by Steve Flink
In my many years as a close follower of the game— starting with the fever I caught as a fan in 1965, continuing as a reporter in training during the early seventies, and since becoming a full-fledged tennis journalist in 1974— I have crossed paths with a remarkable number of luminous tennis figures. These individuals have enriched my life, inspired me in different ways, and made me strive to write about the sport with greater clarity and a broader base of knowledge. I have learned from some outstanding role models and benefited immeasurably from their guidance and wisdom. But no one has taught me more about the game, the players, and the inner workings of tennis than Jack Kramer.
In my view, Kramer is the greatest treasure we have in tennis. In his multi-faceted roles— as an amateur and professional player in the 1940’s and 50’s who ushered in the “Big Game” by becoming the first authentic attacking player; as promoter of the pro tour in the fifties and sixties; as an erudite television commentator from the 1950’s into the 1970’s; as the first Executive Director of the ATP from 1972-75; as a tournament director and creator of the concept for a Grand Prix circuit — Kramer did more than anyone else to raise the stature and shape the world of tennis. At the end of 1999, I called Kramer “The Man of the Century” in tennis, and I stand firmly by that conviction. Once, long ago, someone wrote of the incomparable singer Frank Sinatra, “It’s Sinatra’s world: we just live in it.” For those of us who reside in the tennis community, it has always been Kramer’s world that we live in, and I can assure you that we are better off because Kramer has been the mastermind of our universe.
Kramer is 86 now, and still remarkably lucid and penetrating in his thoughts. I called him the other day at his home in Los Angeles, and we traveled to a number of subjects, starting with his visit back to Wimbledon in late June where he celebrated the 60th Anniversary of his triumph on the Centre Court. As he recollected that visit, “I broke my ankle some time back so I was in a wheelchair and limited as to what I could do over there. I only got out there about three times, but it was very thoughtful of their chairman Tim Phillips to take care of all the expenses for me and my wife Gloria. We stayed at a first class hotel and had a car available to go out to Wimbledon any time. Unfortunately, it rained an awful lot but I had a great time and was given the royal treatment by everybody up in the Royal Box. It felt very good. Tim Phillips is a quality guy and he has set a precedent whereby old champions like myself— and there aren’t many of us still alive— are welcomed back to Wimbledon. I am very grateful to Mr. Phillips for thinking of me and making it all so damned wonderful.”
Kramer and Wimbledon have had a complicated relationship through the years. He was always popular during his playing days, but in 1973 he was in the forefront when most of the leading players— including Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Ken Rosewall— boycotted the world’s premier tournament. Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia had been suspended by the International Tennis Federation because his association claimed that Pilic had reneged on a Davis Cup commitment. That meant that Pilic, a surprise finalist at the French Open that year, would be forced out of Wimbledon. The players could not tolerate the Pilic suspension, believing a player had a right to determine his own destiny. They put aside their personal ambitions for a cause larger than themselves.
As the ATP Executive Director, Kramer was a prime target for a British media who sided almost entirely with the establishment. They turned Kramer into a scapegoat. He was maligned in the press. But he was entirely gracious about the whole matter, even though it would cost him his long time job as a revered commentator for the BBC. Many in the cognoscenti believed it was Kramer’s finest hour because he and his players stood on such noble ground. But the vitriolic response from so many scribes understandably left some scars on the Kramer psyche, as he conveyed to me in our interview.
“For years after the unfortunate boycott,” he recalls, “I always had the feeling that I was bad news if I showed up at Wimbledon, so I didn’t go over most of the time. When we had that boycott, Wimbledon was caught in the middle. They elected to support the President of the ITF, and the ITF’s position was that they controlled the players. Pilic was not that popular at the time among the players but it was a principle that the ATP had to stand up for. All I could do was be as honest as I could in telling everybody what we were about and why we were doing it. The tennis writers understood the issues and elected to support Wimbledon, so we got hit on the chin public relations wise something awful. I took the brunt of it and it cost me my job with the BBC, which was something I felt I had done awfully well. But it was worth it and if it came up again I would do it again.”
