My brother, Peter, has completed a wonderful book[i] on the history of “the pro champions” of tennis – those top players who were the best in the world from the 1930s to the late 1960s, but who were denied entry to the major championships and the Davis Cup … because they were professional sportsmen. The stories in the book are a poignant reminder of a lost but unlamented era in world sport.
One of the greatest of the tennis pros was the Californian Jack Kramer (above). He is remembered by Australian tennis fans more as a promoter than a player, because he managed the pro tour for many years at a time when Australian champions like Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad turned pro. Kramer was vilified by the Australian media because he was seen to be weakening the Australian hold on tennis supremacy.
In retrospect this view highlights the ludicrous nature of tennis in those days: the best players in the world were not competing, other than against each other, so that the Australian tennis supremacy of the 1950s was actually an artefact of officialdom. It also demonstrates the way the Australian media of the day always fell in behind the establishment, and mostly, to this day, continues to do so.
It is also forgotten, or was overlooked at the time, that in the years after World War II and before he turned pro at the end of 1948, Kramer was the world’s best tennis player, winning both Wimbledon and the US championships, and unbeaten in Davis Cup. After 1948, and until he retired in 1954, he was the top pro, the best of the best, the uncrowned King of World Tennis (indeed, he was known among the other pro players as “King Kramer”). Even after he retired, he could still play well enough to defeat a young and rampant Lew Hoad in a professional match in London in the late 1950s.
Film clips of Kramer survive. He was a masterful exponent of the serve-volley game, and had one of the greatest serves of all time, especially his viciously spinning second serve which he could “spot” into the service box with pin-point accuracy. He was once challenged to hit a silver dollar suspended on a wire above the net with this serve. He did so, at the first attempt.
Like most of the top players of his day, Kramer was also a superb doubles player, especially when he had little Pancho Segura (billed as “The Ecuadorian Buzzsaw”) playing on his right. As a singles player in the touring pro circus, he easily triumphed over Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales and Frank Sedgman, all of whom had been world Number 1 in the amateur game before turning pro. His defeat of Sedgman, in a 100 match series, came when Sedgman was aged 24 and was Wimbledon, US and Australian champion, and Kramer was 32, and dogged by arthritis.
In his account, my brother explains that Kramer was more than just a gifted athlete. He was the first top tennis player to study and apply the mathematics of tennis. He understood to perfection the geometry of the court and its angles, and the percentages applying to every shot or counter-shot. He was a master of a stroke almost never played by modern tennis players – the skidding, sliced forehand approach shot, which he would bury in the backhand corner, follow to net and then pounce on a volley or overhead. Above all Kramer could plan a point, and then execute his plan by setting up a sequence which would invariably end with him having an easy put-away. His ruling philosophy, his great maxim of tennis, was “never lose your serve”. I love the comment by Ken Rosewall in his memoir: his two lasting impressions of Kramer were his extraordinary concentration, and his capacity to know exactly what shot to play next.
There are two Kramer stories that I especially like. The first is recounted in his book by my brother:
One story described in Kramer’s autobiography is exemplary. It dates from Jack’s early days playing Boy’s tournaments.
‘The minute I started to show any kind of big head,’ says Jack, ‘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 the umpire. When he called me for a foot fault, I… 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!’
But after conferring with Jack’s dad, the umpire suddenly stood up and announced the match was over. It had been awarded, by default, to Jack’- opponent.
Subsequently, the discussion between father and son was ‘very brief.
“Cocky,” said his father, “you ever do that again, and you’ll never go back on a tennis court as long as you live in my house.” ’
Jack tells us that from then on, he never lost his temper on the court in a similar way. Tell this to the ‘ugly parents’ of the win-at-all-costs brats plaguing today’s arenas!
The second exemplifies his mastery of the game. One day in 1956 Jack found himself at a tennis club in California where the US Davis Cup team was preparing for a tie. Kramer had not played a competitive tennis match for two years, following his retirement from the pro tour, and was in his middle thirties. Also he was suffering from a back injury which had hampered him in his final year of competition, and still restricted his movement and stroke-making.
The US Number One amateur and leading Davis Cup player at the time was Hamilton “Ham” Richardson. Ham was aged 23 and on the top of his form. He had already established an excellent Davis Cup record and won a number of important amateur championships in the US and overseas. He was introduced to Jack, and courteously inquired whether he would play a match with him.
Although Jack had retired, he was still regarded by the tennis establishment as being a professional sportsman, and was thus banned from playing in tournaments, or mixing formally with the lily-whites of amateur tennis. But there was nothing in the rules about having a practice set or two on a private court, especially leading up to a Davis Cup tie. On other occasions the great pro Pancho Gonzales was employed by the US Tennis Association to coach their Davis Cup team, and the 1950s Australian Davis Cup Captain Harry Hopman called on pros Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor to play practice doubles against amateurs Hoad and Rosewall before an upcoming Davis Cup final.
