How Wimbledon legend Jack Kramer ushered in tennis pro era

In the 1940’s and 50’s, the world’s tennis stars found their gold only on trophy figures and engraved bowls. Jack Kramer was one of those tennis stars back then, and he had a plan to change that.

75 years ago, in the summer of 1947, he began his plan by winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. He beat a Bay Area player named Tom Brown 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. Brown, later a prominent attorney, was known as “The San Francisco Flailer”. Little successful threshing in this one. The match lasted 45 minutes.

Kramer was given a beautiful trophy, then called the Renshaw Cup, which eventually found its resting place in the front door of the Kramer residence at 231 Glenroy Place in Bel Air. There it served as a convenient drop-off point for everyone who went to the mailbox that day. He also got a nice trophy later in the summer of 1947 when he won the US Nationals at Forest Hills. His plan to win two majors and establish his star power before turning pro nearly collapsed in this one. He lost the first two sets of a five-setter to Frankie Parker and remembered that moment for years.

“I looked in the stands where my money guy was,” he said, “and all I saw was the top of his head. He was bent and fearing the worst.”

The worst would have been if Kramer lost, which he didn’t. His comeback win, coupled with doubles titles at both Wimbledon 1947 and the US Nationals – a feat equaled only by himself, Don Budge and John McEnroe that same summer – marked the beginning of the end of “shamateurism” in tennis, as Kramer called it.

He was quite a big attraction now. He would turn pro, sparking a movement toward players actually getting paid for their work, and leading a revolution in esports that now brings seven-figure paychecks to winners of major tournaments.

Kramer didn’t quite imagine all of this. He knew trophies don’t buy food.

“I needed the money,” he said.

His shooting pro shook the sports world. He was an athlete like a movie star – tall, handsome and articulate. He played a game that was attractive to the fans – big serve, finishing volley, good night Irene. He had huge hands and used a 5¼ inch racket grip. Most male players to this day rarely go beyond 4⅝, and some even advocate going down to 4½.

He told a reporter that once when an opponent was particularly annoying and he had a chance to finish the match, he would take four tennis balls in his left hand, hold them up to show the annoying one what he was holding, then throw them up one at a time, hit four aces and walked away.

Jack Kramer, right, shakes hands with Princess Margaret Rose after she won at Wimbledon.

Jack Kramer, right, shakes hands with Princess Margaret Rose after winning the men’s singles championship at Wimbledon, July 4, 1947. He also shook hands with Princess Elizabeth that day.

(Associated Press)

His move to pro was not quickly embraced. When he returned to Wimbledon to watch and broadcast something, he wasn’t even allowed in goal. When he won, he had been swarmed by the King of England during the trophy presentation and shook hands with a young lady then known as Princess Elizabeth. Kramer’s son Bob recalls saying of his trips to England after 1947, “I even had trouble getting a cab in London.”

The play-for-pay movement in tennis slowly caught on. Kramer embarked on a touring tour, competing against the likes of Pancho Gonzalez and Bobby Riggs. On opening night, in the middle of a snowstorm in New York City, Kramer vs. Riggs drew 15,114 people to Madison Square Garden.

Soon the likes of Australian stars Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were venturing into the professional ranks. It was’nt easy. Tournament directors have also had a knack for shoving heaps of cash under the table when handing out trophies at their events. Australia’s Roy Emerson, who has won 12 major titles, is now 85 and lives in Newport Beach, famously responded to Kramer’s request to turn pro by saying, “I can’t afford that.”

As the 1950s rolled into the early 1960s, there were several pro circuits. Texas oilman Lamar Hunt had one of them, and at a press conference where reporters were still grappling with the concept of big-money tennis, Hunt was under pressure over the financial challenges he was facing. It was speculated that he was losing more than $2 million a year. How long could he keep going, he was asked.

“With current projections,” he said, “maybe 150 or 200 years.”

Jack Kramer hits a back shot during a semi-final match at Wimbledon in 1947.

Jack Kramer hits a backhand during a semi-final match at Wimbledon in 1947. Kramer’s legacy in tennis extended far beyond the tennis court.

(Associated Press)

The pro movement was an unstoppable, chugging train. By the early 1970s, Kramer was done barnstorming and leading a group that was the precursor to the current ATP Tour. The likes of Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were involved. The movement had spawned open tennis in 1968, but the tours were not yet sufficiently organized or leveraged to make things as lucrative as they are today.