Be that as it may, Kramer enjoys watching today’s game. In fact, he saw the U.S. defeat Russia a few weeks ago in the Davis Cup final on television. “It was nice to see the good teams from the U.S and Russia doing so well up in Oregon and maybe that will set a new trend for Davis Cup because that event was well handled. The unfortunate thing about Davis Cup has been that it means a hell of a lot more to the poor nations who need the government in their countries to finance their tennis programs. The smaller nations have the clout to keep the situation status quo [and not change the format] with Davis Cup, which is too bad. Davis Cup used to rank right up there with the players and the associations along with the Grand Slam events.”
Kramer turns his attention to the talent and the temperament of Roger Federer. As he says, “I am naturally tremendously impressed with Roger as a player and person. He is a super champion. I have always been a believer in Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines from my era and how we would have been able to compete if we had the same equipment they are using today. We always had four or five more ounces of weight to carry around with our rackets so were more limited with the kinds of shots we could play. If a real deep ground stroke was hit to my backhand, I would probably retreat a step or two and throw in a slice. Well, Roger doesn’t think that way. He steps in and with his racket can hit a half volley ground stroke. I still say if you put the same racket into the hands of Budge or Vines or some of the others, they would play equal to Roger, but that is all conjecture. I stand by my statement that Roger Federer is the best tennis player I have ever seen.”
That is some statement coming from Kramer, who has always been a highly discerning judge of talent. Listen to what he says about a cluster of all time greats from across the years. On Bill Tilden, he asserts, “Bill had a fantastic serve and a remarkably super forehand and he had longevity on his side. You have got to rank him right near the top no matter what.” Speaking of Budge, Kramer says, “Don was the one guy that all of us who liked to serve and come in had to worry about. He made us give up on that tactic, because Don’s return was just too good. He was a super ground stroker who had marvelous approach shots and if you got into a rally with him, chances are he would get a ball to come in on before you would.” Moving on to Pancho Gonzalez, Kramer says, “He was a super competitor who did not have very good defense. But he was the one guy that could protect his serve. He knew he didn’t have to break any more than one serve a set so he didn’t try to break too often. He would play with any of these guys now.”
Shifting to an analysis of Rod Laver, Kramer thoughtfully contends, “Rod had everything and hardly ever played any bad matches, which was remarkable for a guy who hit the ball so hard and went for so many ground stroke winners. He didn’t have a serve anywhere near as big as Gonzalez, but he was quick and had good anticipation. His standard in the big events was as high as anybody that has ever played.” As Kramer leaves the subject of Laver behind and approaches Bjorn Borg, he tells me, “Borg was maybe the best clay court player we have ever had, although Nadal is awfully good on the dirt right now. I remember when he was on his way up I told Dan Maskell on the BBC that in my opinion the way Bjorn plays the game he won’t ever be able to win Wimbledon. Then he proceeded to win it five straight years.”
Kramer addresses the left-handed Americans Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and then weighs in on Andre Agassi. Once more his analysis is as good as it gets. “Jimmy was a fantastic player,” he says, “and nobody returned serve better than he did. He had such good control and depth that he was just a super back court player. John played an awful lot like I did. We both played on the theory that with our presence at the net and our good volley and overhead game, we were going to make people make errors, and we were going to be tough to pass. Johnny on a fast court with good footing played the game as good at it could be played. Andre had damned good ground strokes and if you stayed back he would grind you down. For me, he was the most interesting player to watch. It was a genuine pleasure to watch Andre. And as he got older, he got smarter and he got better.”
Only one major modern figure in the men’s game was left for Kramer to assess, and that is none other than Pete Sampras. “Pete was more like Vines or Gonzalez, that type of great player,” he says. “He served as well as anyone ever has. It is a shame for him because if he had played in my day when three of the four Grand Slam events were held on grass, he would have had an even more impressive record. On a grass court Pete played the game as well as anyone possibly could.”
