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Steve Flink: Remembering Jack Kramer

9/22/2009 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Near the end of the U.S. Open, the world of tennis lost a singularly important leader, a man of enduring stature, an individual who did more than anyone in history to advance the sport on innumerable levels. We lost someone of fundamental decency, unimpeachable integrity, and a need to fight for and push toward goals much larger than himself. We lost the most multi-faceted individual the game has ever known, the fellow with the greatest clarity of vision, a champion unlike any other. We lost the one and only Jack Kramer, to whom we are all extraordinarily indebted, for whom there are no words or tributes that can accurately portray who and what he was, or how much he accomplished.

Kramer passed away at 88 in his Los Angeles home, and I hope as he made his way to a new world up above that he realized how rich and productive a life he had led. Although he was unfailingly modest right up until the end, he surely knew that he had contributed in ways that will probably never be equaled or surpassed. He must have died in essential contentment, proud of the many ways he had shaped and altered the sport, delighted that he had been in the forefront at the most crucial stages of its evolution, aware that the power of his thinking and the strength of his ideas carried the game to a level of prominence that would have been next to impossible without him.

Consider the multitude of ways in which Kramer was involved. In the 1940’s, he established himself unequivocally as an outstanding champion, securing his native U.S. National Championships singles title in 1946 and 1947, winning Wimbledon in 1947. He was the top ranked amateur in the world during those golden days, virtually invincible. As he told me once, “I was beaten just twice in 1946 and once in 1947. I played probably 15 tournaments in the two years combined. I just picked my spots and had an impressive record. I always was in shape and hated to lose, and I didn’t have any bad habits. I was lucky to be a player when I was.”

With good fortune came immense talent and impeccable craftsmanship. After winning his second crown in a row at Forest Hills in 1947, he turned professional, and proceeded to dominate in that forum with unrelenting aggression, supreme percentage tactics, outstanding match playing acumen, and an unshakable temperament. Kramer was calm, tough, and resolute. He was wily and ceaselessly efficient. He never stopped coming forward. Unwavering in his conviction about his game and his methodology, Kramer’s signature style became known as the “Big Game”. Although some of his predecessors had developed sound net rushing tactics, Kramer took the attacking game to an entirely new level, exploiting every opportunity to approach if his opponent gave him a short ball, following his own serve in repeatedly, attacking the second serves of his adversaries unhesitatingly.

Once he began competing as a professional, Kramer was an unstoppable force as he crisscrossed the United States, playing night after night against premier rivals, cutting them down systematically with his attacking game, gaining the upper hand quickly and convincingly. From the end of 1947 through 1948, he toppled Bobby Riggs 69-20 in their series of matches. In 1949-50, he clobbered Pancho Gonzalez 96-27, and then from late 1950, deep into 1951, he stopped the great Pancho Segura 64-28. In his last head to head tour against the formidable Australian Frank Sedgman in 1953, Kramer was victorious 54-41.

Across that remarkable span in the latter stages of the 1940’s, right on through 1953, Kramer had accounted for four top of the line rivals by significant margins. He was the King of professional tennis, the best player by far in the world, a practitioner of a brand of tactical tennis that was unanswerable, and all the while he carried himself as nothing less than a towering champion. As he recollected that time for me in a 2001 interview, Kramer said, “I was built for the pro tour. My method of play was helped by the canvas court we used. It gave us a low bouncing ball, similar to grass in a way, and the volley really took off on that court. It helped my serve as well. I didn’t mind the grind of the pro tour. I was proud of what I did in those years. Some people who didn’t see me play don’t understand that I wasn’t just a serve and volley player. I ended up being a hell of a clay court player. On the pro tours I was able to handle Riggs on clay and Gonzalez and Segura on clay as well. You have to have damned good ground strokes to play on the dirt as I did. I beat some awfully good players. Could I have played with anybody in history? I think so."

