The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 2

By Mark Winters

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Before the world fully realized the level of inhumanity this flag would come to represent, it was displayed, in tournament results, next to the names of Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm. (Between 1936 and 1938, they enjoyed success at all the majors and to this day the country identification still used is the red Nazi flag with the swastika in the center. The symbol was on the German flag from 1935 to 1945. For von Cramm’s 1934 Roland Garros singles victory the country’s traditional flag is next to his name in the champions’ listing.)

Von Cramm was the Roland Garros Men’s champion again in ’36. Henkel claimed the trophy the next year and was also the doubles winner with von Cramm. In ’37, von Cramm was a finalist at The Championships to Fred Perry of Great Britain. At the US Nationals that same year, the Germans defeated Don Budge and Gene Mako, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, in the Men’s Doubles final. In ’38, they lost, 5-7, 4-6, 0-6, to Aussies John Bromwich and Adrian Quist in the Australian Nationals Doubles final. For Budge, ’38 was historic. He became the first player to win each of the major singles titles (Australia National Championships, Roland Garros, The Championships and the US National Championships). It is important to recall that in 1937 at The Championships and in New York, he downed von Cramm. (It has been long rumored that before the London final, Hitler called von Cramm and told him to remember that he was representing the German people and had best not fail.)

Henner Henkel, 1937 Pacific Southwest Championships.
Photo: Thelner Hoover

Having been drafted, Henkel, a Nazi supporter, played his last match in the summer of 1942, losing in the final at Bad Pyrmont in Germany to Roderich Menzel. During the Battle of Voronezh (359 miles from Stalingrad, the target of the attack), he was shot in the thigh. The wound became infected, and he died on January 13, 1943.

Von Cramm was the epitome of a Baron. (Yet he never used the title and rarely used the noble “von” designation.) He was cultured, well spoken (his English was impeccable) and he was handsome. Germany loved him. He had great appeal. He was idolized and widely respected. He was the ideal Aryan, the perfect Nazi poster boy. The party did everything possible to get him to become a member. Hitler encouraged him to do so, as did Joachin von Ribbentrop, the Ambassador to Great Britain before von Ribbentrop became Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. As the story goes, Hermann Göring, the World War I ace pilot, when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, (one of the many government positions he held during the Nazi rule), interceded. He went so far as to take the mortgages held by Jewish banks on the von Cramm property, and tear them up in front of him, saying, “Now you are free…” Von Cramm, who had called Hitler a housepainter, responded, “All the more reason not to join your party…”

[During the 1935 Inter-Zone Davis Cup Final between the US and Germany held at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, July 20-24, von Cramm played doubles with Kai Lund against Wilmer Allison and John Van Ryn. The Germans had a match point on a shot that was hit down the middle of the court. Both players lunged for the ball. Von Cramm slipped and seemed to miss it but Lund was able to recover and hit a winner. The umpire called “game, set and match” Germany, but von Cramm immediately said his racquet had ticked the ball and it was the Americans point. Everyone was astonished by his honesty…As it turned out, the US fought off four more match points eventually winning, 3-6, 6-3, 5-7, 9-7, 8-6.

Following the contest Heinrich Kleinschroth, the German Davis Cup captain was furious, screaming at von Cramm that by playing by the rules he had disgraced his country and his teammates. Von Cramm, after saying that tennis was a gentlemen’s game and that’s why he played it, icily added, “Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racquet without my saying so? Never, because I would be violating every principle I think this game stands for. On the contrary, I don’t think I’m letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I’m doing them credit.”

The US defeated Germany in the tie 4-1 then lost 5-0 to Great Britain in the Challenge Round.]

Von Cramm was an illustrious persona…who happened to be gay. In March 1938, he was arrested and convicted, in a secret trial, of “moral delinquency” and sentenced to a year in prison. The record indicates that Budge and a collection of elite athletes protested the incarceration. King Gustaf V of Sweden, a friend of von Cramm’s, expressed to Hitler his unhappiness with what had taken place. After five-months detention von Cramm was released from Lehrterstrasse prison in Berlin and went to live in Sweden. (During this period, Berlin was known as a haven for gays. In some circles, it was referred to as “the German way…”)

Daniel Prenn. Source: International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame

Von Cramm’s social awareness always extended far beyond the game and the times. His support of Davis Cup teammate Daniel Prenn is just one example of his distinctive mindset. Prenn was born in 1904 in Vilnius, Lithuania (part of Russia then). He had grown up in Saint Petersburg. Because his family was Jewish, they suffered under the Czar and even more after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Prenn family fled the pogroms and settled in Berlin in 1920. A fine student and all-around athlete, tennis was his best sport. Noted for being “tenacious”, he became Germany’s No. 1 player in the late 1920’s while also earning a graduate degree in engineering. Named to the Davis Cup team, he was instrumental in defeating Great Britain in the European Zone, 3-2. The tie was held at Lawn Tennis Turnier Club Rot-Weiss (Rot-Weiss Tennis Club), in mid-July 1929.

