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"I disagree," he replied, after mulling the name over for a moment. "Sounds to me like a tall blond gentile with a big serve and a smashing overhead."
Of course he was right. As I discovered the next morning, Kramer had a big serve, a big forehand, a big backhand and a big overhead, and he covered the net like a manta ray. He crushed me, 6-1, 6-0, in about two minutes. It took my father to figure out why Kramer was as fresh as a daisy throughout the match while I seemed to be a candidate for a heart attack.
"Schlemiel, no wonder you ran out of gas," he scolded me on the way home. "Between points you rushed to pick up the balls, and then you skipped back to the baseline to serve. Don't be so eager to lose the next point. Did you notice how slowly Kramer walks when he's picking up the balls? He moves like my Aunt Hannah—until the point begins."
It was true. I had been wearing myself out between points. The next time I played Kramer I took my father's advice and deliberately slowed down the pace. As a result, I won one set. I still wasn't good enough to beat Kramer, but then neither were most of the other players in our age group.
By the spring of 1937 I had yet to reach the finals of the smallest junior tournament, but I had made some progress. I usually reached the second or third round and occasionally the quarterfinals. And I had been ranked 13th in my final year in the 15-and-unders.
When the Ojai Valley Championships—the most prestigious of the spring tournaments—rolled around in April 1937, I was still hopeful that by some miracle I would get the kind of draw that would help me to reach the finals and make my father truly proud of me. But a glance at the draw quickly dampened those hopes. Even if all went perfectly in the early rounds, I would have to play Kramer in the semifinals. I also had so many tough opponents before that—including Doug Woodbury, the No. 2 15-and-under player in Southern California—it was doubtful I would even reach the quarters.
The gods were with me, however, though my father was not. Groucho was 70 miles away in Beverly Hills, having decided that Ojai was a good chance to test his theory that I played better when he wasn't in the stands making me nervous. It was a good hunch. Not only did I beat Woodbury, but when I squared off with Kramer on the number 3 court, with no audience except a couple of pigeons, I discovered that he had acquired a major weakness since we last played—his forehand. When I attacked it and came to the net, he either netted the ball or made such a bad passing shot that I could easily volley it away for a winner.
And so I won a major upset that made headlines, and not even a loss to Olewine in the finals could take away the thrill of my victory over Kramer, who clearly was on his way to stardom. My father, too, was excited as he welcomed me home with a hug. "Nice going. I'm very proud of you," he said as he took the runner-up trophy from me and awarded it a prominent place on our mantel. "But just remember, you won't get a quarter for it if you have to hock it, so don't neglect your schoolwork."
A few days after Ojai my father received a phone call from Perry T. Jones, the secretary of the Southern California Tennis Association. Jones was a prissy man with practically no sense of humor, but he wielded enormous power in Southern California tennis circles. If he didn't like you, he could kill your career by keeping you out of tournaments.
If he did like you, he would be sure you were invited to important events that you couldn't get into on your own. Jones was just the kind of priggish authority figure who brought out the devil in Father.