Kramer had turned pro after winning only three major singles titles, and he was barred from the Grand Slam events for the rest of his playing days, as were all of the professionals until 1968, when the game went open. Open Tennis came about in no small measure because of Jack Kramer, but that is another story. Kramer lamented to me once that he and his band of professional colleagues had been downgraded immeasurably and deprived of their proper place in history by not having the opportunity to compete more frequently at the four major championships.

As he put it, “I would start with Ellsworth Vines, go on to Fred Perry and Bobby Riggs, and look at Don Budge. A lot of young people today don’t realize that many players never had a chance to play those big tournaments because of turning pro and because of something called World War Two. All of us who disappeared from Wimbledon and Forest Hills because we had turned professional were robbed historically in tennis by not being able to show our ability all the way through our careers at those Grand Slam events.”

But Kramer was robbed more than most of the others. With three of the four majors held on grass in those days, he would have captured at least a dozen majors during his prime, and probably a lot more than that. In any event, he did not play much after 1953, stepping aside as a full time player when he was 32. But he did play on sparingly and demonstrated that he had not lost all of his old magic. As late as 1957, no longer in the prime condition of his heyday, preoccupied with other aspects of the pro game, Kramer still raised the volume of his game to astounding heights, defeating prime time competitors Lew Hoad and Gonzalez, carving out those triumphs largely from inspiration and memory.

At that time, Kramer was turning his full energy and attention to promoting the pro tour. He would sign up the leading amateurs to pro contracts after they would win Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Among the esteemed men he signed were Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. His dream was always to bring the amateurs and professionals under the same tent, to force the advent of Open Tennis by bringing the big name amateur competitors out into the world of pro tennis. It took longer than Kramer would have wanted, but his persistence and priorities were eventually rewarded.

As he once said of that time in the 1950’s and early sixties when he was in such a critical role as a promoter, “I was insistent that we should in tennis continually follow the way golf was promoting itself. So as a promoter, I would try to get the best amateur player of each year to turn professional, and in most cases take on Pancho Gonzalez. And I think doing that sold the game tremendously in America. As a promoter, I was able to bring the game to 85 to 95 cities outside of the big cities on an annual basis, and bringing those great names to those places helped to popularize the game throughout the country. Deep down, I felt that might have been the best thing I ever did for the sport.”

After Open Tennis arrived, Kramer swiftly took on two more roles of lasting importance, cementing his place in history as the most indispensable man to ever walk through the vast corridors of the game. In the early stages of Open Tennis during the late sixties, the sport was in a muddled state as players weighed options and considered alternatives. Kramer stepped forward honorably as the prime mover behind the concept of an annual Grand Prix circuit, a structure that still exists today on the ATP Tour. Secondly, he was fittingly named the first Executive Director of the ATP when that player organization was formed in 1972.

Speaking of the Grand Prix and his contribution to it, Kramer told me, “The Grand Prix was a necessary thing at the time because [promoters] George MacCall and Lamar Hunt had bought up all the good players. And if MacCall and Hunt were going to take these players out of the mainstream of the game, and hold events where they thought it was important because they were going to get money for it, that meant they were going to gradually weaken the structure of Davis Cup, Wimbledon, the US Open and so forth. So the Grand Prix was a good idea and Vic Braden was very helpful in my thinking and the structuring of it. The concept was about establishing the 20 top events and receiving points in all of them, and holding our Grand Prix Masters at the end of the year. The Grand Prix established a real circuit around the world so that people following tennis could know it wasn’t a rinky-dink game.”

When the ATP came along in 1972, there was no one else but Kramer who could step right in with absolute credibility as the first Executive Director, and give the association the clout and importance it deserved. Less than a year after Kramer took over in that prestigious post, he was confronted with a crisis no one could have envisioned. With Kramer exhibiting selfless leadership and invaluable guidance, most of the leading players boycotted Wimbledon in 1973. They were protesting the barring of French Open finalist Nikki Pilic from Wimbledon, feeling strongly that Pilic was being unjustifiably suspended by the International Tennis Federation as that august governing body accused the left-handed player of failing to honor a Davis Cup commitment he claimed he had never made.

