World Tennis, Inc. is a small, neat business organization whose basic personnel consists of three people: a champion, a challenger and a promoter. The promoter is Jack Kramer, the owner of World Tennis, Inc. and the nearest thing to a capitalist ever produced by revenue from tennis. His champion is Pancho Gonzales, a rangy, 29-year-old Californian who since 1955 has been knocking off, almost casually, the best amateur tennis players Kramer's money could buy for him.
The two men are not precisely friends. For years they have kept their mutual regard to a dry minimum, and their feuds, usually about money, have entertained newspaper readers as dependably as Pogo. But the two are linked by handcuffs of gold: Gonzales is champion, Kramer owns his contract. Neither can operate full throttle without the other, though both have tried. The irritating, profit-making arrangement must continue until someone defeats Gonzales.
This year someone may. The challenger is Lew Hoad, a 23-year-old Australian with a stubby, quarter-horse physique and by far the best early-season record anyone has yet made against Gonzales. They played the first 13 of their 100-match series in Australia and Hoad won eight.
Gonzales started out against Hoad in Australia with a little overconfidence and a lot of overweight—195 pounds instead of 176. Now he has lost both. He has months of inactivity behind him and can probably get a little sharper, a little surer. Hoad has months of touring behind him and can easily go a little stale.
February 24, 1958
Two weeks ago the tour came to the United States, where it will zigzag around the country until June, making one-and two-night stands. Gonzales was expected to have an advantage on the indoor courts of the U.S. which are his special territory. (In Australia all the matches were played on grass.) But Hoad won their first indoor match, in San Francisco, 6-4, 20-18. "I see the ball pretty good," said Hoad, when someone asked if the lights bothered him.
The next day, however, in Los Angeles, Gonzales took over: 3-6, 24-22, 6-1. The second set lasted an hour and 55 minutes. Hoad broke Gonzales' service in the first game, but Gonzales pulled even at 5-5 and then broke through in the 46th game. "I like to win in Los Angeles," said Pancho, who grew up there.
The third U.S. match was played in Madison Square Garden in New York last Wednesday. With Hoad leading now by 9 matches to 6, a crowd of 15,237 turned up to see what would happen. It was the biggest tennis crowd ever assembled in the United States. What happened was that Gonzales won 7-9, 6-0, 6-4, 6-4. (This was the only best-of-five-sets match of the U.S. tour.) Only the Hoad of the first set was the Hoad people had come to see, but it was clear that his best is as good as advertised. When the match was over Gonzales looked pleased, Hoad looked glum and Promoter Kramer looked enchanted. The show had grossed $50,000, and World Tennis, Inc. seemed certain of a big year, artistically and financially.
Seven months ago it didn't look good at all. Jack Kramer seemed to have got himself into a promoter's nightmare. Hoad had just won the Wimbledon singles championship, and Kramer had paid the highest price for him ever offered a tennis amateur to turn pro: $125,000 for a 25-month contract, plus extras. Flown to the U.S. like a crate of strawberries, morning-fresh from his Wimbledon triumph, Hoad was installed in a professional tournament at Forest Hills and finished drably in a tie for third, defeated by Gonzales, Ken Rosewall and Tony Trabert. In a second tournament, played a week later in Los Angeles, he finished seventh and last.
Gonzales won both tournaments and retired to his Los Angeles residence to count his money and his grievances against Kramer.
Minus the champion, World Tennis, Inc. set out on its annual migration. The troupe consisted of Hoad, Ken Rosewall (Gonzales' unsuccessful challenger in the 1957 matches) and Pancho Segura. Kramer played tennis too, thereby functioning as both labor and management. For spare-time activity, he set himself a third job as well: to make Lew Hoad into worthy competition for Gonzales, if possible.
"The kid just gets in there and slams the ball across the same way all through a match," said Kramer after Hoad's tournament disasters. "He's as strong as a horse, but he has got to learn percentage tennis."
Percentage tennis is shrewd tennis, or gambler's tennis. Kramer isn't sure that he invented it, but he does think he perfected it. It involves turning your opponent's weaknesses to the best possible advantage and taking big chances when you are so far ahead you can afford to or so far behind you have to.