I felt that the time had come to hear Kramer talk more about his own career. My view has always been that Kramer is ridiculously under rated. I ranked him No. 3 of all time (behind Sampras and Laver) in my book, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century”, and I know other authorities who have put him at the very top. His record does not accurately reflect the depth of his greatness because he left the amateur game when he was 26 in 1947 after dominating for two years, and was barred from the majors thereafter once he became a professional. As he recalls, he lost only three matches in those last two amateur years combined. In that brief span, he secured three major titles. Then he went out and accounted for a bunch of formidable rivals in pro tours. In 1947-48, he bested Bobby Riggs, winning 69 of their 89 tour matches. In 1949-50, he beat Gonzalez 96-27. He handled Pancho Segura 64-28 in 1950-51, and then stopped the Australian Frank Sedgman 54-41 in 1953.
Asked if he has been lost unfairly in the shuffle of history as a player, Kramer responds in his typically modest way, “All the people that count now never got a chance to see me play so they wouldn’t understand that I wasn’t just a serve and volley player. I ended up being a hell of a clay court player because on the pro tours that I played I was able to handle Riggs on the clay and I beat Gonzalez and Segura on the clay as well. You have to have damned good ground strokes to play on the dirt and I did. I am very proud of what I did on those pro tours. Riggs was a two time winner at Forest Hills as was Gonzalez, who was the best in the world of his day. And Sedgman won two U.S. Championships as well as Wimbledon. So I beat some awfully good players. Could I have played with anybody in history? I think so.”
That comment inevitably led us back to Federer. How would the great Kramer have confronted the mighty Federer? “I would have been coming in an awful lot,” he replies. “You have to come in on your serve against Federer. If you get into rallies with Roger he seems to be able to produce the shots that allow him to come in, so you have to attack Roger and shrink the court up a bit, which is the nature of making a guy keep passing you. I don’t know if it is possible to shrink the court up enough against Roger but that is what I would have tried to do and that would have been my only chance.”
In any event, not only did Kramer celebrate the 60th Anniversary of his 1947 Wimbledon triumph this year, but this week marks the 60th Anniversary of the inaugural match of his Pro Tour with Riggs. On December 26, 1947, a massive snow storm had hit New York but that was the night that Kramer and Riggs opened their series at the fabled Madison Square Garden. Despite the storm, 15,114 fans showed up for the match. As Kramer recalls, “We were surprised so many showed up. We were staying at a hotel on 49th street and Lexington Avenue and we had to walk all the way over to 8th Avenue through the snow since there were no taxis or other transportation. Every ticket was sold and only about 700 people did not show up. Bobby really surprised me with his tactics that night. I thought he would try to beat me with his good passing shots and lobs since he knew that my offense would swamp him, but every time I looked up he was at the net. He was at the net more than I was that night and he beat me in four sets. But from then on I changed my tactics as a professional a hell of a lot because of how Bobby had played me in New York. He forced me to start attacking a lot more. Eventually I ground him down on that tour after we were tied at 13 matches each. But Bobby was a lot better than people gave him credit for. Nobody that writes about tennis today ever saw Bobby at his best.”
As we closed out our session, I wanted Jack Kramer to tell me how he would like to be remembered. He paused for a long moment, and then responded, “I think I played the game as well as anybody played it, and in a way that tennis was meant to be played. I didn’t use any gamesmanship whatsoever and won on making the best shot at the right time to break serve. I am also very pleased that through the pro tours that I promoted all those years that I did an awful lot to take the game to all areas of America, to places that never had a chance to see good tennis. So I felt I contributed a lot to help the popularity of the sport.”
He has done more to boost the game than anyone, and by a very wide margin. Across the board, on the court and off, through his multitude of roles over the decades, he has been nothing short of heroic. As we close in on the end of 2007 and look forward to the coming years in tennis, I raise my glass to Jack Kramer, the single most important individual the game has ever known.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve