This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
When Lieutenant-Colonel A.R.F. Kingscote — Algy to his pals — walked out on to Centre Court to open the first Wimbledon Championships at the new ground on Church Road a century ago, he instinctively knew how to behave. As the colonial officer, tennis champion of Bengal in his day, reached the baseline with his opponent, L.A. Godfree, they turned and bowed to King George in the royal box, starting a tradition that ran on that court until deference died in 2003.
Kingscote was defeated in the fourth round by Gerald Patterson, an Australian known as “The Human Catapult”, who went on to beat Randolph Lycett in the first final played at Wimbledon’s new home.
Lycett had an admirable approach to the game: the previous year he had reached the quarter-finals where, playing five sets on a very hot day, he revived himself at each change of ends with gin. In the final set he ordered a bottle of champagne and was drinking it when the umpire announced that his opponent led by nine games to eight, at which Lycett dropped his racket and had to search for it on his hands and knees. He lost 10-8.
A hundred years on, change is in the air in SW19. As well as plans to expand the complex on to the golf course across the road, Wimbledon this year will feature play on the middle Sunday; the trial of a first-to-ten tie-break in the fifth set; the removal of women’s honorifics (it will now just say “J. Hunter-Dunn” with no indication of her marital status); and a new more prominent entrance to Centre Court for the players rather than having them sneak in, as it always seemed, via the bins.
It being a centenary for both the club and the BBC, there will doubtless also be some nostalgic pageantry, perhaps a parade of former champions, though Boris Becker won’t be attending, having a clash of fixtures with the veteran lags’ tournament at HMP Huntercombe, where he is the top seed.
Medvedev strengthen his position as world No 1 without lifting a racket
And then there are the missing Russians. The professional tours have bravely followed the moral stand of the Olympics and removed the national flags from beside their names online — that will have stung Putin — but Wimbledon has banned them as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine. The knock-on effect, with the tours deciding not to award ranking points at Wimbledon, is Daniil Medvedev strengthen his position as world No 1 without lifting a racket since Novak Djokovic will lose the points he won last year.
Politics has interfered with the Wimbledon draw before. This is the fortieth anniversary of Guillermo Vilas and José Luis Clerc, two of the leading players from Argentina, withdrawing from Wimbledon over the Falklands War.
In 1939, however, the tournament was happy to invite players from Nazi Germany, including Henner Henkel, who reached the semi-finals and died at Stalingrad four years later.
Happy to invite, that is, all but one. Baron Gottfried von Cramm, who lost three Wimbledon finals from 1935 to 1937, should have been one of the favourites that year. He had won the French Championships twice, been world No 1 and breezed through the 1939 Championships of London at Queen’s Club. In the semi-finals he defeated Bobby Riggs, an American who would win that year’s Wimbledon, for the loss of one game and won the final almost as easily. “If ever a player looked as if he could go on and win Wimbledon,” wrote The Times, “it was von Cramm.”
Except he was absent. The Nazis didn’t want him to play and Wimbledon didn’t invite him. Despite ticking the Aryan boxes for hair, eyes and physical prowess, von Cramm refused to bow to the Third Reich. If his reputation for fair play didn’t already count against him with Hitler — he once lost a Davis Cup match by calling a foul against himself that the umpire had missed — his homosexuality and friendship with Jews did. In 1938, he was sent to prison for “moral delinquency”, serving five months.
Von Cramm had predicted this. In 1933 he played against Victor Cazalet, the homosexual MP for Chippenham, at Wimbledon and told him his fears of persecution. “The only thing that might save me is my sport,” he said. “The better I play the more they will be afraid to catch me.” Perhaps if he had not lost a Davis Cup semi-final 8-6 in the fifth set against Don Budge in 1937 he’d have been given another season.
Sportsmen protested against his sentence. A letter to The Times signed by leading tennis players and stars from other sports such as Joe DiMaggio described him as “decency personified” and demanded his return. That came in 1939 but he was only allowed to play at Queen’s on a split committee vote 12-11 and Wimbledon refused him entry because of his conviction. A spokesman for the club said years later that von Cramm had not entered, but he refused to release the committee’s minutes from the time.
More than 80 years on, it feels like disgraceful appeasement. Von Cramm did get to play at Wimbledon again in 1951, where he received a standing ovation from Centre Court, but well past his best he lost in the first round to the No 2 seed. He died in a car accident in 1976. Amid all the celebrations and nostalgia this year, and as Wimbledon pats itself on the back for standing up to modern tyrants, it would be nice if some mention could be made of the man the tournament failed.
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