On second-rate courts in South Africa, in airplanes over Middle Eastern deserts, in the hot and gloomy lobbies of Indian hotels, talking, coaching, reminding, Kramer did the job. By January, when the troupe had wound up its tour in Australia and a new tennis year began, Lew Hoad had crossed the wide open space—almost measurable in light years—that separates the quality of today's amateurs from that of the pros. The high-priced turkey of 1957 had been transformed into the golden goose of 1958.
Given enough time, Hoad would have made it by himself. Given Jack Kramer, he made it faster, for Kramer is a man who loves big, quick results. He is not a those who can, do; those who can't, teach kind of teacher. (He is not a teacher at all except to his own children and to new pros he is grooming to face Gonzales.) He could, and can, play tennis. There are many who believe that even now, done in by arthritis and old age (he is 36), Kramer could beat any amateur player in the world, just by drawing on his old-pro know-how and the residue of greatness. He is one of the best players the U.S. has ever produced. Tilden, Budge, Kramer, say some. No, say others, Tilden, Budge, Gonzales, Kramer. He was amateur champion, then professional champion, then promoter, somehow getting from peak to peak without ever setting foot in a valley.
There is no formal connection between amateur and professional tennis, not even open tournaments. Still, Kramer is a force, a stimulant, an irritant to all tennis.
"I look on the amateurs as my farm system," he says flatly, and this has been particularly true in Australia. There he is denounced regularly as a public enemy because his money tempts the best Australian players to abandon their amateur status and thus their eligibility for Davis Cup play. Then when his troupe arrives in Australia the very public that reviled him flocks to his matches and the profits mount. This leads the amateur tennis officials, whose own tournaments sometimes follow Kramer's and don't draw nearly so well, to lambaste him afresh. But they let him come back. Their share of his gate receipts helps support the Australian amateurs.
If the Australian reaction to Kramer is close to apoplexy, U.S. reactions range from amusement through envy and dismay. After all, Kramer has signed away only one American amateur champion, Tony Trabert. Doubtless he would have signed more if more had been available, but in the recent lean years they weren't. Kramer hasn't upset any major apple-carts since 1955, when he confessed, in a magazine article called I Was a Paid Amateur, that he had accepted under-the-table cash from the sponsors of some major USLTA tournaments. At the time Kramer was the unpaid coach of the junior Davis Cup squad, and doing a good job. Shortly after the article appeared the USLTA regretfully fired him.
Kramer promotes tennis in a flamboyant way, and makes a rich living doing it. His raids on the Davis Cup lineup, his squabbles with the defenders of the amateur faith, his raw-voiced quarrels with Gonzales do not make him much of a villain, though he is sometimes painted as one. If he were not signing up amateurs, some other promoter would be. Even the officers of the USLTA—some of them—grant that Kramer's doings are good for tennis. World Tennis, Inc. brings top-rank playing to millions who otherwise would never see it except in newsreels, or in the weird perspective that TV cameras inflict on tennis courts.
Behind the ever-advancing front of his own publicity, Jack Kramer has done two notable things: he has achieved a power and a permanence no tennis promoter ever had before, and he has taken professional touring out of its casual, model A period and souped it up into a lean, smooth, businesslike operation.
He turned the first trick with a marvelously simple device. "When I sign a player," he says, "he is under contract to defend the championship for me if he wins it. That perpetuates my job."
It does indeed. Before Kramer, contracts between players and promoters were one-shot affairs that ran out when a tour ended. They are not like that any more. "I sign Gonzales for the longest periods the law will allow," Kramer says. And when those periods end—or when Gonzales thinks he has found a loophole, as he thought last year—Kramer is still to be dealt with because he controls the one or two players who are good enough to generate box-office power as Gonzales' opponents. Contracts—signed, witnessed and locked away—are what make Kramer an almost irresistible force in tennis. Historically, he is the first such phenomenon the sport has had to deal with.
As a businessman, Kramer applies the principles of modern farming: careful cultivation means a bigger yield. Years ago, without adding a day to the length of the American tour, he increased the number of dates played on it from 85 to 102. "What we did," says Kramer, "we cut out some of the small towns entirely and played more two-night stands in big cities. That gave the boys more rest from traveling but let us play more tennis and make more money at the same time."
Ceaselessly, carefully, he prunes his list of sponsors, discarding the lazy ones, searching out good ones to replace them. World Tennis, Inc. enters a town with little more than the players and a canvas court to play on. The local sponsor—a charity, a tennis club, a sporting goods dealer-provides the publicity, staffs the arena and takes 40% of the receipts. "I want a live-wire guy in charge of the local outfit," says Kramer. "And I want sponsors that either love money or love tennis enough to get the people out."
Once the people have been got out, World Tennis, Inc.'s 60% of the gate receipts is sent untouched back to headquarters in Los Angeles. There Mrs. Daisy Aileen Kramer, Jack's mother, keeps the books and signs the checks for the company. ("It's really a good feeling, boy," says Kramer with a smile, "to know that the person back there at the cash drawer is someone you can trust absolutely.") Once a month Mrs. Kramer mails out checks to members of the troupe. Some of them are on straight salary, others get a percentage of the gate.
This procedure is followed whether the tour is in Pittsburgh or Pakistan. World Tennis, Inc. actually makes two tours a year. In August or September the players start through Europe, then go to Africa and on to the Far East. In January they reach Australia and a different tour begins—the one on which a new challenger tries to knock off Gonzales, the one on which Lew Hoad is doing so well right now.
Kramer is thus familiar with many of the world's currencies and the problems of exchange. He responds to the innocent blue of French thousand-franc notes, the muddy browns of Pakistani rupees, the peculiar texture of Hong Kong's paper dollars. He can think in pounds, if necessary. And he knows both the sorrows of converting foreign moneys into U.S. funds and the sorrows of not being allowed to. "I got money in Australia," he says, "that they won't let me take out of the country. But I have to pay income tax on it in the United States."
To give his Australian money something to do, he has invested in a stud farm which breeds horses on a special timetable in Australia, to be raced in the United States. "You're going to see horses named Big Serve, Drop Shot and Backhand," he says. But this enterprise is just getting under way. Kramer doesn't know yet whether he will operate his own racing stable in this country or just import the colts and sell them.
When his troupe approaches a major city Kramer takes over the publicity work himself. There, perhaps, he does the gaudiest job of all. Most of the country's top sports columnists are his old acquaintances. To him television and radio are familiar, handy tools, like a screwdriver and pliers, and he has the gift of putting them at his service by being, or making, news. No medium is too large for his talents or too small for his attention. If a high school sports announcer approaches him timidly with a tape recorder, Kramer asks two questions and goes to work. "Who will I be talking to?" he asks and, "How long do you want it?" Then, in a prose style that is usually found only in the printed programs of sports events, he talks. His speech will contain a complimentary reference to the group it is aimed at, it will offer a plug for the next local appearance of World Tennis, Inc. and it will fill the bill.
The life that Kramer has designed for himself requires something close to the human maximum of energy and drive, and Kramer has it. He has always had it. When he was born, on August 1, 1921, in Las Vegas, Nevada, he was a railway fireman's son and Las Vegas was an obscure and dusty western town. But even then, though it didn't show, John Albert Kramer was The Boy Who Had Everything. He had physical equipment that needed only to grow up to be that of a champion. He had a competitive instinct that has kept him going like a whipped top all his life. And he was the only child of parents who wanted for their son exactly what he wanted for himself.
His father, David C. Kramer, didn't settle, as most fathers do, for nailing a basketball hoop over the garage door. He built half a basketball court in the backyard and kept it rolled for Jack. Near it was a pit for pole-vaulting and broad-jumping. David Kramer, who went to work as a call boy on the Salt Lake Railroad when he was 12, never had a boyhood of his own. He wanted to enjoy one vicariously through his son.
When he was 10 Jack broke his nose tackling an opponent in sandlot football. He was good at all sports from marbles up. "I wanted him to be a major league baseball player," says Dave Kramer now. "I had always dreamed of being one myself."
But when the boy was 13 the Kramers moved to San Bernardino, Calif. and Jack discovered tennis. (Dave Kramer bought the rackets and played the first game with him.) He was a boy prodigy at tennis, but there was little competition in San Bernardino. To give their boy every advantage the Kramers moved to Montebello on the eastern edge of Los Angeles. The boy was now near the heart of the southern California tennis country, where bumper crops of promising young players grew and ripened in the sun. Jack had the reflexes of an electronic calculator. He had power. He loved tennis. Soon he was brought to the attention of Perry Jones of the Southern California Tennis Association, the same Perry Jones who at 68 was made captain last week of the U.S. Davis Cup team. The processing of the young player began. Dave Kramer's boy had his foot on the ladder now, and it was a long ladder; it rose high.
