Kramer, John Albert ("Jack")
KRAMER, John Albert ("Jack")
(b. 1 August 1921 in Las Vegas, Nevada), tennis champion, tennis promoter, and proponent of percentage tennis.
Kramer was born in Las Vegas, the son of David Kramer, a locomotive engineer. The family moved to Montebello, California, a Los Angeles suburb, so that Kramer could benefit from the top-notch tennis instructors there. After studying at Montebello High School, he spent one semester at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, then one year at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, which was then one of the magnet schools for top tennis talent. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, and then was ready to devote himself to the game of tennis.
The sport of tennis had suffered during the war. Some major championships had not been held, no big new players had emerged, and the tennis world was caught between nostalgia for the earlier heyday of Donald Budge and the new tennis exemplified by Bobby Riggs. Into this mixture came the young Kramer, who soon showed his competitive spirit and heart. Known as the Hard Luck Kid, Kramer had to withdraw from several competitions and lost others due to injuries and illnesses including appendicitis, blisters, and tennis elbow. Whether these were simply run-of-the-mill ailments or whether they were brought on by his intense style cannot be determined. Regardless, Kramer changed men's tennis.
Even the greatest earlier champions, William Tilden and Budge among them, essentially had been all-court players, men who could play equally well in almost any location of the court. Kramer eschewed this approach, concentrating on what he called "percentage tennis" and what his admirers called the "big game." Kramer took the net each and every time it was possible, and used the "serve-volley" style of tennis to blast opponents off the court. While this style was intimidating, Kramer always claimed he employed it because he followed the percentages. It took far less energy, he argued, to follow a serve or approach shot to the net than it did to run back and forth around the baseline, in an ongoing duel.
Kramer had his first big success at the U.S. National Singles Championships at Forest Hills, New York, in 1946. He went on to win the Wimbledon tournament in England in 1947, repeated his victory at Forest Hills, and then turned professional. In the late 1940s there was still a distinct separation between the amateur and professional games; "open" tennis, meaning tournaments that were open to both amateurs and professionals, did not begin until 1968.
Kramer shone as a professional. He embarked on year-long odysseys in which he faced the same opponent, night after night, in different cities and towns. Two of his most memorable challenges were from Riggs in 1947 and Pancho Gonzales in 1949. Kramer smothered both of them, defeating Riggs by 81–20 and Gonzales by 96–27, as measured by their "one-on-one" tour totals. When questioned years later, Kramer often asserted that both Riggs and Gonzales were better players technically than he was, but that he had learned the knack of winning on the grueling tour and they had not.
Years of injuries eventually took their toll, and Kramer retired from playing tennis in 1952. He quickly began directing and managing tennis stars and events, in the style of an impresario. Kramer became the manager for the men's professional tour, which, in the words of the tennis commentator Bud Collins, was "four guys and a canvas court. They jaunted wherever the schedule, made up by their boss, Jack Kramer, carried them."
The 1950s were a time when great champions played for relatively small purses. Tennis players who wanted to earn some type of a living had to turn professional, and by doing so excluded themselves from the four big events of the Australian, French, English, and U.S. championships. This was a stiff price to pay, but nearly all of Kramer's sports contemporaries turned professional: Gonzales in 1949; Tony Trabert in 1956; and Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, the Australian boy wonders, in 1957. These formidable men, with egos to match, were subsequently managed and directed by Kramer, who decided on a schedule and sent his men and their canvas court around the world.
In his autobiography The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979), Kramer said that he never missed playing, and that directing the tour was a wonderful new challenge. Still, professional tennis languished during the early 1960s, and talented athletes like Gonzales and Rod Laver played for even less money than they had previously. Fortunately, most of them were saved by the inauguration of open tennis in the spring of 1968. It was too late for Kramer as a player, but he took advantage of the new open tournaments by directing world championship tennis for several years. He also worked as a television broadcaster for NBC until he made some derogatory comments about the women's side of the game, for which he was fired. Kramer found another audience when he and Frank Deford published The Game. As someone who had watched Ellsworth Vines and played the greats from Budge to Riggs, Kramer was uniquely able to comment on the sport's progression and retrogression, both as a sportscaster and as an author. Never one to hold back, he let his opinions fly in a manner that reminded some of his serves and volleys from thirty years earlier.
According to Kramer, Budge was the best player, day in and day out, that tennis had ever seen. But on an individual, one-day-at-a-time basis, Kramer rated Vines as the deadliest player ever to hit a serve. Kramer surprised many fans by placing Laver in the tier of "second greats," despite his sweeps of the four championships in 1962 and 1969, and by asserting that Riggs at his best would have beaten most of the other top players, including Gonzales. Most interesting was Kramer's alternative list of champions—his conjecture on who would have triumphed at Wimbledon and Forest Hills had the open tennis era begun in 1940 instead of 1968. Kramer speculated that he would have won five Wimbledons (instead of one) and five times at Forest Hills (instead of once). He also theorized that Gonzales would have won six Wimbledons (instead of none) and seven Forest Hills championships (instead of two).
In The Game, Kramer also addressed a question that perplexed fans and specialists alike: How would the greats of the 1930s and 1940s have fared against those of the 1970s? For example, what might have been the result of a match between Budge at his best and Bjorn Borg at his? Kramer asserted that the players of the 1930s and 1940s were better, both physically and mentally. Playing for peanuts as they did, they had to keep more finely toned and engaged in marathons of 100 matches per season. By contrast, Kramer opined that when big money came into the game after 1970 it hindered the development of many players whose talents were wasted in highly profitable exhibition matches. Kramer praised both Jimmy Connors and Borg for their technical skills, but placed them both in his second-rank tier of greats (with the possibility of moving up to the highest level). Because The Game was published in 1979, Kramer could not comment on Borg's eventual five Wimbledon victories or on the emergence of another prodigy, John McEnroe.
Often controversial and admired by many, Kramer exemplified the clean-cut U.S. look of the decade immediately following World War II. His remarkable tennis play, his dogged promotion of the professional tennis tour, and his keen insights made him one of the sport's most important commentators. Kramer did not make the big money that came in the open era, but like many of his contemporaries he claimed he had more fun than the money-driven players of the 1970s and later. For all this and more, Collins created an apt nickname for Kramer—the Magnet.
Kramer and Frank Deford coauthored The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979). More information can be found in Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989). See also "Jack Kramer," Time (1 Sept. 1947), an issue in which he also appeared on the cover; and Will Grimsley, Tennis: Its History, People, and Events (1971).
Samuel Willard Crompton