Recently I wrote a post about the dozens of immortal names that tennis had given to the world. I came up with a quick list of them off the top of my head; right in the middle of it, like the keystone of the whole operation, was “Jack Kramer.”
It’s hard to think of two words that seem more appropriate to what they’re describing. The old-fashioned nickname, the easy syllables, and the clicking ks at the center conjure the image of a plucky, upstanding Greatest Generation type, a humble American hero in a World War II movie. When you see pictures of the lanky, crew-cut-sporting Kramer slicing under a forehand in his white clothes, you know the name fit like a glove. Or the way the handle of a Jack Kramer Autograph fit in the hands of millions of players from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Kramer, who died last week at age 88, was indeed a member of U.S. tennis' greatest generation. With fellow Californians Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs, Don Budge, and Pancho Gonzalez, he helped democratize the sport at its top levels in the 1930s and 40s. They were the first group to start on public courts out West and conquer the clubby amateur game back East. But they couldn’t live on gentlemen’s wages, so Kramer, dedicated to the stunning idea that a tennis player should be paid for his skill, led them back out of those ivy walls and into the wilderness of the early pro tours. The pro game would finally break through the club walls in 1968, but that revolution sparked a second one, one in which Kramer was cast as part of the sexist establishment. In 1970, Billie Jean King, another product of those California public courts, led a boycott of Kramer’s tournament, the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles, because it had offered the men’s champion $12,000 and the women’s $1,500. While Kramer maintained that he was a convenient scapegoat, the WTA was off and running. They were generational adversaries at the time, but Kramer and King can now be seen as part of the same democratizing tradition that had helped make pro tennis a global success.
The clip at the bottom of this post probably represents the most I’ve seen of Kramer's game in one place. He could obviously get around a court with aplomb and stroke a mean forehand volley. When I was a kid, he had seemed more curmudgeon than revolutionary and always had a bad word to say about my favorite player, Bjorn Borg. More recently, I’ve spent some time flipping through the copy of his biography, The Game, that we have in the Tennis Magazine offices. Co-authored with Frank DeFord in 1979, it’s written in a very conversational style, with maximum honesty. Kramer didn’t do false modesty, but he didn’t skimp on the self-criticism, either. Someday I’ll take it home and read it from cover to cover, but for now I’ll just throw out some lines as I flip through it again. Maybe you’ll get a little sense of the man who, as the title of this book happily points out, was synonymous with American tennis for 30 years. He might even have something to say to us as players and fans today.
On the professional vs. the amateur game: “Things are not so pure in tennis today. But at least the players have a voice and a piece of the action. In the shamateur [he almost always substitutes this term for amateur] days, we were only athletic gigolos, and the system was immoral and evil. I mean to be harsh. Tennis has changed so much in the last decade that it will not be long before the shamateur days are looked on fondly, all quaint nostalgia. I don’t want the truth forgotten. The overall system was rotten."
On his dad: "What is good about me is a gift from my father, and what is bad is my own doing. It is a great comfort in life to grow up secure in the knowledge that your father is the finest man in the world. Learning to play tennis was easy after my father got through teaching me ethics, integrity, and fairness."
On being called for a foot-fault as a teenager: “The moment I started to show any kind of big head Dad would call me ‘Cocky’ and stick me right back in my place. One time when I was just starting to win, I began to think I was a big shot, and I carried on a running argument with an umpire. When he called me for a foot-fault, I blew my stack altogether and threw my racket over the fence. I looked up and saw my father approaching the umpire’s chair. I felt like a million dollars: My old man was going to show this guy that his boy couldn’t be pushed around. Yes, sir! After a few seconds of conferring with Dad, the referee suddenly stood up, waved his arms, and announced that the match was over, the win going to my opponent by default. My father had called it off. Our discussion was very brief. “Cocky,” he said, “if you ever do that again, you’ll never go back on a tennis court as long as you live in my house.”
On being 60 years old: “I don’t want to sound like an invalid. I’m not. I was skinny as hell as a kid. I never had to worry about my weight, and I always ate all the wrong things. Now I’m a few pounds overweight because I can’t move around as well, but I still eat all the wrong things.”
On his style: “All things considered, I’ve always been a conservative person in most things, while I have always been listed as a revolutionary in tennis.”
On his financial philosophy: "I know I'm still affected by having grown up [during the 1930s]. I know it is foolish, and I know it must have something to do with my Depression insecurity, but I carry a great deal of cash on me. I always have a couple thousand bucks in my pockets."
On the second serve: “The most important percentage shot in tennis is the scond serve. A big cannonball is wonderful, but it can’t carry you. A second serve can make or break you. A kid like John Newcombe became a champion only because he could a great second serve.”
On the GOAT, and why improved equipment doesn't automatically produce better players: “Don Budge is still the best player I ever saw, and Ellsworth Vines is second. Day in and day out, Budge played at the highest level. What am I supposed to do, say that Connors is better than Budge even though he loses, just because Colin Dibley serves a ball faster than Tilden?”
On Laver: “I’m well aware that he’s the only man ever to win two Grand Slams, and he was unbeatable for a year or two in the late 60s. But he and Pancho Gonzalez came close enough together for me to make a careful comparison of the two, and I’m positive Gonzalez would have beaten Laver regularly.”
On a failed Open era: “The terrible thing is that professional tennis should have taken over in the 1930s. There was genuine agitation for an open game, but the motion failed by a hair. The only thing lacking with the pros [of that time] is that they didn’t have some dumb sonuvabitch like me around who could put an organized tour together.”
On the women’s tour: “I have been tagged an ogre by the girls, and that is going to stick.”
On the Battle of the Sexes: “As for Riggs, Billie Jean beat him fair and square. A lot of men, especially around our age, were so stunned when he lost that they figured he must have tanked. Budge is convinced of that. But what motive would he have for that? Bobby Riggs, the greatest ham in the world, gets his greatest audience—and purposely looks bad? There’s no way.”
On the women’s GOAT: “The best female player I’ve ever seen is Helen Wills Moody. She would have run today’s women players into the ground.”
On the 1973 Wimbledon boycott: “We gathered in the face of the most biased press coverage. We were accused of everything except the one thing that counted, standing up for the rights of all players.”
On Nastase: “He’s a fascinating kid. People are always amazed when they hear me point out that he is not that bad a kid off the court. Dumb, yes.”
On the future: “The democratization of tennis has come a long way in a short time. . . . The next 50 years are really going to be something. I’ll buy tickets to get in."
Have a good weekend.