Kramer won the national boys' championship at 15. At 18 he was named to the Davis Cup team. (He played doubles with Joe Hunt, and they lost.) At 19 he and a friend, Ted Schroeder, won the national doubles.
There was some schooling mixed in with the tennis, though not much. Jack never liked studying and avoided it most of the time. He was voted Most Popular Boy in Montebello High School and turned down a chance to be president of the student body because the position had nothing to do with tennis. As a college student he managed one semester at the University of Southern California and one at Rollins College in Florida, then gave it up or was given up by the deans.
Kramer's famous "hard luck" period began before he entered military service and continued after he got out. Appendicitis kept him out of the nationals in 1942, ptomaine poisoning cut him down in the midst of them in 1943. He spent 1944 and 1945 in the Coast Guard. At Wimbledon in June 1946 he developed blisters but played anyway, wearing bandages and a glove. Jaroslav Drobny eliminated him in the fourth round. For years he was probably the best amateur tennis player in the world, and luck denied him every good chance to prove it.
The young man on night watch in the Pacific, gazing at the moonlit sea and planning his postwar life, is a classic figure of World War II. Of all the young men who did it, in fiction or in fact, perhaps none saw his future work out more precisely to specifications than Lieutenant (j.g.) John Kramer. "I sat out there on that old LST," he says now, "and I did some serious thinking. No more gambling, no more staying up late, no drinking. I was rusty. I hadn't had a racket in my hand for years. I decided to go all out for just a few major tournaments in 1946 and let the rest go. And it all worked out like a dream."
The postwar world—prosperous, restless, lashed together by air routes and communications networks-turned out to be made to Kramer's order. There were things to be done. With Wimbledon's blisters cured, Kramer won the 1946 nationals and the Pacific Southwest tournament and played singles and doubles on the Davis Cup team which swept the series in Melbourne 5-0. Then he was ready for 1947:
In March, 1947 he defeated Bob Falkenburg to win the singles final of the national indoor championship, then teamed with Falkenburg to win the doubles.
In July, taking 70 pounds of frozen steak with him to short-rationed England, he won the Wimbledon singles and he and Falkenburg the doubles.
In August he and Ted Schroeder won the national doubles at Brook-line, Mass.
On September 1 he and Schroeder won their singles matches in Davis Cup play at Forest Hills.
On September 14 he lost two sets to Frank Parker, then went on to win the national singles championship.
On September 28 he defeated his longtime friend and doubles partner Ted Schroeder in the finals of the Pacific Southwest tournament.
And in November, equipped with nearly all the prestige that amateur tennis can load on a player, he turned professional.
The promoter then was Jack Harris of Chicago and the pro champion was Bobby Riggs. "That good-looking kid, that all-American boy," said Harris not long ago from retirement, remembering his days with Kramer. "A wonderful talent. But once he discovered money, he never stopped being hungry."
The first big money was the $50,000 that Harris guaranteed him for the tour. As it turned out, the Riggs-Kramer matches drew so well that Kramer collected $37,000 more than his guarantee. He also won the tour, 69 matches to 20, and took over the professional championship for himself.
In the years after Kramer became champion the promoter's job changed hands like a beanbag. With many a disagreement and charge of bad faith, it went from Jack Harris to Bobby Riggs to Jack Kramer. By 1953 Kramer held all the cards: he was promoter, he was champion, he had signed the Australian Davis Cup star Frank Sedgman to tour against him. Holding those cards, he raked in a nice pot. The Kramer-Sedgman tour grossed $304,000, setting a record that even this year's tour will not surpass.
But this year's attraction will fall short only because it won't involve as many matches. The collision of Lew Hoad with Pancho Gonzales has about as much excitement as a tennis match can offer. At last Gonzales faces power equal to his own, a serve just as big, determination as strong. Besides the sheer quality of the tennis, there are extras in the form of other conflicts—Australia vs. the U.S., youth vs. age, Kramer's Hope vs. Kramer's Headache.
Who will win? A good case can be made either way. Kramer has written some strong incentives directly into Hoad's contract. Hoad gets 25% of the World Tennis, Inc. take and Gonzales gets only 20%. But on the nights Hoad wins, he gets 30%, while Gonzales, win or lose, gets 20%. If Hoad takes the championship from Gonzales he will receive a $10,000 bonus, considerately spread out over two years to ease the tax burden. If Gonzales keeps the championship he will get the satisfaction of having done so, but no extra cash. These arrangements were designed as a carrot for Lew, of course, but they serve as a goad to Pancho, too.