The likes of Laver, Rosewall, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith joined the boycott, standing resolutely alongside Kramer and making a fundamental sacrifice with their stance. But no one made a larger sacrifice than Kramer, who was lambasted and maligned by many members of the British press. More than any of the top competitors, it was Kramer who took the heat from the media, but he followed his conscience and knew he and his players were acting honorably.

“I was proud of what we did with the boycott,” Kramer told me more than once. “I think it showed something about my character and competitiveness. For years after the boycott, I always had the feeling I was bad news if I showed up at Wimbledon, so I didn’t go most of the time. When we had the boycott, Wimbledon was caught in the middle. They elected to support the President of the ITF, and the ITF’s position was that they controlled the players. Pilic was not that popular at the time among the players but it was a principle that the ATP had to stand up for. All I could do was be honest in telling everybody what we were about and why we were doing it. We got hit on the chin public relations wise something awful. I took the brunt of it and it cost me my job with the BBC, which is something I felt I had done awfully well. But it was worth it, and if it came up again I would do it again.

I have lauded Kramer for a long while as “The Man of the Twentieth Century” in tennis. Not only was he one of the all time great performers in his sport--- I ranked him No.3 of all time behind Pete Sampras and Rod Laver among Twentieth Century competitors--- but he was ubiquitous well beyond the boundaries of as tennis court. As I have already pointed out, he shaped the circuit as we know it today. He was the first and most potent ATP leader. He was a brilliant pro tour promoter. But too easily forgotten is the time he spent in the television booth as a commentator for the BBC and the three major American networks--- CBS, NBC and ABC.

His announcing career spanned three decades, from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. Kramer took the game out to the masses, gave the public the benefit of his wisdom, spoke with an ease and clarity that made viewers comfortable, and brought across the subtleties of the game without ever speaking condescendingly to his audiences. He could break down a match and enlighten fans better than anyone ever has in the booth. Kramer handled his television assignments with considerable grace, and surely boosted the popularity of the game substantially with his gentle manner and penetrating insights.

“I felt like a professor of tennis, “he said. “ I felt like I was educating especially Americans who had not been tennis players. That was very important to me.”

From a personal standpoint, Kramer was enormously important to me. I met him in 1972, when I was still in college and hoping to find a place for myself as a tennis writer. I was working behind the scenes as a statistician at the U.S. Open that year for Bud Collins, who was calling the matches with none other than Kramer. I was only 20 at the time, and somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated to be in the presence of such a tennis luminary. But Kramer put me totally at ease with his congeniality and decency. He came across as a regular guy, without a shred of arrogance, as comfortable as he could be in his own skin.

During that tournament, a press conference was held announcing Kramer’s appointment as the first Executive Director of the ATP. Later that day, back in the television booth, I recall Kramer almost boyishly saying to Collins, “How do you like that, Bud? They named me Executive Director!” Collins replied, “They made the right choice, Jack.” Kramer grinned, but his pride was unmistakable. I also remember a lighter moment from that tournament. Ilie Nastase was playing Arthur Ashe in the final. CBS was airing a commercial, but the cameraman was preparing a close-up of Nastase’s strikingly attractive wife Dominique sitting in the stands.

Kramer turned to me and said jovially, “She is some cupcake.”Keep in mind that he was not being politically incorrect saying that at the time. We both laughed heartily. I like the fact that Kramer had shown me an informal side of his personality, and he had done so with class.

As the years wore on, I had many memorable conversations and meetings with Kramer. In the late 1970’s, when I was a writer and editor at World Tennis Magazine, I was asked by a colleague to call Kramer to find out if he would be willing to join our instruction panel of experts who offered monthly bits of advise to the readers. I was reluctant to approach a man of his standing without having much to offer in the way of compensation. I got Kramer on the phone, asked him if he would consider taping articles with me each month, and he responded, “ Sure, kid, I would be happy to work with you. Let’s give it a try.”