Kramer became a $1-year executive director of the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, a forerunner of the current ATP. In women’s tennis, nine players, led by magazine editor Gladys Heldman and her daughter Julie—and Billie Jean King—started their own tour in Houston in 1970.

Smith won the Wimbledon title in 1972, 50 years ago. In 1973, Wimbledon was behind the Yugoslav Tennis Federation’s disqualification of player Niki Pilic for missing out on the Davis Cup, disqualifying him to play at Wimbledon. With Kramer and his ATP group at the helm, most of the top players, including defending champion Smith, boycotted. There was no more question. The players were united and organized. Dollar bills would be the currency in tennis, not trophies.

How much credit Kramer deserves for all of this is difficult to quantify. Longtime tennis journalist and broadcaster Bud Collins once called Kramer “the most important figure in the history of the game.”

Kramer would have scoffed at such an exaggeration. He was the son of a Las Vegas railroad worker who moved his family to Montebello, saw his son becoming a great athlete and encouraged him to stick with one sport. Kramer went to the Pomona Fairgrounds when he was 13, saw the legendary Ellsworth Vines play, and decided to stick with tennis. At 18 he played on the US Davis Cup doubles team and was the youngest player at the time.

His quest to pay the family bills never fully materialized on the tennis courts. But when Wilson Sporting Goods asked him to be the celebrity signer for one of their new racquets, the Wilson Kramer brand was born and eventually 30 million racquets were sold. This suited the family well and led, among other things, to the purchase of the Los Serranos golf course in Chino Hills. When he bought it it was 18 holes. Now it has 36 holes, bunkers with tennis names on them, and a clubhouse filled with Jack Kramer memorabilia.

Kramer loved his golf course and once shocked an audience when he told them, “Tennis is my hobby, but golf is the best game.”

He also had what he called “five perfect sons.” They were and are in order: David, John, Bob, Michael and Ron. Her mother Gloria, who died in 2008, always corrected that to “almost perfect”.

Jack Kramer is pictured with his wife Gloria and son David seated in the Davis Cup on December 4, 1947.

Jack Kramer is pictured with his wife Gloria and son David seated in the Davis Cup on December 4, 1947.

(Family Kramer)

The five perfect sons remain involved in Los Serranos – Ron was General Manager for a number of years – and other Kramer companies. Bob officiated the Pro Tour stop at UCLA, a tournament that was called the Jack Kramer Open for a few years. The event was actually a follow-up to the prestigious Pacific Southwest tournament.

The new version eventually settled at UCLA’s Los Angeles Tennis Center. The tournament ended in 2012 when its dates and sanctions were bought by a group in Bogotá, Colombia, where it stayed for three years before moving to Los Cabos, Mexico.

Race horses were a special joy for Jack Kramer. Several times when he won an event in Australia, the transfer of prize money was so complicated that the Aussies sent him racehorses instead of cash. Bob remembers going to the docks in San Pedro to unload.

“I always wondered why I couldn’t ride her,” he had said.

Jack Kramer spent hours at Southern California circuits, many with doubles partner and Wimbledon and US National Champion Ted Schroeder from San Diego. Schroeder, a practicing cynic and Damon Runyan character, called Kramer “Big Jake” and told endless tales of her track paydays. Some of the stories were even true.

Jack Kramer holds a pair of his signature Wilson racquets in 2003. Kramer died in 2009 at the age of 88.

Jack Kramer holds a pair of his signature Wilson racquets in 2003. Kramer died in 2009 at the age of 88.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

David Kramer, the eldest perfect son, currently has a Thoroughbred named Glenroy, named after the Bel Air family street.

Even in the months leading up to his death at the age of 88, during the US Open in September 2009, Jack Kramer had become a Los Serranos fixture, having to make the long drive from the west side of Los Angeles at least weekly to get to checking the books to see how many golfers had teeed off that day and settling down for lunch in front of his favorite big-screen TV. Usually surrounded by friends, some of his sons and the regulars, he was in a place he loved.

Interestingly, at the end of the hall, near the entrance to the banquet room, there is evidence that those trophies, which he fought so long and hard to have paychecks replaced, were actually worth something. One photo prominently features Kramer holding a Davis Cup trophy. Beaming in the big bowl is the first perfect son, Baby David.

With Jack Kramer’s story as perspective, it’s a picture worth a thousand words. How Wimbledon legend Jack Kramer ushered in tennis pro era

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