Three years later, with von Cramm on the team, Germany again triumphed, 3-2. With the victory of the National Socialists in the 1932 election, Prenn’s national and international tennis career ended abruptly because he was a “Non-Aryan”. HW (Bunny) Austin and Fred Perry, his British Davis Cup opponents, wrote to the London Times, about “their great misgivings…” of his ouster by Germany. Von Cramm was equally candid about the unjust treatment Prenn received. Having dropped his playing license in Poland in 1932 (where his parents and sister had settled), he and his wife Charlotte immigrated to London in 1933. He was sponsored by Simon Marks, the wealthy owner of Marks & Spencer Department Store. Marks, a tennis benefactor, did his utmost to assist fellow Jews during the period of heightened anti-Semitism. It seems that after a meeting with Hitler, at which he advocated for Prenn’s reinstatement, King Gustav V had gone to the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club to play a match with him.    

Because of the morals charge, The Championships and the US Nationals rejected von Cramm’s entry in 1939. (After his Grand Slam year, Budge turned professional which a select number of tennis historians believe opened the door for von Cramm to dominate in 1939. Though Bobby Riggs doubled, taking the singles titles in London and New York, it is important to remember that von Cramm thrashed him 6-0, 6-1 in the Queen’s Club final, the warm-up tournament before Wimbledon. He “had Riggs’ number” but was unable to prove it.)

Supremely loyal to his country, von Cramm returned from Sweden when Poland was invaded. Because of his criminal record, he was unqualified to be an officer and was forced to join the army in May 1939 as a private.

Two words can be to use to describe his time in the army – Absurd and Ludicrous. To begin with, after his dealings with the Reichmarshal, he was assigned to the Hermann Göring Division and sent to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. He quickly realized that the enemy would be victorious (and secretly told a number of fellow soldiers that when the battle turned to try to escape and come to the family’s Bodenburg Castle, in Lower Saxony). Both von Cramm’s legs were frostbitten, and he was evacuated to a hospital in Warsaw to recover. Once there, he was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery then was dishonorably discharged from the army in 1942 because he wasn’t a Nazi loyalist.

He spent the remainder of the war traveling between the Bodenburg Castle (where he hid an American pilot whose plane had been shot down near his property) and Sweden, working with the underground in an effort to remove Hitler from power. Once fighting ended, he returned to Berlin and coordinated the rebuilding at the Lawn Tennis Turnier Club Rot-Weiss in the Grunewald section of the city, which was in ruins. He also spent time as a German Tennis Federation official.

He returned to competition, winning the German National Men’s Singles in 1948 and ’49. During that period, he played Davis Cup (and did until 1953). At the age of 42, he played The Championships in 1951 losing in the first round 7-9, 4-6, 4-6, to No. 2 seed Jaroslav Drobny, the former Czechoslovakian who was playing for Egypt at the time.

It was paradoxical that von Cramm lost to an Egyptian (who in 1959 became a British citizen). Having played in Egypt regularly for years, he was well known in the country. One of his acquaintances happened to be a cotton mogul who convinced him to start a company. So, in 1951, he “got a job” and founded a cotton importing business in Hamburg. He applied the same focus that led to his success on court and the corporation thrived.

He became an early-day “roadie” traveling from company headquarters in Hamburg to the cotton suppliers in Cairo and Alexandra. Whenever the opportunity arose, he played tennis at the revered Gezira Sporting Club. As he had throughout his career, he was impeccably stylish, always wearing his trademark long-white pants and white shirt. On November 9, 1976, he had planned a business trip, leaving Cairo in the afternoon for Alexandra. An individual, who was not his regular driver, arrived earlier in the day than had been scheduled, but having always been accommodating, he agreed to the new timetable. The two-lane highway that was taken usually had no traffic. It was miles and miles of open road. That day, a catastrophe occurred. From all indications, a military truck, having missed a turnoff where gasoline could be purchased, crossed the centerline making a “U” turn and hit von Cramm’s car head-on, totaling it. His driver was killed instantly, and von Cramm succumbed in an ambulance on his way to a hospital. (Ironically, he had always said that when his life came to an end he didn’t want to die in a hospital.)