For the record, we kept trying for 15 years, and he never ceased to amaze me with the breadth of his knowledge. It gave me an excuse to stay in regular contact with this mastermind of the tennis universe, and I loved every minute of it. Another fond recollection I have is of a lunch I shared with Kramer and my father at the U.S. Open in 1994. We were all in the President’s Box, and my father was regaling Kramer with stories about some interviews he had conducted for the “Today Show” in the 1950’s with Hoad and Rosewall. He was telling Kramer how, initially, Rosewall and Hoad were responding to questions with answers that were far too short; then they would go too far in the other direction and ramble for too long. Finally, they found a middle ground for the last taping.

Kramer sat there listening to my father, laughing freely at that anecdote, enjoying hearing about two men he has known for so long. But every time he would ask my father a question, he would always refer to him as “Mr. Flink”. I was touched deeply by that because he was showing respect for the man who had raised me, and displaying his courtesy and fine manners in the process.

Courtesy and humility were two of the enduring traits I most admired in Kramer. Once we were together at the offices of World Tennis in New York. The founder of the magazine----Gladys Heldman--- was there as well, and she mentioned that she had recently received a surprise phone message from Alastair Martin, a former USTA President she had criticized in editorials .She asked Kramer how he thought she should handle the matter. “Call him, Gladys, and have a good talk with him. Let bygones be bygones.” And Kramer practiced what he preached in all of his business relationships, looking for ways to reconcile whenever possible.

One evening in 1986, when Kramer was in New York to attend The Masters at Madison Square Garden, I went out to dinner with my wife, teaching pro Hank Quinn, and Jack. We had just taken a picture of Kramer holding a framed portrait of himself from 1946 which had been done by a friend of mine. As we left Kramer’s hotel, we all hopped into a taxi and headed for a restaurant on East 57th Street. The three of us sat in the back, and Kramer was on his own up front. On the cab driver’s radio, Frank Sinatra was singing a ballad as only he could. Kramer seemed lost momentarily in the music, and I remember thinking how moving that was to watch Kramer listen to Sinatra, because in my mind they are permanently linked as masters of their crafts.

The night after the U.S. Open ended in 2002, I got a call from Kramer at my home. He asked me if I would call up his old friend Ted Schroeder--- the 1942 U.S. Champion, and 1949 Wimbledon champion--- because Schroeder had a story idea he wanted to present to me. I really did not want to do it so soon after the Open, at a time when I was exhausted after the long and demanding hours at the tournament. But I could not refuse any request made by Jack Kramer.

The following morning, I called Schroeder. He told me about his story idea concerning the USTA and its Player Development program, and how Schroeder believed the program could be improved. He had spent a lot of time working behind the scenes with USTA employees, with some buying in to his thoughts while others firmly disagreed.

I asked Gene Scott at Tennis Week if he wanted me to pursue the piece, and he said to move ahead with it. Over the next week, I had several long interviews with an often irascible Schroeder, along with a five or six others within the USTA organization. Finally, Schroeder contacted me and abruptly called the whole thing off, realizing he did not want to go public with his comments. I called Kramer to explain what had happened, and he was sympathetic and apologetic when I told him what an unpleasant experience it had been. “God dammit, Kid, I’m sorry I did that to you. I thought the whole thing would go much better.” I told Jack not to worry about it, and said that I understood. And I came away with no hard feelings because I knew that Kramer regarded Schroeder as his closest friend in life, and was only hoping he could facilitate a good interview.

But I guess my favorite memory of a conversation I had with Kramer was in 2001. I had written a magazine story on Kramer which had just been printed. The phone rang at my home, and when I answered, I heard a familiar voice say, “Steve, it’s Big Jake. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that nice piece you wrote on me. You got some great comments from my pals like Segoo [Pancho Segura], Tony Trabert and Schroeder. You made me a hero with my grandkids. Thanks a lot kid.”

I thank Kramer for giving me so much access to his way of thinking. I have met, interviewed and followed a good many great champions over the past four decades. I have been influenced in varying degrees by a wide range of accomplished people who have been landmark figures in the sport. But in my view Kramer stands alone as a figure who has made tennis a place that really matters in the larger game of life. I will miss him more than he will ever know.


Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com

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