When sports and politics collide

My recollection of the Australian Open final — a brilliant, perhaps last-gasp, effort by Roger Federer to stave off the reign of the new racquet king, Rafael Nadal — is quickly growing faint.

Since then, the sport of tennis has experienced nothing but bad news — most of it off the court. The game somehow finds itself at the center of a political pandemic, one in which politics, terror and fear all intersect to interfere with the games.

First was the embarrassment in Dubai, when the United Arab Emirates banned an Israeli player from a prominent women’s tour event. Then there was the Swedish-Israeli Davis Cup match, played in Malmo without spectators after Sweden, anticipating protests against Israel’s West Bank actions, insisted that banning fans was the only way it could assure adequate security.

That decision, which in effect cast the Israeli team as troublesome, costly and unwelcome interlopers, has now been overshadowed by another Cup flap. Citing security concerns, Tennis Australia (TA) has refused to send its Davis Cup team to India for a scheduled match this week in Chennai.

The International Tennis Federation had already rejected Australia’s request for a change of venue, saying the Indian security arrangements met its standards. But TA reiterated its conviction that security was inadequate to assure the safety of the Australian team. It pointed to continuing violence related to the ongoing Indian elections and, of course, didn’t need to mention the critical security lapses related to last November’s terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

Regardless of which side is right, the Aussie decision to stay home was shocking. Australia has been a Davis Cup mainstay and its 28 Cup titles are second only to the United States. Australia will not only forfeit the match — it is appealing that ruling — but it risks a year’s suspension from Cup competition as well as eventual relegation to its lower ranks.

There is no point for any writer to quarrel with Australia’s decision. The stakes are way too high, the world far too uncertain to suggest that it might be an overreaction. Testament to that is the Sri Lankan cricket team, which — with all the requisite promises of safe passage from Pakistani authorities — went ahead and traveled to Lahore, where it miraculously survived an attack on its bus that killed six security personnel.

Still, one wonders about all the considerations that go into such decisions. After all, Australia has shown no reluctance to send its soccer team from Qatar to Uzbekistan (though it did play Iraq in neutral Dubai) in pursuit of a coveted 2010 World Cup berth. And it apparently believes South Africa's assurances that it can provide adequate security as host of next year’s World Cup, though many in the international soccer community are openly skeptical of that.

Regardless of the merits of Australia’s decision, it would be a mistake to let Australia walk away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. That would simply embolden other countries to use security concerns as a tactical weapon to avoid and isolate political enemies. Australia may indeed be right, but sometimes being right comes at a cost.

A new book — “A Terrible Splendor” (Crown Publishers) by Marshall Jon Fisher — reminds us that this is hardly the first time that politics has intruded on the Davis Cup, and not even the first time it did so with life-and-death implications. The book details the decisive match — between the United States and Germany — of the 1938 Davis Cup, pitting the top two players in the world, America’s Number 1-ranked Don Budge and Germany’s Number 2-ranked Baron Gottfried von Cramm.

Budge, a public courts kid from hardscrabble Oakland, was a compelling player. But it was von Cramm who was the compelling man, boasting a fascinating backstory. A member of the German aristocracy, von Cramm was regarded as the game’s ultimate gentleman and sportsman. Germany had never won a Davis Cup and von Cramm carried the hopes of the fatherland: Adolph Hitler and his henchmen coveted a triumph to showcase Aryan supremacy.

The pressure on von Cramm was almost unimaginable. He had refused to join the National Socialist Party and, in fact, had been outspoken about the ouster of a top Jewish player from the German team. And he had violated German law by funneling money to that player after he fled Germany for England. But von Cramm’s worst sin, at least by the standards of the rising tide of Nazism, was that he was a homosexual. 

The public had no inkling about the hero’s sexual orientation. Von Cramm had married young and appropriately upper crust. However, Berlin had been a hotbed of libertinism in the 1920s and into the 1930s (think “Cabaret”) and von Cramm’s private life was no secret to those in power. By 1938, homosexual activity (“sexual Bolshevism”) had gone from a sin to a crime and homosexuals were a principal target, along with Jews and political dissidents, of the new regime. Von Cramm had reason to believe that a German victory, with all its attendant glory, might immunize him against an arrest that might prove to be a death sentence.

It was an extraordinary challenge under unprecedented circumstances. In those days, the key Davis Cup matches were played at Wimbledon, where several weeks before Budge had wiped the grass with von Cramm to win the Wimbledon championship. The young Yank was pretty much unbeatable at the time — he would win the Grand Slam in 1938 — and there was no reason to expect a different result or even a close contest.

But von Cramm played the match of his life. American humorist James Thurber who was in attendance would call the match “something so close to art.” Though von Cramm fell short — losing 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6 — he didn’t show a glimmer of disappointment when he congratulated Budge. Indeed, he was the embodiment of grace under pressure when he saluted the winner: “Don, this was absolutely the finest match I ever played in my life. I’m very happy I could have played it against you, whom I like so much.”

Von Cramm toured the world for the rest of the year, but when he returned to Germany in early 1939, his fears were realized. He was arrested and put on trial for sexual deviance. His fame, popularity and family connections may have spared him the worst punishments. Still, he was found guilty and spent a year in prison. He was then ushered into the army, but without the rank his title and family pedigree should have assured. Somehow he survived the Eastern front with only severe frostbite.

After World War II, von Cramm resumed his tennis career and went on to compete on the German Davis Cup team until 1953. His is a remarkable story, happily rescued from obscurity with a timely retelling.

More GlobalPost sports dispatches:

The Dominican Republic's baseball magic

The "Big Show" on the big screen

Lance Armstrong, the French and a mysterious bathroom break