Jean Borotra. Source: Bundesarchiv

Jean Borotra grew up in Biarritz, the Basque region of France. One of the legendary Four Musketeers, (les Quatre Mousquetaires), along with Jacques “Toto” Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste, the quartet dominated Davis Cup play, beginning in the late 1920’s.  A quick study in school and a superb athlete, Borotra was introduced to tennis (and was none-too-enthusiastic about the game) when he traveled to Great Britain for two months at the age of 14 in 1912. He stayed with a family with the goal of improving his English. He enlisted in the French Army in 1916 and was assigned to an artillery company where he distinguished himself, winning the Croix de Fer during two years of combat. After the World War I surrender, he served as a Sports Officer, organizing fitness activities for the troops. In his official capacity, he was reintroduced to tennis. Skilled in the Basque game of pelota, he easily transferred his talent in that game to tennis. Self-taught, his approach featured a creative combination of strokes aimed at putting pressure on his opponent as soon as a point began. He used angles, no doubt developed from his engineering studies and did everything possible to attack the net. His volley was supreme.

Wearing his signature beret, and nicknamed the “Bounding Basque”, his energetic style partnered perfectly with his outgoing personality. He was a character, the game’s first “trash-talker” and was loved for it by fans. Often, tennis officials and opponents were not as accepting of his antics. During his career, he won five Grand Slam singles and ten doubles championships. He captured 12 French Indoor Singles titles, the last at the age of 49. He graduated with an engineering degree from the L’Ecole Polytechnique in 1922.

The Franco–German Armistice, created Vichy France June 22, 1940. The agreement divided the country into two zones. Philippe Pétain, the World War I hero, was an icon. He was dignified and practiced decorum in a grandfatherly fashion. Believing that the country needed to follow a stronger moral code, he became the Vichy leader, (though merely a token), in the hope of bringing about a Révolution Nationale. (The government was named Vichy because it was based in the spa resort town located near Clermont-Ferrand.) In actuality, Pierre Laval designed governmental policies in accordance with the stringent dictates of the German occupiers.

Borotra, an army captain, was taken prisoner near Dijon in 1940. In what was going to become a wartime pattern, he escaped. When the armistice was announced, he had planned to slip out of France and go to Great Britain.

He didn’t make the journey because the ship he was supposed to be on was sunk while it was still in port. The calamity opened the door for Borotra to become the Vichy Commissaire General at l’Education Physique et aux Sports (General Commissioner for Physical Education and Sports). The move may appear surprising but once his membership in the Parti Social Français (PSF), a conservative rightwing national organization, is recalled, the decision makes much more sense.

The Germans were doctrinaire in their belief that a regimen of physical activity improved fitness and character. During the year he spent as a French Army Sports Officer, Borotra set about improving fitness. In his new Vichy Government position, he became what could have been known as the “Fuller Brush Sports Training” salesman (Beginning in 1906, the Fuller Brush Company had salespeople traveling across the US selling household cleaning products.). He toured France and North African colonies introducing his version of the program. His stint lasted less than two years. Laval, a reviled collaborator, replaced Pétain in April 1942. One of his first moves was to dismiss Borotra.

Insulted by his abrupt termination, he was also becoming less supportive of the Révolution Nationale, in essence “make the country better”, principles. As his commitment wavered, he became involved with people anxious to end German control of the country. Because of the association, he was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in November 1942, then transferred to Sachsenhausen, a Concentration Camp near Berlin. While Borotra was experiencing savage treatment, René Lacoste became concerned about his former Musketeer teammate’s disappearance. Lacoste contacted King Gustav V and asked him to intercede. Miraculously, Borotra was moved to Itter Castle, a Medieval chateau in Austria, where prominent French prisoners were remanded. The transfer saved his life. He remained a captive for two years. Upon learning that Paris had been liberated, Borotra staged another of his (by now) patented escapes, climbing through a castle window. He made his way through German lines and swam across a river. He came upon American troops that were in the area and led them to the citadel. In one of the strangest battles of the war, the Americans, along with Wehrmacht soldiers who realized Germany would be defeated, joined forces to capture the castle.

