Jack Kramer: Tennis player who won Wimbledon and went on to lead the men's game into the professional era

Tuesday 15 September 2009 00:00

About Jack Kramer, it was always said by the authorities that no one in the history of tennis knew more about the game or did more to shape it. Arguably the most multi-faceted man tennis has ever known, Kramer contributed to the sport on virtually every conceivable level, demonstrating high intelligence on and off the court, becoming a singularly influential individual on a wide range of fronts.

Above all else, Kramer was a towering champion, capturing his native US Championship twice at Forest Hills in 1946 and 1947 and winning Wimbledon with an awesome brand of power and aggression in 1947. He ruled the professional tour as the best of a band of great players at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, simultaneously playing and promoting the tour, then continuing as promoter after quitting as a full-time competitor in 1953 as injuries shortened his time of triumph. He was still recording some significant victories as late as 1957, cutting down gigantic adversaries like Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzales, but he was competing on borrowed time.

As he recalled many years later, "I had reached the point in 1949 that I couldn't lift my arm. It was so bad that one doctor advised me to quit professional tennis and find another occupation. But cortisone and later derivatives fixed me up so well that I kept going for a number of years."

His superb credentials had been established long before. John Albert Kramer was born on 1 August 1921, in Las Vegas, Nevada but moved with his family to California when he was 12. He settled later in Los Angeles, which remained his home for life. In his first year as a professional, he won no fewer than 69 of 89 matches against his capable and competent compatriot, Bobby Riggs. In subsequent seasons, he bested Gonzales 96-27 and the master strategist Pancho Segura 64-28. Concluding his last serious campaign as a prime-time player, he finished with a 54-41 record against the revered Australian Frank Sedgman.

But being victorious in the upper levels of his profession was not all that defined Kramer as a craftsman and competitor; he would also leave a lasting impression by virtue of his unwavering style of play. Although other champions had succeeded with well-founded net-rushing tactics, Kramer took the attacking game to an entirely new level, introducing the "Big Game" with remarkable authority to his vulnerable rivals and an appreciative public.

Devoid of hesitation, overflowing with enthusiasm and conviction about his increasingly effective method for match play, Kramer moved forward relentlessly, taking every short ball and approaching the net, going in unfailingly behind his serve and attacking his opponent's second serve with a powerful combination of pace and precision. Decades later, he would tell friends, "Believe me, John McEnroe plays exactly the way I used to play."

Kramer won the US National Singles Championship in 1946 and 1947 and took the singles title at Wimbledon in 1947. He won four US National Doubles Championships, capturing those crowns with Ted Schroeder in 1940, 1941 and 1947 and winning with Frank Parker in 1943. He won the US National Mixed Doubles title with Sarah Palfry Cooke in 1941. Twice he captured the Wimbledon doubles title, winning in 1946 with Tom Brown with Bob Falkenburg in 1947. He won all six singles matches he played for the United States in Davis Cup competition and led his nation to victory in that international team event in both 1946 and 1947. He was the United States' Professional champion in 1948 and dominated the professional tour from 1948 until 1953.

He always had big items on his agenda, shifting with the times, looking for sensible ways to strengthen the sport. After a demanding decade promoting the pro tour in the US – signing the leading amateurs to contracts and then delivering them to small towns in remote arenas all across the country – he found new forums for his ideas after open tennis arrived in 1968. Kramer was the founding father of the International Grand Prix circuit for men in 1970, establishing the concept and structure for the year-long series and season-ending play-offs for the leading players. So lucid and expansive was his vision that the fundamental attributes of Kramer's plan remain valid in today's game.

Dogged in support of issues that mattered to him, Kramer risked the wrath of the British press and public in his role as the first Executive Director for the Association of Tennis Professionals. Appointed to that prominent position in 1972, Kramer provided extraordinary leadership the following year when the male players elected to boycott Wimbledon in protest over their colleague Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia, whom many felt was being unjustifiably suspended by the International Tennis Federation as that august international governing body accused Pilic of failing to follow through on a Davis Cup commitment he said he had never made.

Leading players like Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith stood resolutely alongside Kramer on this issue. They were taking a terribly unpopular stand, but Kramer was proud of the players for sacrificing an opportunity to appear in the most prestigious tournament of them all. And Kramer was certain that he had given his men the right kind of guidance. "I was proud of what we did with the boycott," he said reflectively nearly two decades later, "and I think it showed something about my character and competitiveness."

Clearly, that was the case. But he revealed as much about himself and his values in many other capacities, becoming a spokesman for the Association of Tournament Directors and a representative on the Men's International Professional Tennis Council in the 1980s. By the beginning of the next decade, Kramer had moved on to the Presidency of the Southern California Tennis Association.

It was as a television analyst, however, that Kramer may have done some of his best work, connecting easily with his audiences of both sides of the Atlantic, demonstrating in the process that he could break down a match and enlighten the viewers better than anyone in the business. He worked 14 Wimbledons for the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s and covered all but two US Championships and US Opens between 1952 and 1973 for three major American networks. "I felt like a professor of tennis," he said once, "because I was educating especially Americans who had not been tennis players. Doing that was very important to me."

He married Gloria on 12 April 1944. Had five children – all boys – named David, John, Bob, Ron, and Michael. Bob Kramer is the tournament director for the Los Angeles event on the ATP Tour. Over the last decade of his life, Kramer curtailed many of his tennis-related activities, devoting more time to the golf courses he owned near his home in Los Angeles. But the fact remained that he gave an immense amount of time to a sport he graced for a lifetime. There have been champions who played the game of tennis at a higher level for longer than he did, but none of them reached across the broad spectrum of the sport quite like Jack Kramer.

Steve Flink

Jack Albert Kramer, tennis player, administrator and television analyst: born Las Vegas, Nevada 1 August 1921; married 1944 Gloria (died 2008, five sons); died Los Angeles 12 September 2009.

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