A Terrible Splendor
“I’m playing for my life”
Tilden rose and stretched, decided to walk around the grounds for a few minutes. If he considered going to the locker room to see Gottfried and offer some advice, he thought better of it. His position as coach was to remain unofficial, and who knew who would be in there? Plus, he had no desire to antagonize the American boys. He knew them all, had practiced with most of them individually. Mako in particular he liked; one hell of a contract bridge player, that lad. He also had nothing against Walter Pate, though he would have preferred to be the captain himself.
Then they would have had a coach in the bargain. Hell, he could still be the number-two singles player if he had stayed amateur. Hadn’t he just beaten Perry a couple of times in their pro tour stateside? Sure, Fred had run him off the court the first bunch of matches, but old Tilden wasn’t through. He had come back and beaten him the last two matches. And Fred had said that he’d been even tougher to play than Elly Vines. He’d certainly given Gottfried a run for his money in some of their practice matches. He had beaten Gottfried in that exhibition match at Rot-Weiss four years ago. At forty-four he was a bit dinged up from over twenty years of constant tennis, but that shoulder operation six months ago had really seemed to do the trick. And overall he felt as strong physically as ever. Time takes its toll, and he couldn’t play at the top level day in and day out anymore, but with a bit of rest he could give anyone trouble. Certainly he could still handle the likes of Parker and Grant.
No, you wouldn’t want to still be mucking around in that amateur business. Far better to have been paid honestly these past seven years. And ah, if you were playing for or coaching the Americans, you wouldn’t have had the chance to help Gottfried. And by God did he want Gottfried to win this match!
It looked good. Losing one set was no cause for panic. In fact, Budge was so good now that a straight-set victory would have been unthinkable. And even he, Tilden, in his greatest days, often dropped a set. Sometimes it was to give them a better show—he smiled—but sometimes you just had a letdown, it was only human. No, this was Gottfried’s day, he was playing like a dream. There were some days when you simply could not lose.
He was outside the stadium now and ran into a reporter he knew, who asked for his impressions so far. “I’ve never seen two men catch fire like these two have today,” Tilden told him. “This is the greatest Davis Cup match I ever have seen.” On he went, ambling along the walkway beside the tea lawn. Those with only grounds passes, who had been following the match on the electric scoreboard and only hearing the cheers from within, mingled with the lucky ones just taking a break. At least half the people he passed looked up in thrilled recognition, or nudged their companion to look who was walking by. He loved every second of it, tossing off friendly smiles like flower petals. Why shouldn’t they gawk? He was the best there had ever been, the greatest thing ever to happen to this sport. Let Mike Myrick come walking past him, and he’d throw him a benevolent smile too. He’d played his own sweet game and shown them all.
In the corner of his eye he caught another fan gaping up at him. But something was different and might have got Tilden’s attention. A young black man, dressed in a clean but well-worn jacket and tie, was watching him with a faint smile on his face. Tilden would have smiled back and nodded. It was incongruous to see a Negro at a tennis match in the States, much less at Wimbledon. They weren’t even allowed to play in USLTA tournaments. Back in ’29 those two New York boys, one from City College and one from a city high school, had applied for the national junior indoor championships but were turned down. “In pursuing this policy,” the USLTA had said, “we make no reflection upon the colored race, but we believe that as a practical matter, the present method of separate associations for the administration of the affairs and championships of colored and white players should be continued.” Typical USLTA speciousness. You could make a killing in expense money and under-the-table payoffs, but you couldn’t make a living as a journalist—it tainted the game.
This young man in the three-piece suit had light skin and a broad, handsome face. A fierce intelligence burned behind his eyes; much more than his skin made him stand out from the throngs milling about the stadium. All this may have gone through Tilden’s mind in the brief moment when the two men’s eyes met. Then he moved on, heading back into the Centre Court stadium and to his box seat.
Ralph Bunche had recognized Big Bill Tilden immediately and couldn’t help but smile. The moment would certainly make it into his diary entry tonight. Bunche was thirty-three years old and a professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, already making a name for himself as a brilliant thinker and writer on the issues of race and imperialism. He had been in London since February with his wife and children, studying cultural anthropology at the London School of Economics in preparation for a year in Africa researching the impact of colonial rule and Western culture on Africans.
Bunche was having a fine time in London, attending seminars, learning Swahili, and hanging out with a crowd of dynamic, revolutionary young Africans. He also spent a lot of time with Paul Robeson, then at the height of his fame as an actor and singer. Despite Robeson’s mansion and chauffeur, he fit right in with the radical Africans in London: Bunche found him at the time to be an ardent Marxist (like Bunche), “anti-white and all out for USSR.”
Still, Bunche had his reservations about “this staid, glum and curt, though always ‘courteous’ little isle.” Courteous, yes, but the stench of racism was always there, under the surface, just like back home. At the cinema they had shown the newsreels of Joe Louis’s June 22 knockout of the “Cinderella Man,” James Braddock. Someone behind Bunche in the theater kept referring to Louis as “that darkey.” Bunche finally twisted around in his seat. “Well, that ‘darkey,’ as you call him, gave Braddock one hell of a beating, didn’t he?”
He was also a tennis fan, though well aware of the racism inherent in the game’s ruling bodies. (In 1959 Bunche, by then Under Secretary of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, would speak to the president of Forest Hills’s West Side Tennis Club, site of the U.S. Championships, about a club membership for his son. Bunche was told politely that Jews and Negroes were not “invited” to be members. Bunche took this no more quietly than he had taken the racial slur in the London cinema, and within days the story was front-page news, the club president was forced to resign, and both Bunches were offered memberships. They politely declined). And while he hadn’t been able to make it to Wimbledon for the Championships, he made sure he got tickets to all three days of the U.S.- Germany Davis Cup tie. He’d loved every minute of it but particularly the stunning play between Budge and Cramm today. And then there was this unexpected sighting of the legend.
So that was Tilden. “Crowds hang around entrances to see players enter—idol worshippers,” Bunche had written in his diary after the first day of play. Well, he worshipped no man, certainly not an over-privileged white one from Germantown. Still, there was something about a person who had reached such dizzying heights in any field of endeavor. In this case, he was seeing him on the other side, though, on the way down. What he saw was just a man, a somewhat rumpled man at that, in a cheap suit that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in some time. Bunche would have been surprised, he’d always read what a dapper figure Tilden cut on court. And no hat—he was about the only man on the grounds without one, as if so everyone could recognize Big Bill coming. Perhaps he felt a twinge of melancholy, a premonition of decline for the old master, for all men. He shook his head and continued on, back into the stadium, for the finale of what he would describe that night as “the most exciting athletic combat I’ve ever seen.”
The intermission over, Budge and Cramm walk back onto Centre Court together. At 6:30 p.m., there is still plenty of midsummer sunlight, but its angle is steepening, heightening the drama of the match’s final stages. The numbers on the electric scoreboard shine with a vespertine glow: 8–6, 7–5, 4–6, the German still in command. The crowd’s mood, if anything, is even more anticipatory than at the match’s commencement. Now they know it won’t be a quick three-set repeat of the Wimbledon final. Either Cramm will finish off his masterful job, or Budge will continue his comeback, and everyone will be in for a classic five-setter.
It doesn’t take long to determine which direction the match will take. The audience has hardly taken their seats before Budge makes it clear that the third set was no mere aberration. Four fine returns of serve, four quick points, and he has broken Cramm in the first game of the fourth set. They change ends, and he promptly holds serve and then breaks again. Another change, another hold: he’s practically skipping from point to point, as if he can’t wait to put the ball back in play. In a blistering five-minute span, the American goes up 4–0 with the loss of only five points. For the first time all afternoon, stunned silence follows the quick burst of applause for each Budge winner. This was what the audience feared before the match: another American steamroller. Can Cramm really feel as calm as he looks? One would think he is being trounced in a mere practice match.
In a corner of the grandstand, one man had been clapping harder and harder throughout the match; he hardly knew for which player he was cheering. Daniel Prenn would have left work early in Kentish Town, caught the tube, and made two transfers to get down to Wimbledon. He wouldn’t have bothered with the first match; he’d known Henner would take Bitsy apart. But he’d have been sure to get there before Gottfried took on Budge. He wouldn’t have missed that.
He should have been playing, of course. Not in the number-one slot anymore—Gottfried was truly remarkable, and Prenn was already into his thirties. But if he’d been able to continue concentrating on tennis, he felt he would still be above Henkel. It should be Gottfried and him, still together, bringing the Davis Cup home to a democratic Germany, the Germany that had saved him from Soviet Russia. No, defending the Cup, for surely they would have won in ’33, with both of them at their prime, after having come so close the year before. And then, with the privilege of defending it each year on the red clay at Rot-Weiss, the best surface for both Gottfried and him, they might have held off England even with Perry reaching his peak. Instead …
He didn’t dwell on it often. After all, he was one of the lucky ones. He and Charlotte had settled down in Kensington, just five miles north of Centre Court, and with a loan from Simon Marks, the tennis- mad retail magnate, he’d started his own business: Truvox Engineering, producer of its own line of loudspeakers. He was doing all right, too, with five employees already. And now they had a baby on the way—just two months to go, in fact.
There hadn’t been much time for tennis. He practiced sometimes with the English players and was always available for social doubles with Marks; it was the least he could do to let the older man show off his “ringer.” But the demands of a new business and a new life made it impossible to maintain the high level of play he had once practiced. His first year here, 1934, he’d played Wimbledon but lost badly in the first round to Frank Shields, whom he had crushed in the 1932 Davis Cup. “The man without a country,” as the English papers hailed him, continued to play Wimbledon each year—they were kind enough to grant him entry based on his past glory—and he’d gained back much of his form this year, beating an American and two British players before falling to Frank Parker in the fourth round. In the mixed doubles he played with the English girl Evelyn Dearman, and they made it all the way to the semis, losing a tight one to a French team, 6–2, 9–7. But he knew his best tennis days were far behind him. He was an English businessman now, soon to be a father and eventually a British citizen.
Watching his old friend and teammate on the verge of beating the world champion and bringing the Davis Cup home to Germany, Prenn would have had mixed feelings. Nothing would gall him more than to know the Davis Cup was on display under the Swastika in Berlin. But he had the warmest feelings for Gottfried, who he knew hated the Nazis as much as he did, and who was the finest of men. It was hard to root against him. He also knew of Gottfried’s sexual tendencies, and he wondered how long Himmler and his gang would leave him unharmed. Perhaps a Davis Cup championship would save his friend.
Like most of the crowd by this point, Prenn found himself cheering for both men, surrendering to the balletic beauty of the contest.