|Jack Kramer was born in 1921. By the age of sixteen he was the National Boy's Singles Champion and two years later he won the National Interscholastic Championship. In 1939 he was named to the first of many U.S. Davis Cup teams. He captained the 1946 team with its triumphant victory over Australia; after play was suspended from 1940-1945 through World War II. He won the U.S. Singles Championships back to back 1946-1947. His first and only Wimbledon championship also came in 1947. Known as "Big Jake," Kramer was a master of the power serve and volley attack and is widely held as one of the greatest U.S. players of all time. He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1968.
*We visited with Jack back in April of 1995 at his home in Los Angeles. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Woody: Thank you for meeting with us today.
Jack: Im delighted to be visiting with you today and Id like to offer a welcome to all those playing in the Woody Championships down at the PGA. Im just wondering whether or not its the wood that is intriguing to me, or the idea that a lot of nice people like to go back to some of the traditional things that made tennis the best sport in the world. As you know our game started on grass so its not only proper to use the wonderful wood equipment, but to play on the surface where the game got going back in early days back in England.
Woody: Do you recall your first experience on grass courts?
Jack: Ill never forget the horrifying experience when I went to Vancouver in 1937 to play in the Western Canadian Grass Court Championships at the Vancouver Lawn Tennis Club. Of course I was raised on concrete and had only played a little bit of clay court tennis back at Culver Military Academy; where in 1936 I happened to win the National Boys Championships. I got out and started warming up and the ball wasnt coming up, and I was playing with a pretty good fellow by the name of Ted Olewine... and after 15 or 20 minutes we looked at each other and said Gosh, if this is tennis maybe we both better quit (laughing). But we both looked at each other and said lets not let the ball bounce. So in a way it was that first experience up there in Vancouver that sort of set the pattern mentally the way I thought he game should be played, particularly on grass. We later found out it really worked well indoors on canvas or any surface that was fairly quick, that is to get to the net as quick as you can and end those points... and still use those slices to keep the ball low because that makes the ol passing shot a little tougher.
Woody: What are your thoughts on the new equipment technologies?
Jack: Fellas, Ive got to admit that there is no doubt the new equipment will allow a player with skill or even an unskilled player to do a lot more with the ball. After all, the center spot gives you the opportunity to either get more under spin if you want, or more overspin. And because the equipment is so much lighter you can do an awful lot more with your hands than we could back playing with the original wood.
Woody: What were the racquets like in those days?
Jack: When you think of it, a lot of guys were using racquets weighing sixteen ounces. Don Budge, who I still think could play as good as you can play, used a sixteen ounce racquet and I got up there to about fifteen and a quarter at the tail end of my career. The fact of the matter is, even though there are more skills available with the new equipment, I think the biggest thing the new raquets have done is make an average serve into one where you can get yourself a lot of zip on that ball, and a lot of control. Overspin, slice, whatever, the biggest help to the players seems to be in the serve.
Jack Kramer shows King George VI his mens singles trophy in 1947 Wimbledon
Woody: Are you thinking of any players in particular?
Jack: Lets take two of our players who had mediocre serves when they were kids, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. Now those guys have terrific serves, and of course Andre is doing well in every department as is Michael, so it appears to me that when you get back to your real equipment after the Woody championships, why, if your not serving very well you should be with this great equipment (laughing).
Woody: Is there anything you miss about the old days of Southern California tennis?
Jack: I remember the leading producer of tennis champions was a man named Perry T. Jones right here in southern California, he was our secretary at the association, and Mr. Jones would ask a parent or coach, hed say, I dont care how he hits his forehand, how clean are his shoes? That sort of typified what Mr. Jones was looking for in an athlete. He wanted him to be proud of how well he looked as well as how he played. We all dressed in white and that was the rule.
Woody: What about on the equipment side of the game?
Jack: I think of the great feeling I had with a wooden racquet. I tested a lot of the new equipment and didnt play very well with it, but I realized it was going to be super to play with once they perfected it. I think the thing everybody misses is the real nice ping that goes with a wooden racquet. Particularly if it was strung at the right tension, and if it was Johnson Chrome Twist string, which was the best string in the old days until Victor came along and made a thing called Imperial, which I played with in my amateur days and in my pro days. Quite frankly, you could almost judge where the ball was going to land by the sound of your racquet, and if you had really good ears and your opponent hit the ball really well, why you could sort of tell where it was going to bounce. Another thing, it seems to me when you play on a grass court, all those balls that land on the line, theyre going to tell you they are on the line. In the old days when we were competing against each other, we were fighting as hard as we could, but it was our personal feeling that we didnt want to ever give our opponent a bad call. So we got into the habit on all the close ones we just played. Naturally when you have linesman and umpires you let them call them em. However, if it was a flagrant mistake, because you got in the way of the linesman, it wasnt anything exceptional, wed say, hey, I dont think the linesman saw that one. Can we play two?, and that was the nature of the game.
Woody: A gentlemans game?
