BILL DWYRE: In tennis lore, Jack Kramer left a legacy that endures

 

Today, we ponder how many of the hundreds of thousands of tennis fans coming to the BNP Paribas
tournament in Indian Wells over the next week will stop and wonder, as they are dazzled by the
stadiums and the extravagant grounds and the incredibly athletic players, how this all came to pass.

The first and quick answer will be Charlie Pasarell and his dreaming, Raymond Moore and his
business savvy, Steve Simon and his anal-retentive organizational skills and Dee Dee Felich and her
public relations and charitable instincts. And now, of course, Larry Ellison’s vision for the game and
financial commitment.

But before there was the Indian Wells dream and this massive success for Southern California and the
tennis world, there was Jack Kramer.

 

It will be ten years in September since Kramer died, at age 88. At the time, all the right things were
said. Those who knew called him “the most important person in the history of tennis,” and the “father
of the Open Era.” But memories and perspective drift away in ten years.

So, let’s refresh.

Kramer won Grand Slams and Davis Cups, had a pro record of 678-288 or 70.1%, has been in the
Tennis Hall of Fame since 1968 and brought the serve-and-volley approach to the game. He was 6-foot-2
and seemed more like 7-2 to his opponents. He had huge hands, played with rackets with grip-sizes from
4 7/8 to 5¼ (today’s men often use 4¼ to 4 5/8). He once told a reporter that, once in a while, when an
opponent was acting badly or being particularly annoying or unprofessional, he would serve for the
match by taking four balls in his left hand, tossing them one at a time, hitting four aces and walking to
the net for the handshake.

If that sounds arrogant, Kramer was not. He was the opposite, which gets us back to what he did to
help make the sport what it is today. It was simple. He demanded that players be paid. No more happy
pats on the back and fancy trophies. No more inflated expense checks and envelopes handed under the
table. Just as Billie Jean King, Gladys Heldman and their Band of Nine stood up for the women’s side of
the sport in 1970, so did Kramer and his pro tours.

In 1968, the Open Era of tennis began. Prize money replaced trophies. “Shamateurism,” as Kramer
called it, ended. Tennis was pay to play, and monuments to the sports, such as the Billie Jean King
National Tennis Center for the U.S. Open and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, became possible—and
soon reality.

Both King and Kramer were Southern California products. Pride is justified there. King flourished in
Long Beach, Kramer in Montebello.

“Ah yes,” says his son, Bob. “He was an Oiler.”

He was also the son of a railroad man.

“Dad was born in Las Vegas,” Bob says. “He came from nothing, zero. His dad started in the railroad
business, carrying water to the engine.”

Things got better when Jack’s father became an engineer in the La Vegas-to-San Bernardino run, and
moved the family to Montebello. For his only child, he built a long jump pit and a basketball court in the
back yard.

“He wanted dad to have some of the things he never did,” Bob says.

Jack Kramer loved basketball and tennis. His dad told him he would do better if he chose one. Along
about that time, Jack went to a tennis exhibition at the Pomona Fairgrounds.

Ellsworth Vines was playing Les Stoefen,” Bob says. “Dad was mesmerized. He was 13 years old and
it made such an impression on him that he decided that’s what he wanted to do.

And do it he did.

Before rankings became official in ’68, and everybody agreed on things such as which events would
be designated Grand Slams, Kramer was among the best players in the world, certainly No. 1 for a run
from the late 1940s through the early ‘50s.

But as his career on court slowed, his presence off it grew.

 

A rare sight – young Roger Federer with a Jack Kramer Autograph in hand. (Reuters)

 

“I remember,” says son, Bob, “that he was like a pied piper. People in tennis were drawn to him. He
always seemed to be the point person. There was a little P.T. Barnum in him, but in a good way. I
remember people coming to the house where we grew up, 231 N. Glenroy Place, about a half mile from
UCLA. Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe, Donald Dell, they’d come and talk and he never held anything back
for himself. It was always about tennis and what would be good for the sport.

“He was always willing to share his time.”

The huge paychecks cashed by players now, sparked at least in part by Kramer’s efforts back then,
were never to be his. But when he lent his name to a Wilson tennis racket, the Jack Kramer Autograph,
his family could flourish. Wilson sold 30 million of the Kramer Autograph and Kramer once joked he was
“making more money than the president of Wilson Sporting Goods.”

Eventually, Jack Kramer signed a deal with Wilson that allows remaining residuals from the racket to
go toward equipment for junior tennis programs.

Kramer’s last few years, in his mid-to-late 80s, were a tough run. His bad back got worse. One of his
grandchildren drove him into a sand trap at the golf course he owned in Chino Hills, Los Serranos. He
went to the doctor, who sent him home, missing the fact that he had a broken leg. He rebroke it later,
stepping off a curb, and had his hip dislocated several times, just picking up mail at his mailbox.

Near the end, a reporter called for an interview and Kramer said he’d be happy to oblige. When the
reporter showed up, Kramer was flat on his back in bed. The interview was delightful.

Kramer, tongue in cheek, always called his children “My five perfect sons.”

Bob, the middle one who claims more perfection than the others because “I have never lost a tennis
match to any of them and I will play them no more,” will come to the BNP Paribas sometime this year, as
he always does. He will sit in the stadium, look around and be impressed, as most people are.

He will also know that, while his father didn’t build this place, he can claim responsibility for a few of
the bricks in the foundation.

 

USTA Southern California is honored to feature the musings of renowned sports columnist Bill Dwyre for USTAsocal.com during the BNP Paribas Open, which he has covered in depth since 1982. Be sure to connect with us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter to follow Dwyre’s reflections, as well as all things Indian Wells.

One Response

  • Knew the man well, loved him, lucky to have worked with him (Wilson for 25+ years)! Love his family as well, classy people….might be “perfect”! I loved this article, Bill Dwyre is a real pro!

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