KRAMER VS. WIMBLEDON
If Jack Kramer had more hindsight and less foresight, and if the officials at the All England Club were more forward thinking and less mired in the past, everyone might be getting along much better now.
As it is, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his landmark Wimbledon title, Kramer is comfortable enough to return to the scene of both his greatest victory and his most public humiliation.
Looking fit and sharp at 75, Kramer was sipping tea on a rainy afternoon at the All England Club and modestly recounting the story of his Wimbledon victory in 1947. He also reluctantly replayed the events that for more than 20 years have left him estranged from Wimbledon and had something to do with souring one of tennis’ most innovative thinkers on the sport that brought him so much.
The story of Kramer’s Wimbledon victory in 1947 begins with his loss the year before.
Kramer, like many of the best male athletes of his day, had his tennis career interrupted by World War II. After serving in the Coast Guard, Kramer was mustered out in January 1946.
Foremost in his mind was returning to tennis. That meant going back to work for Wilson sporting goods at $75 a week. The job was in meat packing at a firm owned by Wilson and required Kramer to move in and out of refrigerated rooms. He kept getting a cold. Such was his tennis prowess that Wilson agreed to pay Kramer but not make him do the work.
That gave him the freedom to play tennis again. Kramer practiced for the next major tournament, Wimbledon, using a racket developed during the war. The new racket had a different butt to the handle, one that had a ridge.
Kramer wasn’t used to it, but was so engrossed in playing again he paid little attention to a growing problem.
After a few months’ training, Kramer prepared to sail to England. To bring his wife, Gloria, with him, Kramer sold his car.
The Wimbledon held in 1946 was the first after competition had been suspended in 1940.
Upon arriving, Kramer entered Queens, the traditional Wimbledon warmup tournament. He was playing well, almost at his former level, but an increasingly painful blister on the palm of his right hand was troubling him. It was the spot where the new handle butt had rubbed away layers of skin. Kramer had to default to save his hand for Wimbledon.
Kramer arrived at the All England Club seeded No. 2. Tucked into his equipment bag were six gray kidskin ladies’ gloves, right hand only, with the fingertips trimmed off. These he would wear for the duration of the tournament every time he played.
The blister hampered Kramer’s play in singles, where he lost in the round of 16. Kramer was able to continue in doubles, which he won with Tom Brown.
The disappointment lasted longer than the bister--it popped soon after Wimbledon. Kramer finally solved the problem by taking the advice of a tennis-playing doctor he met at fellow player Gardnar Mulloy’s wedding that summer and wrapped moleskin around the racket handle.
Kramer also began his career as a racket designer when he filed down the butt of his Don Budge Autograph racket. That experience led to a change in the eventual best-selling Jack Kramer Autograph, which Kramer says was originally too stiff. He directed the factory to remove a few layers of laminated wood.
Having solved his racket crisis, Kramer was ready for Wimbledon in 1947. He was at the height of his game, and his powerful forehand and net-rushing style were well-suited to the grass.
Kramer cruised to the final in one of Wimbledon’s most impressive runs to a title. Kramer lost only one set and 37 games in seven matches. He won in one of the shortest finals ever, beating Brown, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, in 45 minutes.
With King George and Queen Elizabeth in the Royal Box, Kramer became the first Wimbledon champion to wear shorts, not long flannel trousers.
Kramer went on to turn pro, barnstormed with Bobby Riggs, and played out his prime tennis years barred from Grand Slam tournaments, which allowed only amateurs until the open era began in 1968. Only a year after his singles title, Kramer returned to Wimbledon to watch his childhood friend, Ted Schroeder. Few places at the All England Club are off limits to former champions, but Kramer was not allowed to visit the men’s locker room. The sentiment against professionals was more powerful than the club’s traditional hospitality toward past winners.
There was more of that later.
Attach no significance to the fact that Kramer’s purple and green Wimbledon badge was tucked into his pants pocket and his sole adornment was a pin from the L.A. tournament run by Bobby, one of his five sons.
It is the Kramer boys who cooked up the scheme to lure their father back here: A little golf and maybe we’ll drop by Wimbledon to see the tennis, they told him.
Kramer doesn’t watch much tennis these days. Golf takes more of his time: Among his businesses, he operates both Los Serranos golf courses in Chino Hills.
It’s difficult to know if Kramer walked willingly away from tennis or was driven off by a combination of the sport’s hubris and his strict code of conduct that required he make a principled stand against tennis’ most inflexible establishment, the All England Club.
The hostility stemmed from a showdown between the newly formed players’ union, the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, and the club’s management.
In 1973, Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia was suspended by his federation for refusing to play in the Davis Cup. Pilic said he had a contractual obligation to play another event and wouldn’t break the contract.
In retaliation, the International Tennis Federation asked the Grand Slam tournaments to ban Pilic. The All England Club was the only one of the four to comply. Pilic was forbidden to enter Wimbledon.
Kramer had always campaigned for players’ rights. Once he turned pro he also became a promoter, and helped form the ATP. At the time of Pilic’s banishment, Kramer was executive director of the ATP and believed the union should show solidarity with Pilic and affirm a player’s right to play where he chose.
The ATP called for a boycott of Wimbledon.
Seventy-eight players arrived at Wimbledon but didn’t hit a ball. England’s Roger Taylor and the iconoclastic Ilie Nastase were the only ATP players to break the boycott, leaving Wimbledon with a drastically undermined field. For this, Kramer was blamed.
The Club exacted its revenge the next year, when it renegotiated its television contract with the BBC. The Club demanded and got approval of the commentators. Kramer, who had done commentary for the BBC for 13 years, was not approved by the All England Club. Kramer was dismissed by the BBC.
“You forget about it after a while,” Kramer said, sounding unconvincing.
“The All England Club had never bothered to worry about who was doing commentary. It was the one thing I really enjoyed. I lost the position, and I lost interest in the game. I realized I needed to do more in other areas of my business, and I put more time into my golf business.
“They never did anything to the players who wouldn’t play--even though they came back and did radio and TV. I thought that was strange. I haven’t thought about it in a long time. There is no animosity, but it was sort of an embarrassment. I’ve been in London during the tournament, but I’ve never felt comfortable going out to Wimbledon.”
If all is not quite forgiven, then the rough edges have been smoothed. Kramer will be in the Royal Box for today’s men’s final. For the starchy All England Club, that gesture is equivalent to a warm embrace.
Kramer almost certainly would have won more Wimbledon titles had the tournament been open to professionals. Yet, for all of his accomplishments, he understands his career will always be measured by Wimbledon.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “I may not be flying all over the place and talking about tennis for that much longer. It’s time to do this. It’s Wimbledon, after all.”