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Footwork and Roger Federer

Following in the tradition of the great Don Budge and Gottried von Cramm.

By 6.19.09

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Many a great match has been played on the Centre Court of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which is located at Wimbledon (near London), and the one people always recall opposed Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm, then numbers one and two in the world, respectively. It was July 1937, and they were playing the last match of the Davis Cup Interzonal Round for the right to challenge England. Wimbledon (the event, not the place) had been decided two weeks earlier in a match between the same players, good friends. Budge won.

Davis Cup rules have changed considerably since the 1930s, and the number of countries that compete has increased even more considerably, and it takes some effort to keep track of who is playing and when and where, and indeed why, since players tend to take a leave from their national teams when the schedule conflicts with their personal programs, which usually involve a great deal of money. But from its inception in 1900, and probably until the beginning of the open era in 1968, the Davis Cup was one of the most popular events in sports. The Germans had never captured it, and it the mid-'30s the British had won it back from the French, whose four musketeers held it from 1927 to 1933. However, with England's best player, Fred Perry, turning pro after the 1936 season, the team that made it to the Challenge Round would surely win the Cup.

Germany had Cramm (he did not care much for the "von"), but the U.S. had Budge, a tall and gangling ace from Oakland, California. Cramm, who looked like a movie star, grew up playing in private clubs, and was the most famous member of Berlin's famous and prestigious Rote-Weiss Club. He was a confirmed anti-Nazi, openly spewing contempt on the laws that had forced his Jewish friend Danny Prenn out of tennis and into British exile, and whom he called with characteristic good sportsmanship the best German player of his generation.

In more recent years, the most dramatic match played at Wimbledon was actually part of the Wimbledon Championships, the men's final last year, Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal. It was the longest match ever played on Centre Court. Federer made a heroic comeback from a two set deficit, but lost the fifth set, which went to 11-9. The fifth set at Wimbledon is the last refuge of the non-tiebreaker rule.*

Federer and Nadal each has his partisans; but Federer is generally acknowledged to have a better all-around game and, with his triumph at the French Open twelve days ago, he confirmed his ability to win on any surface. The French championships are played on the clay courts of the Roland Garros stadium on Paris's west side, and for the past several years Nadal has been unbeatable on them. But this year Federer defeated his friend and rival at the Madrid tournament, also played on clay. Nadal then fell to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, and although Federer had a close call against Tommy Hass in the same round, his final against Soderling gave him no trouble.

Of the classic or "Grand Slam" tennis venues, the All-England is the one that still maintains grass courts. The stadium at Roland Garros is the one that still maintains clay courts. The U.S. and Australian Opens are played on the "hard" surfaces most American players are familiar with. The French and English tournaments are played in very close proximity, which means players must go from one extreme to the other: grass in the fastest, clay the slowest surface. Federer, who is very fast, has dominated Wimbledon in this decade, notwithstanding last year's loss. With Nadal presently day-to-day, as they say in baseball, due to knee problems, Federer has a good shot at reclaiming the Wimbledon title. Which, however, he would have regardless of Rafi's health.

You might think that if you can win a fast game, a slow game should not present a problem. Jimmy Connors, a great American champion of the 1970s and '80s who revolutionized the two-handed backhand stroke and contributed mightily to the game's popularity, once observed, "You've got your grass specialists and your hard-court specialists and your clay specialists. And then you've got Roger Federer." He must have guessed it was only a matter of time before Federer figured out Roland Garros's famous red dirt, but he was probably thinking of Federer's superior footwork. The different surfaces feel extremely different to the feet, not to mention the knees, and many a hard court or grass man finds it unbalancing to slide over clay to get at low-bouncing balls. Bjorn Borg, a fantastic Swedish player (taciturn and gloomy, however), was both Mr. Wimbledon and Mr. Roland Garros for several years but was vulnerable on hard courts and never won the U.S. Open.

Don Budge, the first truly "perfect" tennis player, in the sense that he could dominate a match on any surface, against any kind of opponent, was a power player, like Federer (unlike baseline and crosscourt place-shot makers like Borg). However, Budge, like Bill Tilden (to whom both he and Cramm and indeed every other champion of their generation were deeply indebted), was much more than a power player. A pure power player, like the American Andy Roddick, cannot consistently win, for the simple reason that at the level of championship tennis, power is a big factor, but not the only one and ultimately not the most important one. Let it be said and known, however, that there is one sense in which Roddick is his generation's greatest moral champion, for he pulled out of a tournament -- a lucrative one, too -- in Dubai when the hosts announced they were barring Israeli players. Sports ain't politics, but if the Arabs, like the Nazis before them, are going to use sports venues to score political points, then upstanding and brave Americans like Andy Roddick will have to take their stand for decency; and they will.

Like Budge, Federer is extraordinarily nimble. Like Budge, he has what tennis teachers call the footwork, the ability to always be in the right position for a shot. This of course implies speed, but even more than speed -- tennis, even on grass, is the slowest of the racket games -- it implies anticipation, intuition, or more scientifically, observation. A truly "fast" player has the intelligence to know where the ball is going to be before his opponent even returns it. By intelligence I do not mean gray matter, though I am sure that goes into it. Rather, what is involved here is a sense, acquired through tens of thousands of hours of practice, of where the other fellow must hit the ball due to the way you've hit the ball.

