakland, Calif.,” Budge wrote in his autobiography. “But [Cramm’s] real nobility was in his human qualities… From the first day I met him, he became one of the greatest influences on my life.”
On the same court a few weeks earlier, Budge had beaten Cramm in straight sets in the Wimbledon final. At 28, Cramm’s best years were behind him, while the 22-year-old Budge would win all four majors—the Grand Slam—the following year. On this day Cramm started well; dominating with his serve and return, he won the first two sets. Budge, determined not to have a letdown after his Wimbledon triumph, lifted his game to win the next two sets. Each man was playing close to his best, and each would finish with twice as many winners as errors.
Cramm was legendary for his fifth-set heroics. He rarely lost a decider, and he showed Budge why by going up 4-1. Budge searched for a tactical response, and eventually settled on being more aggressive with his second-serve return. As luck would have it, Cramm’s first serve suddenly went awry, and Budge was able to attack his second serves and break for 3-4.
Cramm was from the old German nobility, whereas I had grown up learning tennis on the courts at Bushrod Park in Oakland, Calif. But [Cramm’s] real nobility was in his human qualities… From the first day I met him, he became one of the greatest influences on my life. Don Budge
After breaking again at 6-6, Budge served at 7-6, 40-30, match point. Cramm hit a good crosscourt forehand that appeared to have won him the point as he moved toward the net. Budge began to fall as he chased it, so he took a desperate swing and watched as the ball passed Cramm’s outstretched racquet down the line, and landed in the corner for a match-ending winner.
“I had hit the one possible winning shot,” Budge said.
As Budge lay on the grass and the crowd stood to cheer, Cramm waited for his friend at the net.
“This was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life,” Cramm told Budge. “I’m very happy I could have played it against you.”
Centre Court had never felt so central, both to the tennis world and the wider world around it.