Jack the lad
Sunday June 24, 2007
Jack Kramer was men's champion in 1947, but he has been an outcast for much of the past 60 years. Now, at last, he is being honoured.
Richard Evans reports
Silly how you get the wrong impression of someone just reading the newspapers. When I was at school, I kept reading about 'tennis mogul' Jack Kramer signing up another Wimbledon champion for some exorbitant sum of money for the pro circuit that toured the world under his name.
I envisaged some balding little man in glasses with a fat cigar sitting in the back room of dingy stadiums counting his money. Then, when I became a young reporter, I was sent to the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair to interview Kramer because he had just signed the then British number one, Mike Davies.
I was unprepared for the figure of the man who opened his hotel room door. 'Come in, kid, what'ya want to know?' The friendly, open smile belonged to a rangy athlete of more than six feet who was not only capable of playing with all the players he signed but beating the heck out of them for good measure.
There are those who will tell you that Kramer was as good, if not better, than most of the players of his era. So let's take a look at the list - Pancho Gonzalez, Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert... 'Jack was a tough son of a bitch,' says the other Pancho - Segura - whose double-fisted forehand was considered by Hoad and others to be the most dangerous shot they ever faced. 'Jack had a massive serve and he'd keep on coming at you, volleying like crazy.'
'Actually, they all made me a better player,' says Kramer, now 85. 'I had to become more of an attacker and improve my volley because the competition was so fierce. Winning a couple of tours against those guys was the achievement I'm most proud of as a player. Winning night after night was a huge test, because if you lost you were out of a job.'
That was no exaggeration. We are talking of the late 1940s and 1950s, when Kramer was providing the only money in the game. The Wimbledon champions of the day had to stay with rich families; hope the tournament provided lunch and be grateful for the Mappin & Webb voucher they received for winning. A semi-finalist? 'Thank you for coming. See you next year.' Kramer was never going to settle for the voucher. After leaving the US Navy at the end of the war, this son of a Las Vegas railroad worker had his plan mapped out. Win Wimbledon in 1946 and then join Bobby Riggs, Don Budge and Fred Perry on the professional tour.
'But it didn't work out,' Kramer remembers. 'I got held up a year because Jaroslav Drobny beat me in the quarters. Then in '47 I was lucky enough to get Tom Brown in the final and he was a player who could never beat me.' Not many could. When Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed champion, decided to go off and live with some rich lady friend, Kramer, with his natural eye for business, took over the tour and soon made himself number-one enemy in Australia by pinching all their great players as soon as they won a grand-slam title. Sedgman, Hoad and Rosewall were just the beginning. Ashley Cooper, Rod Laver and Mal Anderson followed - all of them unable to refuse the kind of money Kramer was offering. It ranged from fifty to a hundred thousand dollars for about six months a year on the road - real riches in those days.
Driving from city to city for one-night stands across America, taking three days to fly to South Africa, playing on canvas stretched over basketball courts - it was not an easy or glamorous life for fine athletes who were banned from Wimbledon and the other great citadels of the amateur game. They yearned for 'open' tennis, but it did not arrive until 1968.
By then Kramer had resigned from his position in charge of the tour because his great friend from the other side of the game - Philippe Chatrier, president of the French federation - told him he had become so controversial that he was a stumbling block to any hope of rapprochement between the amateur and professional games.
When it happened, thanks to Wimbledon throwing open its doors, Kramer quickly formed an alliance with Chatrier and it was at the Frenchman's apartment near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris that he unveiled his plan for a grand prix of tennis - a series of worldwide tournaments linked by a points system.
But Kramer, as an ill-suited member of the establishment, was an uneasy fit and soon the players came calling. Arthur Ashe, Cliff Drysdale, John Newcombe, Mark Cox and a few others formed the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972 and they knew that only a man of Kramer's prestige would suffice as their leader. So Kramer was in charge as CEO when the definitive battle lines between the new professional order and the old amateur establishment were drawn in 1973.
The fact that Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia had been banned from playing in the Davis Cup by his national federation was merely the excuse for a showdown. After midnight meetings back at the Westbury, Kramer called for a vote of his board and the outcome was to boycott Wimbledon. The fact that 90 players did so stunned the sporting world and made Kramer a pariah in the parochial British press.
Making stars such as Ashe, Newcombe and little Ken Rosewall villains of the piece was too a hard a sell, so the media settled for Kramer. Such was the furore that his job as a summariser for BBC television at Wimbledon alongside Dan Maskell, with whom he had forged a hugely popular partnership, became untenable.
'That was a big disappointment to me,' Kramer admits. 'But they needed a scapegoat and it goes with the territory.' For years he was persona non grata at Wimbledon, but time moves on and it is wholly appropriate that the All England Club chairman Tim Phillips and his committee have seen fit to honour Kramer, 60 years after he began a personal odyssey that kept pro tennis alive in the dark days of shamateurism - federations were actually paying players not to turn pro - and recognise his unrivalled contribution to the game he played with such panache.
Although a few broken bones have limited his mobility in recent years, he has been following the game from the comfort of his home in Los Angeles and, as someone who is better placed than most to analyse players through the ages, he is ready to anoint Roger Federer as the best he has seen.
'I thought Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge were pretty good,' he says. 'And Gonzalez and Hoad could play a bit, too, but I have never seen anyone play the game better than Federer. He serves well and has a great half-volley. I've never known anyone who can do as many things on a court as he can.' Aware of the game's past and being the kind of person he is, Federer will no doubt be honoured to shake Kramer's hand when they meet in the Royal Box. Both members of the same club; champions of similar stature, reaching across 60 years of history