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A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played Hardcover – April 21, 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

This thoroughly researched account uses the deciding 1937 Davis Cup match between Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm and the U.S.’s Don Budge to explore both the pre-topspin era of tennis and prewar international tension. The debt to John McPhee’s justly sanctified “Levels of the Game” is acknowledged and largely paid, but Fisher’s dutiful focus on the historical details of the era leads to long rehashes of familiar Nazi outrages. Von Cramm emerges as an elegant resister to the Reich, a persecuted homosexual who is clearly more interesting to the author than the bland, prodigiously talented Budge. But the figure at the edge who overshadows the narrative, as he did the tennis world until the Open system began, in 1968, is Bill Tilden, Cramm’s coach, a vain, theatrical box-office star who essentially invented the mid-century game.
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“Rich and rewarding…makes a strong claim to greatest-ever status for Budge vs. Cramm in the Davis Cup…Fisher brings a sharp eye for details. He vividly sketches the anything-goes atmosphere of Weimar Berlin [and] turns up details that tennis fans will savor.”
Wall Street Journal

“Tennis has seen plenty of great matches…but none with the extra-athletic significance of the Budge-Cramm affair…as the match enters its final set, all the narrative pieces lock together and A Terrible Splendor becomes as engrossing as the contest it portrays...Cramm’s life is a movie development deal waiting to happen.”
Washington Post

“Richly detailed…the story moves from one nail-biting set to the next against a backdrop of improbably high personal and political stakes.”
Boston Globe

“Vivid…The compelling nature of the match, in tennis terms alone, would be enough to make this a gripping read…But tennis is almost the least interesting element of Fisher’s account. For the historic match between the two players took place in London, with the world poised for brutal war and the players bringing all manger of psychological baggage on court with them….[Fisher] shows how sport can stand both outside the ‘real world,’ and yet remain subject to its dark whims.”
Financial Times

“Exciting…a thoroughly riveting account of an intense human endeavor…the astonishing, inspiring story of a sports hero who was not merely a heroic tennis player, but a genuinely heroic man.”
The Commercial Dispatch

"Marshall Jon Fisher has masterfully woven the story of Europe on the edge of war, a man pursued by the Gestapo, and America on the rise into the tale of the greatest tennis match of the century. A Terrible Splendor is tense, tragic, beautifully told, and immensely enjoyable."
—Atul Gawande, National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestseller author of Complications and Better

"Forget Federer versus Nadal, and Borg versus McEnroe. Marshall Jon Fisher convincingly demonstrates that the greatest tennis match of all time was Gottried Von Cramm versus Don Budge in the 1937 Davis Cup semifinals. This is one of the best sports books you will ever read. But it's more than a sports book: as absorbing as the drama unfolding on Wimbledon's Centre Court is, it's surpassed by the drama of history swirling outside it. Fisher masterfully weaves biography, history, and sports--and sex and romance and the drums of war--into a thoroughly riveting narrative. Full of ironic twists and astonishing revelations, A Terrible Splendor is a literary triumph."
—Scott Stossel, Deputy Editor, Atlantic Monthly

“Marshall Jon Fisher has turned a tennis court masterpiece -- American Don Budge versus German Gottfried von Cramm to decide the 1937 Davis Cup -- into a literary masterpiece.   Blending their lives with the darkening times, Fisher illuminates bygone cultures in the fascinating tale of a July afternoon in London.” 
—Bud Collins, writer for the Boston Globe and commentator for ESPN and Tennis Channel

“There could be no more disparate characters in any sport than Bib Bill Tilden, Don Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Marshall Jon Fisher has done a marvelous job of weaving the threads of these three lives together at a time when the world was coming apart and at the moment when Budge and von Cramm were playing in the most important — if not the best — tennis match ever. This is sports history at its finest and most thorough.”
—Frank Deford, Senior Contributing Writer, Sports Illustrated, and Commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition”

“Through the prism of one of the greatest tennis matches ever played, Marshall Jon Fisher throws open a window on the terrifying world of the thirties in Europe; illuminating in vivid detail the persecution of Baron Gottfried von Cramm; the pitiful kow-towing to Hitler by the tennis authorities and, rising above it all, the innate sportsmanship of the two friends and rivals, von Cramm and Donald Budge. Between every Budge backhand and von Cramm volley, history rears up in all its ‘terrible splendor.’”
—Richard Evans, Correspondent, The (London) Observor

“For those of us who believe that tennis is a metaphor for life, here at last in this marvelous narrative is proof, served up on the rackets of Budge and Von Cramm.  A Terrible Splendor is a wonderful account of a time of great historical drama, with the world on the brink of war, and everything resting, or so it would seem, on getting the ball back over the net just one more time.”
—Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner and Cutting for Stone

"I’m grateful for my ignorance of tennis history, since if I’d known the outcome of the 1937 Davis Cup match before I read this engrossing book, I might not have sat on the edge of my seat and bitten my nails as Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm served and volleyed. Marshall Jon Fisher captures two memorable characters, illuminates their historical and cultural milieus, and keeps us in delicious suspense."
—Anne Fadiman, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and the New York Times bestseller Ex Libris

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (April 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307393941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307393944
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,096,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lisabeth Dilalla on May 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is simply magnificent - writing at its best. In this exquisite account of purportedly the most important tennis match ever, Marshall Jon Fisher has succeeded in creating a tale that both informs and entertains. The tennis match itself is fascinating, but by putting it in historical perspective, Fisher has provided a backdrop that illuminates the lives behind the tennis players. This book provides a terrifying and realistic history of the world in the 1930's and 1940's and peoples it with both historic and lesser known figures, all of whom played a part in the world of tennis. His conclusion that provides a finale to each of the characters is as important to the book as the tale of the tennis match itself. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to learn more about the history of tennis and the biographies of some of tennis' most important figures through such an eloquent medium. If you are interested in history, tennis, movie stars, or brilliant writing, READ THIS BOOK!
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Format: Hardcover
Sports and nationalism often clash, and did so memorably when Adolf Hitler was in power. The story of how the four gold medals won by non-Aryan Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics embarrassed the Fuhrer has often been told. Of somewhat lesser renown is the 1936 heavyweight fight between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, of which a German radio announcer said, "It is every German's obligation to stay up tonight. Max will fight overseas with a Negro for the hegemony of the white race!" I am no sports fan, but I knew of these instances. I had not heard of another significant sports battle of the time, a tennis match in 1937 between American Don Budge and German Gottfried von Cramm. It is the subject of an exciting book, _A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played_ (Crown) by Marshall Jon Fisher. I still am not a sports fan, much less a tennis fan, but this isn't really a sports story; it is a thoroughly riveting account of intense human endeavor.

There may be "three extraordinary men" in the subtitle and in the book, but Cramm is the one the book is really about. The others are Don Budge and Bill Tilden. Budge wasn't extraordinary except in his capacity to play tennis. Tilden was extraordinary in that in the 1920s, and also that he was a flamboyant but closeted homosexual whose exploits were constantly bothering the American tennis bureaucracy. Tilden is part of this story because he was keeping his hand in the game by helping to coach Cramm and his German team. But this is Cramm's story, or rather the story of Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt von Cramm, born at his family's manor near Hanover in 1909. Cramm was a gentleman, with a refined, thoughtful, but powerful game.
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Format: Hardcover
I am half way through "A Terrible Splendor" and plan to creep along until the very end. If I waited to the last page to share with readers how much I am enjoying this book, that time might never come. This is because "A Terrible Splendor" is one of those book I don't want to finish. I love historical facts and every fews pages offers me some tantalizing tidbit. Fisher's development of von Cramm, Tilden, and Budge is brilliant and I have come to really know them -- and feel for them. So, I want to hang out with them for a while. The story is not all fun and games and this knowing has me turning pages with mixed feelings. I want to learn more about the lives of these interesting people, and to follow the excitement of the great match, but I do not yet know its cost. The backdrop of Nazi Germany makes for a compelling story line and the way Fisher weaves it all together makes for a riveting read. I highly recommend this terribly splendid book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Full Disclosure: My grandfather, Bryan M. "Bitsy" Grant, Jr. is prominently feature in this book, so I will have a large degree of supportive bias, or perhaps I would be even MORE critical of the work. You decide.

I ran across this recently, and even contacted the author, since he made several references to my grandfather. One reference, in particular involved Frank Shields, actress Brooke Shields' grandfather, holding my grandfather Bitsy out of the 3rd story window of their London hotel by his ankle. I had heard this story directly from my grandpa late one night in 1986 when we shared a room together while I was in high school and he was suffering from terminal cancer. I thought it was a tall tale and that it happened either in Chicago or in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel, where Bitsy would take my father as a child to see the Ducks march up and down the elevators in the lobby. The author confirmed he possessed several distinct sources for the story and that it happened in London!

The book deals with the Davis Cup, the sexual orientation of a German national tennis legend, World War II, the Nazi's, the British, and all that surrounded that era. Bitsy was on the Davis Cup team at the time, and faired rather well, surprising the press in those days since they viewed his background as not up to par to compete, much less win.

It is a well-written story, and really does reflect a high level of scholarly research into all the players and circumstances written about in the story. There are also some choice photographs.

As for my grandfather, several books have been written, but are mostly a sort of "Atlanta History of Tennis" with a "player on each page" historical book. This is the only properly written, professional quality story that prominently features Bitsy Grant.

My hat is off to Mr. Fisher!
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