(Even after all he had been through, Borotra was still criticized for being a member of the Vichy Government. While he didn’t support many of the policies, he was part of the organization that implemented Germany’s draconian rule…A fact that forever has tainted his reputation.)

Robert Abdesselam. Source: Fondation Robert Abdesselam

Robert (Bobby) Abdesselam was born in El Biar, Algeria. (France ruled the region and the country from 1839 until the Algerian War of Independence in 1962.) Algeria and France are 1,257 miles apart, but the distance between the two nations didn’t inhibit him. He was the French Junior champion in 1937 and ’38. The next year he defeated Adam Baworowski to win the International University Games in Monaco. Ranked No. 2 in France for years, he was a member of the Davis Cup team 14 times.

After the Allied Forces landed in North Africa in 1942, he joined the Algerian war effort. As a member of the French Expeditionary Corps, he served as a liaison officer in the Italian campaign. For his courage he received the War Cross (1939-45) and a US Bronze Star.A highly respected lawyer, he earned more kudos as the President of the French International Tennis Club from 1993 until 2004. (A biographer once marveled that his life was “more exciting than a novel”.)

Bernard Destremau in 1951. Photo: BNA Photographic

Bernard Destremau was born to lead a double life – military and tennis. He was the third son of a World War I French General and, in the early 1930’s, was one of the best juniors in the country. By 1938 his talent led to a partnership with countryman Yvon Pétra and they defeated Don Budge and Gene Mako, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7, 6-1 in the Roland Garros Men’s Doubles final. The year before, he was a singles semifinalist losing 1-6, 4-6, 3-6 to Henkel, who became the men’s champion.

When World War II began Destremau was drafted and set out to become an officer. The Franco–German Armistice in June 1940 ended his initial military service. He returned to school, graduating from Sciences Po Paris. (The Paris Institute of Political Studies is a private grande école and grand établissement.) Eventually, he decided to join the Free French Forces. Doing so required sneaking through Vichy France over the Pyrenees into Spain before making his way to North Africa.

As a tank officer he fought with General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s First Army division in France then Germany. In La Valette-du Var he was shot in the back while attacking Toulon. Later in the campaign, he was wounded twice by hand-grenade shrapnel. De Tassigny recognized his courage, awarding him the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.

The German invasion meant that Roland Garros would not be held, but the Vichy government decided that the Tournoi de France (open to French nationals as well as competitors from Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland) should serve as a substitute tennis championship. Destremau, having recovered from his war injuries, defeated fellow Frenchman Robert Ramillon, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the 1941 men’s final. The next year, he was 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 better than Christian Boussus, another compatriot.

After the war, Destremau became a diplomat handling government duties and playing tennis in Egypt, South Africa, Belgium and he finally became France’s Ambassador to Argentina.

The Blitzkrieg raced across Europe literally erasing army after army as they attempted to defend their national borders. Often the fighting was brutal. Poland is just one of the bloody examples. Efforts to stop the surge were well intended, but the forces of “right” were swept aside by the extraordinary military might of the German invaders. The fighting, at times, was brutal. Poland was a case in point, where a number of tennis players participated in combat or took part in the Resistance activities.

Adam Baworowski in 1938. Source: Historia Polskiego Tenisa

Adam Baworowski was a Count because his Chorynsky family was Polish nobility. He was a tennis talent at an early age, defeating Henkel in the 1927 Youth Games as a 14-year-old. In 1931, he was the Austrian Junior Championships winner. Four years later, he claimed both the singles and doubles at the Polish National Championships. He reached the fourth round at Roland Garros in 1937 and ’38. Though he and his family resided in Paris, Baworowski, in March 1938,  traveled to Warsaw. Upon his arrival, he condemned the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria. The Germans attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Contrary to the wishes of his family, he joined the country’s army. By September 6th the Germans had declared that every citizen of military age should be sent to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. Baworowski was arrested by the Gestapo, but his noble name and the fact that he was a known tennis player saved him from incarceration. In 1941, he was a finalist at the German War Championships in Braunschweig. He also represented Germany in the Danube Cup, (which prior to the war had been known as the Central European Cup). Research provides no details, but for some reason he decided to become a member of the German Wehrmacht. In late December of 1942, the Luftwaffe was evacuating troops taking part in the Battle of Stalingrad. He gave up his place on a flight to a wounded soldier and was killed by Red Army fire early in the new year.

