Kramer: Tennis's most important person

Jack Kramer ate, breathed and bled tennis and had an uncanny ability to see the big picture. Getty Images

The life of the most important person in tennis history was celebrated this past Saturday. Fittingly, Jack Kramer's memorial service was held on the tennis courts at UCLA, the location of the Los Angeles Tennis Open, an ATP tournament run by his son Bobby for more than 25 years and an event Kramer had won, run and at times even funded right out of his pocket. But that one event was only a single jewel in a massive crown.

The lowdown on Kramer, who died two weeks ago at age 88, is quite simple: He was Michael Jordan and David Stern. That's right -- a champion player and the pre-eminent business presence. And for many years he held the two posts simultaneously.

Although Kramer would become the consummate tennis insider, his background belied the game's country club origins. His father worked for the railroad. Kramer was born in Las Vegas and moved soon after to the dusty Southern California town of San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

And then he saw everything he wanted to be. The 1935 Los Angeles County Fair was held in Pomona, another dusty burg not too far from "San Berdoo." Amid the squealing pigs and the baked goods, 13-year-old Jack and his father came across a tennis exhibition. The participants were right out of central casting, two lanky, handsome stars, former world No. 1 Ellsworth Vines and Les Stoefen. Each wore long, white flannels, and each was exquisitely elegant -- Vines a wonderfully powerful player, Stoefen so smooth his service motion became the model for tennis trophies. Having begun to dabble a bit in tennis when he wasn't playing baseball, Kramer was instantly captivated. His baseball mitt was shelved. From then on, Kramer would live, breathe, eat and drink nothing but tennis.

He was fortunate to come of age at a time when Southern California tennis was head and shoulders the center of the tennis universe. Perry T. Jones was the head of the section, a czarlike figure who took a shine to ambitious, hardworking, well-behaved boys like Kramer. Jack was given the chance to join the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where he could practice with the likes of Vines, the aging Bill Tilden, another street-smart boy 2 years older than Kramer named Bobby Riggs, Ted Schroeder and countless others.

Jones' dictatorial order determined dress codes and expense budgets for players headed to national tournaments. Kramer's cause was aided by his father's railroad job, one of the perks being deeply discounted travel rates.

The seminal on-the-court moment came when Kramer, along with Schroeder, began to work with Cliff Roche. A former automotive engineer, Roche had broken the court like an automotive chassis. In the days of fast hard courts and grass, Roche believed that a serve-and-volley attack could overtake the baseline styles that dominated tennis well into the '30s. He delineated to Kramer and Schroeder all the nuances of what eventually would be called percentage tennis -- rally crosscourt from the baseline, hit forehand approach shots down the line to the backhand, vary the placement of your serve like a pitcher and, most of all, force the opponent to hit one passing shot after another.

Said notable coach Vic Braden, who worked on Kramer's tour for several years and later ran his club, "Jack so understood how to see over the long term of a match. He was a big-picture thinker and just kept applying that pressure."

It wasn't an easy path to the top, though. There would be ups and downs in the '30s and early '40s. "I wasn't always as dedicated as I should have been," Kramer said a few years ago. "But when the war ended, and I was 24, I felt a greater sense of urgency."

Throughout 1946 and '47, Kramer lost but three matches, winning two U.S. titles, the precious Wimbledon crown and the chance to take on Riggs in a pro tour. Although he earned $89,000 in 1948 -- toppling Riggs and all others until he retired at the end of 1954 -- Kramer bristled at the way pros were treated like lepers, banned from prestigious events such as Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

"We wanted to make a legitimate living from tennis," he said. So it was that Kramer commenced what was probably his most significant work -- leading the pro tour, a step that would keep the candle burning for Open tennis. Here's how Barry MacKay, one of Kramer's players and current tennis analyst who spoke at this past Saturday's service, recalls a typical 24-hour period:

    "Friday night we'd play at the Fort Worth Arena, a canvas court laid over smoothed-out dirt. We start at 8 a.m. and finish at nearly 1 in the morning.

    "Kevin Sullivan, our court guy, rolls up the court and heads on a 321-mile drive to Little Rock, Ark.

    "We jump in our two station wagons and drive to Texarkana [Texas], halfway to Little Rock and check into a Howard Johnsons. We sleep from 3:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., then get back on the road and arrive in Little Rock at noon.

    "Since we start at 2 there's barely time to practice. This time, the court's laid out on a high school basketball court. Just over three hours later, we're through and headed to St. Louis -- where we have to play the next night at 7 o'clock.

    "In the meantime, Jack's taking care of business -- making sure the guy in Fort Worth has given him his share of the money, checking the box office in Little Rock, talking with the program seller in St. Louis, making sure we're not cheated out of any money, arranging one tour stop after another."

Tracy Austin knew Kramer her entire life. Her mother, Jeanne, was the first person to run the pro shop at his club, planting her infant daughter behind the counter in her bassinet.

"Jack was always thinking big," Austin said. "He and Vic created this incredible atmosphere. They brought in great players like Rod Laver and Pancho Segura -- and that inspired all of us to aim high, too."

Nothing more eloquently symbolized Kramer's vision than his trademark logo -- a king's crown that adorned his rackets and clothes and remains the signature mark of his club. In large part, that logo was the Nike swoosh of its day -- compelling, authentic, regal. Said Braden, "Jack didn't want to read about kings and queens. He wanted to meet them."

And in the republic of tennis, he became one.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.