Few great athletes have been such a continuing presence in their sports as Jack Kramer has been in tennis. Amid the constant turmoil of the game, Kramer has been a central figure since he won his second straight Forest Hills and turned pro 30 years ago.
In 1939, while only 18, Kramer played for the United States Davis Cup team in the Challenge Round—still the youngest American to do so. He was champion of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, the undisputed No. 1 player after the war, and professional champion for several more years. His mastery of the serve-and-volley game changed the basic nature of tennis for a generation. He has been the promoter of the pro tour—virtually a one-man PGA of tennis—an official of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (the amateur body), and he was a founder and first executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (the players' union). As a tournament director, he has served on the nine-man International Council, the most powerful body in tennis today.
Outspoken and involved, he has been sued by Jimmy Connors, booted off the Bobby Riggs- Billie Jean King ABC telecast by Billie Jean and fired by the BBC for helping the players in their 1973 Wimbledon strike. Now, from his prominent position, Kramer talks of the old (not necessarily good) days of shamateurism and pro tours.
I learned to play on concrete in California, and I could never play the slow boys' game. I was 18 in the Challenge Round, but I couldn't beat kids. I never won the U.S. Juniors.
You could grow up fast then in tennis in Southern California. Ellsworth Vines won Forest Hills in 1931 at 19. You see, everybody played at one place, the Los Angeles Tennis Club. As a teen-ager, I could hang around there and pick up matches with guys like Vines or Bill Tilden, or with Bobby Riggs, Gene Mako and Joe Hunt. Frankie Kovacs would come down from Berkeley. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of big betting. If it rained, we'd go inside and get some action with Ping-Pong. So the L.A. Tennis Club was the place in men's tennis, and it's a fact that once it lost this position after the war, Southern California stopped producing male champions.
But however much I learned there, it wasn't till I toured with Riggs that I developed the complete aggressive big game that really ruled tennis for the next quarter of a century—until the last few years when more of the action moved to the slower surfaces and back to the baseline. Before, even the hardest servers—even a guy like Vines—would very seldom come to the net except behind an outstanding first serve or a forcing ground stroke. But Riggs forced me to be almost constantly on the attack—and that was a new concept. Playing Bobby Riggs in anything was an education. He's the most underrated champion in history.
We started touring at the end of '47. Now keep in mind that when I say "tour" I am not talking about a civilized circuit of tournaments such as they have now. In those days, a tennis tour was a barnstorm, two kids going head to head night after night, with a couple of other players working the preliminary, which we called "the donkey act." Then all four of us in a doubles match, and on to the next town, maybe 200 to 300 miles away, driving a couple of station wagons ourselves, and a guy driving a truck with the nets and the posts and the canvas to put down on the floor of the gym or the arena. A few hours' sleep, then hustle up some publicity, and on with the donkey act.
Most big arenas fit us in on Mondays and Tuesdays, saving the weekend dates for hockey and wrestling and boxing. So we played a lot of small halls in small towns in between the choice dates. Once I played on a court with a wall only 18 inches behind the baseline. Worst of all, one time Riggs got our truck driver down $2,000 in our floating card game. I was afraid he was going to take off—and how many guys want to drive a canvas court around America? So we made Riggs give the driver "evens"—making him clear of the debt, but out of the game.
Bobby had become pro champion right after the war, when he edged Don Budge 18 matches to 16 on a short tour. Budge had a bad shoulder and Riggs lobbed him to death. When I signed to tour with Riggs, very few of the experts gave me any chance. Through the first 26 matches. I played him 13-up, and people were saying, that sneaking Riggs, he's carrying the kid. A lot of people called me Jake, but Riggs called everybody kid. That's where I picked up the name.
Bobby didn't have the big serve, but he was very aggressive, with superb anticipation. He could really put volleys away and he could lob within an inch of the ceiling. I had to learn to lob just to stay with him. Bobby also had a great deep second serve. The only ones I've ever seen better were Gottfried von Cramm's, Pancho Gonzales' and John Newcombe's. And this is where he was really giving me trouble. He'd loft his second serve far back on my backhand corner, it would take a high bounce, and he was quick enough to get into the net off that. For my part, my second serve didn't kick high like Bobby's, so he could often return that and follow it to the net. Here I was, the big server, suddenly more vulnerable to breaks.