Jack: I dont think of it so much as a gentlemans game. Id rather have you say its sportsman-like. Do me a favor all of you out there, when youre playing and someone hits a pretty doggon good shot lets hear it, good shot! . Ill never forget Bill Tilden, I used to ditch school and play him in the middle thirties. Anytime you made a good shot hed say, Nice shot Jack, or if it wasnt such a good shot or you hit it off the frame and it went in ... you lucky stiff! hed say. There was a little bit of a camaraderie that didnt take away from you wanting to just beat the devil out of whoever you were playing because winning is the important thing if you are going to play a sport. But you had a good time and you let your opponent know he made a good shot. I see it all the time in golf, you see Freddie Couples say to Corey Pavin or Greg Norman Great play, Greg and thats the way it should be. So all I can say to you two Woody promoters, I think it is a wonderful idea youve got going. I wish I could be there to see it. I think youre all showing an awful lot of feeling towards the best game in the world.
Woody: You mentioned Perry Jones being a producer of champions here in Southern California. What was his secret to his success?
Jack: The great thing about Mr. Jones, he had a little bit of leverage, not only with all of us kids, but with the people around him because he was the one who could organize the good play. And you know when youre a youngster its great to watch somebody who is a champion, but its even a greater experience to play with a champion. If I would come to the tennis club, he set up these matches with Bill Tilden, he helped me play with Ellsworth Vines when I was sixteen, and he moved me from a junior into a mans player just through the winter time. Bobby Riggs, Joe Hunt and the other players who were out, Teddy Schroeder, myself and others who were around the tennis club had the experience of playing practically everybody in town. Frank Shields, Sydney Wood, whoever they were, when they were in town, Perry Jones would get the juniors, not just Schroeder and myself and a few other lucky people, but anybody who showed they had a chance to become a junior champion, or close to it. Perry was so proud of that record he compiled. Back in the early thirties up through I think Bobby Falkenburg, he was he last one to win twice, we had ten straight years of national junior champions. It was all due to Mr. Jones and his ability to get the kids out on the court with the champs, it was really a great experience for all of us.
Woody: What, if any conflicts do you see as a result of the new racquets?
Jack: Grass court tennis is practically going out. Theres a couple of events, Wimbledon and a couple of others in England, which is a shame. Its the nature of progress. It would appear to me that grass might become extinct. I think that the players probably feel there is too much luck involved.
Woody: Youre referring to the big serves on grass?
Jack: Theres no doubt about it, that if you have an awfully good serve, one that is deep and can swerve into the body and get the extra spin off the grass by serving wide you have an advantage. Theres nothing like a good wide serve on grass, particularly if you could cut the angle pretty good. That was my bread and butter. It would appear to me that with the players of today and the immense amount of money on the line, that they could say Why should Wimbledon be the most important championship?. I hope that the players dont take this attitude because that is such a wonderful tournament to be present at, playing for the championship which started back in 1881. It would be a great mistake. But I wouldnt be surprised to see eventually they will try to standardize the surface to make it fair for all the players.
Woody: You grew up on the hard courts in southern California. How did that effect your game on the global scale?
Jack: We had an edge in southern California, I think, since we played on concrete. Northern California produced a lot of great players as well, going back to Maurice McLaughlin, Billy Johnston, of course Don Budge, Helen Wills Moody, Helen Jacobs, Frank Kovacs. You name it, they had fantastic players. But the rest of the country was still playing on clay, and in the east they started playing on grass once the Spring came along. By playing on concrete, a medium paced concrete, why... you could play the offensive game, which if you had a good serve, and you like to come in as a junior, it was available to you because you had good footing, and it produced winners. But when you got back to Kalamazoo or before that, when you were playing at Culver Military Academy, the courts were slippery and they were dirt, you really had to utilize the defense. Now if youre a good concrete player you could play the defense as well as the offense. If your were raised on grass there is practically no defense, so on hard court youre going to get murdered. If youre playing on clay you can be an awfully good clay court player, but you have to use your ability to slide into shot so the defense has an edge.
Woody: What was it like playing in the amateur era?
Jack: I know that I started playing in 1935 and the years I played in the amateur game actually were a lot more fun than the years I played in the pro game. We traveled around too much, and didnt have fun. But when we played it was just like you out there having your Woody championship; youre together on the court and your having fun off the court, and thats the way it used to be for all of us.
Woody: Do you think the sport will ever get back to its roots, so to speak?
Jack: It wouldnt be remotely fair if you were asking a whole generation of... young people who have been using this new equipment, to go back and use the old equipment that wont fit their styles. I dont think you could play the game the way that some of these grips are used and so forth. I think they will probably try to slow the speed of the ball which would be a mistake, or try to monkey around with the dimensions of the court, or raise the net, things like that. Its like in any sport when somebody is dominating it. One way or another, along come players starting to think of different ways to hit the balls at them. Youve got to let the athletes stay with our dimensions. I dont think they should change the equipment back at all, its gone too far.
Woody: Any last words for The Men of Wood?
Jack: Of course, you are going to one of the nicest places in the world to play, and I happen to believe that if there is anybody out there using a Kramer, I think youre going to have a damn good chance to win.