Ignacy Tłoczyński. Source: Historia Polskiego Tenisa

In November 1939 after the German invasion, Ignacy Tłoczyński, a Davis Cup veteran who was born in Posen in the German Empire in 1911 (now Poznań, Poland), was thought to have gone missing. Actually, he was working in a Warsaw café, with Jadwiga (YaYa) Jędrzejowska, who was the 1937 US National and 1939 Roland Garros women’s finalist. He joined the Resistance and was one of the leaders of the Warsaw uprising. On August 1, 1944, he, along with Czesław Spychała, another outstanding tennis player, and some friends attacked the local SS barracks. After a battle that lasted almost two hours, 72 soldiers surrendered. Spychala and two of the others were wounded in the confrontation. Known by the pseudonym “Igo”, Tłoczyński was a member of the “Ruczaj” battalion. He was wounded in a later skirmish, captured, and sent to a German POW camp, Salzburg-Maxglan. After being liberated by the Allies, he joined the 2nd Polish Corps led by Władysław Anders. When the war concluded, he immigrated to Great Britain.

Czesław Spychała in 1938. Source: db4tennis

Spychała followed a similar path. Like Tłoczyński, he was born in Poznań but six years later in 1917. Having first played Roland Garros in 1938, he lost in the third round to Abdesselam. When the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939, he was captured but found a way to escape. He joined the Resistance as “Marian Tworowski” and became a member of the “Ruczaj” battalion (like Tłoczyński). He was shot in the hand and was captured again, this time by the Germans and remained a POW until the fighting ended.

Following the war, he made his way to Great Britain. In 1946 he was a finalist in the All England Plate, a competition open to those who had lost in the first and second rounds of the Gentlemen’s Championship. Given their previous head-to-head competitive history, the match winner was none other than, Abdesselam. Later that July, Spychała won the Welsh Championships Men’s Singles and  Doubles with long-time friend, Tłoczyński.

Mike and Joan Meissenburg are Costa Mesa, California residents. They once coached the Irvine Valley College tennis teams. (Mike was responsible for the men’s program for twenty years, and Joan led the women’s effort for fifteen seasons.) They first met Spychala, who was nicknamed “Spike”, in 1971 when Mike decide to play the English Summer Circuit. Spychala was the Table Controller for all of the Slazenger tournaments. (Slazenger makes the ball used at The Championships.) In those days, as Mike remembered, Spychala was responsible for, “Assigning all the courts during the tournament”. He continued, “Three years later (1974), Spike met us at the gate and gave us tickets to the Players Box for the Chris Evert-Olga Morozova final.”

Joan, with a gleam in her eye, added, “We were sitting next to Alex Metreveli, who was the Men’s finalist the year before, and he was rooting for Olga. We are so lucky to have this memory. It was our first Wimbledon experience together.”

Spychala remained a formidable competitor until his work for the Slazenger company began to curtail his training opportunities. “I remember that he always had a small shot glass on the table when players were checking in,” Mike said. “He really enjoyed Chivas (Regal), so I never forgot to bring him a bottle when I was playing tournaments where he would be working.”

“We attended The Championships again in 1985 and in ’87,” Mike added. “But, since then a great deal has changed. That is progress, but we have such fond memories of the old club, and of course, ‘Spike’.”

Einer Ulrich. Source: Frankensaurus

There is more to Einer Ulrich’s fame than being the grandfather of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. He is the father of Jørgen and Torben Ulrich (Lars’ father), the “Renaissance” brothers who were Danish tennis stars. Einer, a formidable Davis Cup competitor in his own right, reached the fourth round of The Championships in 1926, losing to Borotra.

Einer was drafted in World War I and became an officer in the Jydske Dragon regiment. He remained in the country after the 1940 German occupation. Three years later, after members of the Danish police department had been deported to concentration camps because they would not cooperate with the occupiers’ oppressive rule, he attempted to send his then-wife, Ulla, who was from a Jewish family, and his sons to Sweden. In October 1943, King Gustav V, his occasional doubles partner, helped the elder Ulrich organize the escape. Unfortunately, the Germans stopped the fishing boat in the Øresund Strait. Some of the passengers jumped into the frigid water trying to get away. In the end, everyone was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp near the port city of Helsingør (Elsinore). Ulrich was able to arrange with those holding his family to release them. Roughly six weeks later, the trio left Denmark again. It seems that Ulrich bribed border guards and the escape to Sweden was successful. In time, with the help of Swedish player Marcus Wallenberg Jr., Einer reunited with the rest of the Ulrich family.

The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 3

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