Kramer said he was happy to meet Richardson, on grass, for a couple of practice sets, and so the match was arranged.
Afterwards, Richardson said that it was the best he had ever played. He felt he had the ball right in the middle of the strings of his racquet from the start, his serve was working to perfection, he made almost no unforced errors and he was at a peak of fitness. He was beaten 6-0, 6-0. “It wasn’t that I played badly,” he said, “I just couldn’t win points”.
After the match was over, he sought out Jack in the locker room and asked him whether there was anything Jack thought he should work on. “Get a bit of depth on your ground strokes, son,” Kramer advised, putting his gear away and strolling off. [ii]
Kramer was a modest champion. He was once asked by a sporting journalist about his greatest achievement in tennis. “Well,” he said, “I wasn’t the best player to ever win Wimbledon, but I was the first to win wearing shorts.”
He was also responsible for popularising the “Kramer cut”, a bristly, closely-cropped flat-top that was widely imitated by young men of my generation in the early 1950s. Robert Drewe has written amusingly[iii] about this in his classic memoir The Shark Net. Thanks to an invitation arranged by his father, who worked for Dunlop, the young Robert is attending a Player’s function at the Adelphi Hotel during a Davis Cup interzone match, and Kramer is present:
“Sitting by himself in a corner of the Adelphi dining room, eating a steak and salad and drinking a big glass of Coke (the first male adult I’d ever seen drinking it) was Jack Kramer.
My eyes settled on this lone figure. Because he was trying to persuade the tennis players to turn professional, none of them could be seen sitting with him. As he was the originator of the Kramer cut, the founder of my very own haircut, I naturally gave his hairstyle the once-over. It was short and brushed neatly forward. It didn’t stick up in a rigid flat-top, it lay down. The sides weren’t longer and swept briskly back. It was nothing like a Kramer cut! Jack Kramer didn’t have a Kramer cut! What was wrong with the world?”
Despite this failure to live up to one young man’s expectations, Kramer’s influence on international tennis was enormous. He perfected the so-called Big Game (coming to net both on serve and on return-of serve) that established a style that lasted almost to the end of the century. He succeeded as both a player and a promoter. He revolutionised the presentation and organisation of the game, undermining the dominance of the old blimps of the amateur associations who for so many years had decided who played and who didn’t. He was also a wonderful radio and television commentator, very calm, observant and knowledgeable, the American equivalent of Adrian Quist.[iv] More than anyone, he was instrumental in the move to Open Tennis, where pros and amateurs could compete without bureaucratic constraint.
In 2009 Kramer was still alive but in failing health. My brother had written to him and invited him to write the Foreword to his book. This led to a friendly relationship (by email) with Kramer’s son, David. Early one morning the phone rang in my brother’s house in Hilton, Western Australia, and it was David Kramer on the line, phoning from California. “Jack is with me and would like a word,” David said.
My brother and the old champion had a lovely chat, reminiscing about people and places on the pro tour and the great players of the past. In the end, my brother (who is a doctor) enquired about Jack’s health. “How are you going?” he asked.
The old pro thought for a moment.
“Well,” he replied, “I’m still holding my serve”.
A few weeks later he did finally lose his serve, passing away quietly, an event barely noticed by the world’s media. But to those who know about tennis, it was the end of a sporting aristocrat, the progenitor of a dynasty, a royal figure. The King was dead.
[i] Underwood, Peter (2016): The pros – the forgotten era of tennis. New Chapter Press, New York USA
[ii] This story has an interesting local parallel involving my friend and tennis mentor Rob Casey. In 1972, Rob (aged 17) was a junior champion just emerging into senior ranks. In the Australian Open at Kooyong that year he made the draw, but in the first round met 44-year old Frank Sedgman. ‘Sedg’ had behind him a distinguished amateur and pro career stretching back to the 1940s, but was still a magnificent exponent of the serve-volley game. He won 6-0, 6-1, 6-3. Casey later became a top player himself, but has never forgotten his astonishment at the gap that existed at that time between the amateurs and even a semi-retired old pro like Sedgman. The 1972 Open, incidentally, was won by the 37-year old Ken Rosewall who had been prevented from playing in the championship for nearly 15 years after he turned pro.
[iii] Drewe, Robert (2000): The Shark Net. Penguin Books. Quoted here with permission from Robert Drewe. Coincidentally, Drewe was a schoolmate and is today still a good friend of my brother.
[iv] Kramer’s popularity did not extend to women tennis players of the time, about whom he was critical for lack of fitness and skills. The Number One woman player Billy Jean King, on one occasion, refused to play a match so long as Jack was in the commentary box. To prevent a fuss, Jack voluntarily stood down from his commentator position for the Billie Jean match, but did not change his views, at least not in the short term.