Hoad's youth and the overlushness of his contract can work against him as well as for him. He is a silently good-humored fellow who likes to sleep, and soak up a few beers, and blink happily as he listens to jazz. The future is long and bright, and win or lose he is going to make an impressive pile of money this year. Part of the momentum he built up against Gonzales in the early matches came from the humiliating defeats he suffered last summer as a brand-new pro. Recent events have soothed that old pain considerably, and now the easy-going Lew may be tempted to go easy once in a while. When he does, Gonzales will be waiting.
At least Gonzales had better be. For if Lew Hoad has his face to the future, Pancho Gonzales has his back to the wall. He is not finished as a tennis player, of course, just because he is 29. Segura is still one of the world's best at 36. But losing his championship would drop him almost out of sight, and Gonzales knows oblivion from having been there. Kramer beat him badly in the pro tour of 1949, when Gonzales was 21, and for years thereafter he was virtually unemployed. He spent the time maturing into the world's best tennis player. When Kramer, at length, was obliged to recognize this fact and sign Gonzales to tour against Tony Trabert in 1955, his guarantee to Trabert was $75,000, to Gonzales $15,000.
It is subtle touches like that which have kept the old feud alive, down to the present. Lew Hoad is a superb tennis player in his own right, but in some ways he is only a proxy. The real battle is between Kramer and the proud and stubborn Gonzales.
Kramer has given Hoad a special course in Gonzales' weaknesses, and even the press releases sent out by World Tennis, Inc. appear to add their bit of psychological warfare: "The champion who has had a strangle-hold on professional tennis since 1954 seems to have lost his grip completely.... [Gonzales] is experiencing a new sensation, worry verging on panic.... The records of pro tennis show that once you get behind you stay there."
Yet people find it hard to believe that the great Gonzales is through. If he is, of course, they want to be on hand to watch the Titanic sink. Disaster, like triumph, is box office. Either way it is going to be a good year for World Tennis, Inc.
I never wanted to be anything but a tennis promoter," says Jack Kramer. Years ago, when he was threatened by the first touch of arthritis, he looked at a few nontennis jobs and drew back, appalled, at what the best of them would pay—$10,000. "I was spoiled rotten," he explains. "I thought something at $40,000 would be about right to start with." So he stayed with tennis, and it paid. He is planning a house overlooking the golf course in the movie-star suburb of Bel Air, in Los Angeles. It will have a swimming pool and lots of room for the five Kramer boys. Jack Kramer and Gloria Spangenberg were married in 1944. The boys range from David, 11, through John, Bobby and Michael to Ronald, 2.
Like nearly all first-rate athletes, Kramer is endlessly patient and gentle with children. There are months at a stretch when he doesn't see his own at all. "But," he says, "when I am there, I make up for it. I leave late and come home early. I figure I have as much time with my kids, all told, as the guy who spends every day at the office."
It is not likely that Kramer will ever spend a whole day in an office. He is restless; he paces floors. As he talks to people his blue eyes keep moving, noting the arrival of someone important at the door, a private conversation going on in a corner, an athlete ordering up his second Martini at the bar. ("You can measure your importance to Kramer," says one acquaintance sourly, "by the amount of undivided attention he is willing to give you.") Striding through an air terminal, with a bundle of tennis rackets under one arm and two extra suits flapping on wire hangers over his shoulder, doing business as he goes, Kramer appears happily at home.
The brand-new regime that has taken over U.S. amateur tennis seems to favor open tournaments—that is, tournaments in which the amateurs meet the professionals, as they do in golf. If they come, opens will bring enormous changes to both the amateurs and the pros. "Opens will kill the tour," says Kramer. Even if they didn't they would inevitably lessen the power of the professional tennis promoter and change the nature of his job. Jack Kramer, freewheeling his way through world tennis, reaping a green harvest in the rich postwar years, may turn out to have been the only one of his kind.
He genuinely loves tennis, and is the first to say gratefully that tennis has been good to him. He is modest about his achievements. "Anybody with a little gamble in him could have done it," he says. It took a little gamble, all right, but it also took a little shrewdness, a lot of energy, a blue-ribbon tennis background, the help of influential people and a certain amount of luck. In every department Jack Kramer had all he needed and more.