U.S. TENNIS IS BEING KILLED

Former World Champion Jack Kramer, now one of the game's greatest living authorities, serves up sundry highly explosive opinions
October 07, 1956

The man who—one way or another—has dominated U.S. tennis since the end of World War II settled comfortably at a luncheon table in a Manhattan restaurant. "I can talk tennis as long as anybody is interested in listening," he said seriously. Jack Kramer, 35 and looking as fit and trim as the day in 1940 when he and Ted Schroeder won their first U.S. doubles title at Longwood, was serious, too.

"Sure, I've been criticized for sounding off with my views on tennis. First the big brass wanted me to help them with the junior Davis Cup squad. Then, when I made some remarks about income from playing tennis as an amateur they bounced me. Then they wanted me back, but I'm too busy now to give them a hand. But I still say I think I'm qualified to express some views on tennis. After all, it's always been my first love. Tennis has been good to me, and in return I like to think I have helped the game a little. So, sure, I have made money from tennis but I've tried to build it up, too, everywhere I've been, here and abroad.

"Let's get this straight: I don't feel that the people in amateur tennis—meaning the top USLTA men—are wrong except in some of their judgment. Their basic approach of how to make tennis grow is wrong. Because 90% of the people who controlled tennis in the late '20s are still in command, their nearly unanimous opinion is this: keep the game the way it was in the good old days. Why, I'd like to know, keep grass in the dominating situation? Most grass courts are appalling, and tennis on them becomes not a test of skill but a game of chance in which the winner is the player who gets the best bounces. When probably less than half of one percent of all tennis in America is played on grass, doesn't it seem foolish to insist on playing our major championships on grass just because the old guard dislikes any form of a change? Grass has never been the best test of tennis because it favors the aggressive type of game. Roughly 90% of all tennis in the world is played on dirt [hard courts], where the footing and slower bounce give the defensive player a slight edge. The ideal would be concrete because it provides a fast enough bounce so that a good service should pay off and yet it gives the defensive player a relatively uniform bounce.

"Basically I understand that from a sporting goods equipment and player-participation angle, the game of tennis in the U.S. is in the greatest shape ever. Only trouble is that our players aren't winning the big tournaments. Why? We know that in a country this size there have to be boys with tremendous tennis potential. The whole problem is that we've got to make the game attractive enough to them so that they will want to exploit that potential. There's no use harping on the comparison between America and Australia. Down there we know that education isn't as important to a boy as it is up here, with the result that a 16-year-old has a better chance simply because he is willing to sacrifice everything to play a game promoted by big names, controlled by sporting goods companies and coached by a man who thinks only of Wimbledon and the Davis Cup."

Kramer smiled confidently. "I'll tell you what," he said. "People criticize U.S. tennis because we don't hold the Davis Cup. They don't deny, though, do they, that we have in Pancho Gonzales the best tennis player in the world? And as for the Cup, I think if you take Hoad off the Australian team and throw Seixas and Richardson at Rosewall, and anybody they want to name, we'd have an even chance of winning. But you see, this doesn't satisfy an American public hungry for victory all the time. They publicize and popularize baseball and football and can proudly boast of the best. But they can't understand why we don't always have the best amateur tennis players when they know perfectly well that no major effort is ever made to focus the same attention on the sport of tennis. The younger players themselves have no strict directives to follow, and the result is that dozens and dozens of them are steadily wasting a lot of natural talent. See what's happened with the foreign tour. I think Europe and Wimbledon are helping to kill topflight U.S. tennis. It used to be that the USLTA would carefully select four or five kids for a three-week summer tour. In my day we fought for that honor and were proud to be selected. Now anybody goes who wants to. They make their own deals with minor tournament officials all over the world and stay three or four months until they're ordered home to discover that the American tournament circuit is struggling along with second-string performers."

"What," was the next obvious question put to the former champion, "is a solution to the U.S. problem?"

"Oh, I have lots of ideas," he replied. "Some, such as a new scoring system and a plan to take some of the accent off the Big Game (serve and put-away volley), I'd like to take up at another time. For now, however, it seems to me that most people are chiefly concerned with our Davis Cup chances this year and what we can do to build for the immediate future. First, the present. The USLTA, for all its talk about a youth movement, is going to have to go with Seixas and Richardson on this year's Cup team. Both are great competitors. Vic, however, despite the fact that he gets more out of his game than anybody I know, is probably no better than he was in the late '40s, and he's certainly not going to improve now—at the age of 33. Richardson, for all his class, together with the kind of game required to be a top player, has nonetheless never been able to dictate the pace or control the game. He's at a disadvantage because he has to go to the front from the start and beat his man quickly or not at all. I don't feel there's any real confidence on the part of the USLTA or Captain Billy Talbert that Ham will ever dominate world tennis, but it's perfectly understandable that they have to go with him, as well as with Vic, this year. The other boys they talk about—like Barry Mackay, Sammy Giammalva, Mike Green and Ron Holmburg among others—are not my idea of a real youth movement. When they are around the 20-year-old mark, tennis players either have it or not. And if they aren't pretty darned good by then—which none of these boys really is—I'd be cold-blooded about the future and invest good money in younger boys.

