Wimbledon 97: Kramer leaves legacy to pro game
Richard Edmondson meets the legend who helped popularise the sport in the United States
Saturday 28 June 1997
Shortly after his 1947 victory over fellow American Tom Brown, Kramer joined a professional tour that in general popularity terms was as well received as bubonic plague. He never played at Wimbledon again.
Tennis at the time was still lingering in the realm of a quick set on the mansion lawn before bounding off for a spot of fruit cup. Being paid for the exercise was considered entering the realm of Lucifer, and Kramer was cast down.
This, however, did not prevent him earning pots of money playing and later collecting even more as the constructor of the professional circuit's first serious organisational skeleton. Kramer became the Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack of tennis rolled into one, and when today's players struggle to close their suitcases on bundles of notes, they largely have the American to thank for the discomfort. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the British public profited from his knowledge of the game through his thoughtful analysis on BBC Television.
Jack Kramer is in London this fortnight and the fact that he is staying at the Waldorf with his family and great friend, fellow Wimbledon winner Ted Schroeder, suggests his business acumen remains with him at the age of 75. So, too, do the memories of 1947.
Those championships marked the return to Wimbledon of King George VI, who, some years earlier, had found that even sovereignty was not enough to win him a title when he had competed in the men's doubles as the Duke of York.
"It was a very one-sided match with Tommy Brown in that final and it was an easy tournament for me in a way because I only lost one set and 37 games," Kramer said yesterday.
"The only thing that made it a little difficult was that King George was coming out for the first time in about 20 years and he got stuck in the traffic. He arrived a little late and it kept me and Tommy waiting, which made us a little nervous. It affected Tommy worse than me and he didn't even play 50 per cent of his normal game.''
It may have been that Tommy was also put off by Kramer's knees. His was the first Wimbledon victory by a tennis player who did not look like a cricketer, a man who wore shorts.
After the gentility of SW19 Kramer made his professional debut in an earthier arena famous for man-to-man combat, the Madison Square Garden. "The city lay paralysed by the heaviest snowfall in history," Red Smith reported in the New York Times of his contest with Bobby Riggs. "Yet with taxis, buses, commuters trains and private cars stalled, and the subways limping, 15,114 customers found their way into the big barn at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street.''
Kramer lost that encounter, but by the time the wagon train had taken in just about every small city and town in the United States he was 69- 20 ahead of Riggs. His regular opponent was later made globally famous as a 55-year-old, when he opined that the only service Billie Jean King should be conducting was through a kitchen hatch. In their "Battle of the Sexes" in the Houston Astrodome in 1973, in front of a record crowd of 30,472, it was Riggs who was cooked 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
By then tennis had bloomed into a sport that consumed the whole of the United States, a process that had been partially sowed by the head-to- heads between Riggs and Kramer.
"In the beginning as a professional player it was sort of self-serving because I had to play to make money and I did very well for a time. I made about $73,000 against [Pancho] Gonzales, well over $100,000 playing Riggs and even more than that playing [Frank] Sedgman," he told Steve Flink of Tennis Week. "But as promoter I was able to bring the game to 85 to 95 cities outside of the big cities on an annual basis, and bringing these great names to those places helped popularise the game throughout the country. Deep down, I feel that might have been the best thing I ever did for the sport.''
Kramer's skills switched from the baseline to the bottom line when he was forced to retire with an arthritic back, and by 1953 he was an entrepreneur signing up the best men to compete in his circus. "I feel I played a pretty significant part because I turned so many of the good players professional," he said. "That weakened the amateur structure and the major tournaments, including Wimbledon, weren't as exciting for the fans, the newspapers and television.
"Wimbledon wasn't so great there for a long while when 15 out of the top 20 players weren't able to play, but it became great again because of open tennis. As great a champion as Laver was, who is to say that he was as good as Rosewall, Hoad and Gonzales at one time?''
At the genesis of the Open era and the end of shamateurism in 1968 Kramer devised the Grand Prix, a series of the best tournaments in the world culminating in a Masters' Championship for the top eight finishers. The Grand Prix ran for 20 years until the ATP Tour took over the structure, and by then the treasure chest had been opened to both the players and the man who had organised them.
Kramer was not at the parade of multiple winners on No 1 Court on Monday even though he was delivered with the gifts to make him part of that line- up, but it is not an omission he dwells on too long. "I'm disappointed I won't be in the record books, where I feel I belong, but I chose to go out to earn a living to protect my family because I was just starting to have kids," he said.
Once he started it took some time to slow him down, and the man from Las Vegas can now count five sons and a spreading gene pool of grandchildren. The elder progeny are part of a new business empire.
Over the last decade Kramer has involved himself in another sport and he now owns two golf courses in California an hour away from his Los Angeles home. If you do a double-take on him at the Los Serranos Country Club he will be over quickly to press the flesh. "I am sort of a gladhander," he said. "I shake hands with everybody at Los Serranos that I think might recognise me and ask them how well we are doing.''
There are plenty around who believe the thanks should be directed the other way, to John Albert Kramer, a champion of the game in some form for 50 years. "Jack is Mr Tennis," says Pancho Segura, the former top player who is now a coach. "He was one of the toughest players mentally that ever lived. Jack's second serve was the best in the history of tennis with the possible exception of Mark Philippoussis. But more than what Jack did as a player, and he lost his serve less than anybody I ever played against or watched, tennis owes him a debt of gratitude because of all the other things he did for the game.''
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