Bill Tilden explained this in his classic, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. The idea is to get the ball on your side and thus control the point. This may sound like a banality, but try it. This is so even though the outrageous shot that Budge made to win his famous game against Cramm -- but I anticipate. You make "outrageous" shots precisely to the extent that you know how to make "total control" shots. This is true as well, to make a comparison, of the way quarterbacks throw footballs.

Don Budge succeeded Bill Tilden as the face of American tennis in the 1930s, as the older man turned pro. Budge, with his red hair and his freckles and his ears sticking out and his Dennis-the-Menace grin and his "Oh, baby" line when an opponent hit a particularly beautiful shot past him, was, easily, one of the poster boys of American sports, and he had the character to match. He learned to play on public courts, when most top players (such as Tilden) grew up in private clubs.

Don Budge was the first player to win a single year grand slam, in 1938. If Babe Ruth's 60 homers represented the peak of the roaring twenties of sports, Budge's fantastic 1938 season represented, in a figurative sense, their swan song. With his French win, Federer joins Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Andre Agassi in compiling a career Grand Slam. (He cannot get a single year Grand Slam this year because he lost to Nadal at the Australian Open a few months ago, causing him to cry. Nadal was gracious about that, saying, "Roger, you are the greatest.")

However, notwithstanding that 1938 season, it was the 1937 Davis Cup match that he played against his good friend Gottfried von Cramm that in the annals of the sport stands as his finest game -- and Cramm's.

Cramm was a superb player. He had the bad luck, somewhat like Jim Courier a few years ago, of playing in an era of super-champions: first Tilden, then Lacoste and Cochet, Perry, Budge. Cramm, graceful and gracious and such a good sport that he would tell the umpire he had grazed a ball going out of bounds even when he was the only one to notice, was very popular and an international celebrity (like Tilden), but the regime in his own country hated him. The feeling was reciprocated. When the Nazis gave the Davis Cup interzonal a spin like Louis-Schmelling, Cramm was appalled. At the same time, he very well knew they had him in their sights and losing his number two ranking, and Germany's chances for the Cup, could spell big trouble for him.

Playing on Wimbledon's Centre Court, Cramm won the first two sets. Budge came back, but "fifth sets are Cramm's," was a current sports adage. However, Budge had put himself through an intense regimen in preparation for the 1937 season, and he was by no means out of gas. The Queen was in attendance, as was the German Reichsportsführer, or sports minister, a thug named Hans von Tschammer und Osten. Down 1-4 in the fifth set, Budge came back and forced the set into extra games. Serving in the fourteenth game, on match point Budge caught a beautiful corner shot but lost his balance. Cramm, at the net, had only to reach it to force the game back to deuce and have another chance to break. Instead, Budge's astonishing shot, even as he was sprawling on the grass, passed Cramm and hit a corner.

Cramm thanked Budge for making it possible for him to play such a splendid match.

There are matches and matches, and there are shots you make and shots you miss and then there are those that, make or miss, you remember all your life. Budge-Cramm at the '37 interzonal, Nadal-Federer at the '08 Wimbledon final, this is where we see that in life you reach and reach and sometimes your grasp is just as long and sometimes it falls short.

I owe the information on that famous Budge-Cramm match to Marshall Jon Fisher, whose recent book A Terrible Splendor recounts the intersections of the lives of the two champions as well as their intersections with Tilden's. For the sake of full disclosure, whatever that is, I should probably add that I wrote a review of that book for another publication, but as of this writing they are sitting on it and I forgot what I said, except that I rather liked the book so I must have said nice things about it.

The Nazis arrested Cramm and sent him to prison for a year on a morals charge. Budge organized an international protest. Cramm was released just before the war started and though the King of Sweden offered him asylum, he put on his uniform and went to the eastern front. He survived, as he did the July 20 plot in which he participated. He resumed his tennis career and became a grand and revered figure in German sports, but he was barred from entry in the U.S. due to his conviction in a Nazi court.

Thus it goes, I guess. He never complained. Budge had a good war too, and returned to the pro circuit, which he had joined just before the war started.

Budge was not the type of man who would speculate in public, or even, I suspect, in private, after a successful match as to whether he was the greatest of all time. But let's face it, we live in a different culture, and Federer's manner does not disqualify him as a good sport and a gentleman. He is always generous to his opponents, gracious with the fans. The Roger Federer Foundation supports sports education among poor kids in Africa and elsewhere. It partakes of the mission of UNICEF.

Jack Kramer, than whom few men have done more to promote tennis as a mass sport, wrote that "Budge was the best of all. He owned the most perfect set of mechanics and he was the most consistent." This describes Roger Federer, and though he is behind Nadal on points in the rankings at the moment, you may be sure that if he wins at Wimbledon on July 5, as President Obama gets ready to fly to Accra, there will be a consensus that he is indeed number one again, if ever he really was not.

(Mr. Kaplan's explanation of why his tennis activities contributed to John McCain's loss last November can be found in our archives.)

*CORRECTION: In our article on the Wimbledon Championships, with reference to the fifth set tiebreaker rule, alert reader Frank Stieber of Arlington, Virginia, notes that "The fifth set tiebreaker is exclusive only to the U.S. Open and the Masters Cup final. The Aussie, Roland Garros,Wimbledon, and all Davis Cup ties have the ad-fifth set rule." Thanks, and we stand corrected.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.