"Here are some of the things I'd like to see tried:

1) The USLTA should see that school boards start a national tennis program at the junior high level.

2) With the junior program the USLTA should drop the attitude that the commercial businesses not be allowed to sponsor such a program. If Little League baseball is commercially sponsored, why not tennis which desperately needs some of the solicited help now going into other sports?

3) Standardize the playing surfaces—preferably concrete—on which the major tournaments are played.

4) Influence good juniors with natural talent and the concentration and determination to go with it to attend good schools with tennis weather to match. I may be prejudiced but I think Southern California is the best place to develop tennis talent.

"Assuming you were giving advice to a group of promising 16-year-olds," Kramer was asked, "how should they go about improving their game?"

"If they already had all the basic strokes at 16—together with the real desire to be champions—I'd give them a few very basic instructions:

1) Develop body speed and stamina. By body speed I don't mean pure sprinting speed, but general agility.

2) Perfect your service to the point where you don't even think about your forehand until you can control, not the first, but the second serve.

3) Work on your net game with emphasis on the volley after service.

4) Practice on your weaknesses, not the strokes at which you already show normal proficiency.

"All this, you understand, isn't going to develop a winning Cup team overnight. But it's a start. A junior program must succeed if it's properly run. When that time comes, our boys will be champions again."

Jack Kramer smiled politely and walked out. In a half hour he was out on a court playing with an old friend by the name of Don Budge.

PHOTO

DAVIS CUP

The 1956 Davis Cup Interzone tie with Italy which was played at Forest Hills, N.Y. last weekend produced only brief flurries of exciting tennis as the American players, Victor Seixas and Hamilton Richardson, won the first three out of five matches, with the loss of but one set. The Italians, Nicola Pietrangeli and Orlando Sirola, were disappointing, and only during the first set of the doubles match on Sunday did they display the type of game which carried them successfully through the European zone playoffs.

Neither Seixas nor Richardson played brilliantly but, then, neither had to. There had been considerable anxiety as to the condition of Richardson's injured right foot, but he appeared sound as he swept Pietrangeli aside with ease. Seixas, at 33, is still able to defeat almost any amateur in the world when he is right, and Sirola was hardly a match for him, although he came within a point of winning the second set.

In the doubles the Italians, who had upset the American pair at Wimbledon last July, appeared ready to do so again when they won 20 of the first 22 points. During this amazing span they could do no wrong as they smashed winning shots to all parts of the court. It was perhaps the most amazing demonstration of doubles play that had been seen at Forest Hills in many years. But the spell soon vanished and with it all of Italy's hopes for the Davis Cup.

So it's off to Australia in November for the cup team, but just who will make up the team is still an issue. Richardson, a Rhodes scholar, must return to England for the term and may not get in enough practice before they play India in December. A still bigger question mark is Richard Savitt, the former Wimbledon champion, who played so well against Ken Rosewall in the Nationals last month. Savitt has repeatedly stated that he is not available because of business reasons, which is too bad, for his presence on the team would unquestionably increase U.S. chances of regaining the cup. Then, again, perhaps he should stay home, for waiting patiently in Australia like a pair of hungry tigers ready to pounce are two fellows named Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall.

AS KRAMER SEES THEM

ALLTIME TOP TEN

1. Don Budge
2. Ellsworth Vines
3. Pancho Gonzales
4. Bill Tilden
5. Fred Perry
6. Bobby Riggs
7. Pancho Segura
8. Ted Schroeder
9. Jack Bromwich
10. Frank Sedgman

(Only players with whom Kramer had played or those he'd seen.)

1956 TOP TEN

1. Pancho Gonzales
2. Frank Sedgman
3. Pancho Segura
4. Tony Trabert
5. Lew Hoad
6. Ken Rosewall
7. Dinny Pails
8. Vic Seixas
9. Rex Hartwig
10. Ham Richardson

(Asked to rank himself on current form, Kramer replied, "I might be right with Trabert or just behind him.")

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)