The best tennis book of the year is not Open by Andre Agassi. Nor is it On the Line by Serena Williams. The winner, racquets down, is A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher. Not only is the book intelligent and enthralling, distinguishing it from the others, but unlike either Open or On the Line, A Terrible Splendor tells the story of tennis players who were engrossed in the sport but not in themselves. Baron Gottfried Von Cramm, German tennis player; Don Budge, an American player from head to toe; and Bill Tilden, one of the mightiest racquet-wielders ever: these three players gave heart and soul to tennis not (only) for the bucks but for the love of the game.
Fisher fully engages his readers in the lives of Cramm, Budge, and Tilden, structuring the book around the exciting 1937 Davis Cup match between Cramm and Budge. Fisher brings to vibrant life not only tennis in the early twentieth century (and it was a different beast then) but also the realities of politics and war in which tennis played its part. The very handsome and gentlemanly Cramm was playing for Nazi Germany but as an aristocrat and a gay man, his position was precarious. Budge played for the United States and he was wholesome, homely, and oblivious to what was at stake for Cramm if he were to lose the match for Germany. Tilden was a giant in tennis, but out of favor with the USTA for his bucking of association rules, most of them unreasonable restraints on his ability to make a living, and for his sexual preferences for young men. Each man played great tennis, loved the game, but also lived a life beyond the game. And Cramm was in serious danger of losing his life in a concentration camp if he could not keep winning at tennis. He literally played for his life, and his achievements against all odds make the endless complaints of Agassi in Open seem petty and unimportant indeed.
The first two hundred pages of Open were good enough to make me want to keep reading but then Agassi's constant self-justifying, whining, and moaning began to grate on my nerves. Agassi focusses on everything that is wrong with tennis and with himself, and leaves out what is so good about the game and what was so good about his playing. Agassi played great tennis. That he was gifted with the ability to do so seems to have fallen off his radar of understanding.
Serena Williams understands she is gifted and she is grateful for her gifts. On the Line is fast-paced, interesting, and moving, especially when Williams talks about the death of her older sister Yetunde, the early years of the Williams' family life on court and off, and her still important and close relationship with Venus.
A Terrible Splendor moves well beyond the navel-gazing of Agassi's tennis memoir and the interesting but circumscribed personal chronicle of Williams.A Terrible Splendor is a thrilling history of three extraordinary players, as well as a moving account of the world at a point in time -- the brink of World War Two -- when man's most horrible atrocities would be realized, and tennis was a game, an escape, and a rescue.