John Albert (Jake) Kramer, an ex-tennis player who has wrecked more Davis Cup teams with a volley of blank checks then he ever could with his fog-cutting serve, took a stand in the center of the room, eyes blazing, and smote his fist into his palm. "Alex Olmedo?" he shouted. "He's about the 11th or 12th best player in the world today. No higher. I'll bet even money any one of my nine pros could beat him in straight sets tomorrow. Even if he wins Wimbledon or Forest Hills, what will he be doing? Beating the No. 18 or No. 20 player in the world is all. Pro tennis is the game, and it's the future of tennis."
Promoter Kramer drew a deep breath. "When Lew Hoad turned pro he wasn't as good as I was. And I had been retired two years! When Pancho Gonzales turned pro he couldn't carry my racket.
"Now I have my tour this year, and when I'm sending Ashley Cooper and Mai Anderson in against Hoad and Gonzales, I'm sending in a lamb against a lion. [In a corner, Kramer's publicity man winced.] I mean they're a year away from being ready. But the pro game is at the point now where it has to develop its own, if you know what I mean."
Here is the way Kramer has set up his 1959 tour: for the North American part, the big apple of the Kramer traveling circus (it will account for two-thirds of the ultimate world gross), Kramer has selected Hoad, Gonzales, Cooper and Anderson. In former years, like the animal that eats its young, the tour matched the leading new ex-amateur against the top pro, who would proceed to chew him up mercilessly. Under that system, Cooper would have had to face Gonzales and been lucky to win a tenth of his matches. Hoad and Anderson would have filled in on what Promoter Kramer is pleased to call "the animal act," a meaningless exhibition set or so opening the program.
March 9, 1959
This year, the Kramer troupe in the U.S. will play a sort of revolving-door tournament. In this, the winners of each night's matches play each other on the following night. For example, the tour opened in San Francisco with Gonzales meeting Cooper and Hoad meeting Anderson. Naturally, the old pros won. This set up the big match the next night between Gonzales and Hoad with the consolation match between Anderson and Cooper. The next engagement, however, pitted winners against winners and losers against losers again—in this case Gonzales versus Anderson and Hoad versus Cooper, respectively.
Kramer usually divides $1,500 in prize money each night in this way: the winner of the winners' match gets $600; loser $300. The winner of the losers' match gets $400; loser $200. Under this unique system, money winnings as of last weekend stood Hoad $2,900, Gonzales $2,650, Anderson $1,850 and Cooper $1,600.
"In this way we are keeping the public's interest, and we are developing talent for our future," believes Jack Kramer. Before it is through, the Kramer olio must hit courts in 60 cities, from Madison Square Garden to the tank town high school auditorium. This means Hoad and Gonzales will play each other in no more than 30 of them. The remainder will be a kind of schooling session for the youngsters—or at least until Cooper and Anderson adjust themselves to this new, shattering style of tennis.
DRIP OF BLOOD
The Hoad-Gonzales matches of 1959 are proving to be—for sheer theater and tenseness—among the most memorable contests in the history of sport, and it is not inconceivable that tennis fans may one day recall them the way boxing buffs recall Dempsey-Tunney or race fans Swaps-Nashua. To begin with, they are marked with something not normally associated with the polite art of lawn tennis-naked animosity and the drip of bad blood. On the court Hoad and Gonzales hate each other—and make no bones about it. And since tennis is an elemental contest of wills as well as skills this has the effect of making their struggles as fascinating as a fight between two cats in a jungle. Even the casting is perfect: the blond, blue-eyed, poker-faced youngster from Australia against the swarthy, scowling, scar-faced old pro from the sidewalks of Los Angeles.
The Gonzales personality is uniquely promotable also. If the sport were wrestling, Pancho would make the perfect "heavy." The fact that he is the American boy in the drama mitigates in his behalf but has not prevented Pancho—a poor loser, to say the very least—from smashing an overhanging clock in Miami on one occasion and on another crawling into the stands at Boston to get a spectator who proved to be the Boston Garden physician. He has even dropped his racket in the midst of a match in Australia to challenge the entire audience. Myron MacNamara, the long-suffering tour publicist, has been heard to sigh woebegonely: "Ponch acts like he thinks he's defending the world's heavyweight championship instead of the world's tennis championship."
Gonzales' truculence is not confined to the tennis court. Despite their quasi boss-employer relationship, Kramer and Gonzales are all but at each other's throats most of the time. "No two people without a marriage license should ever get along so miserably," Columnist Mel Durslag once wrote. Although Kramer periodically boasts that he and Big Pancho are basically good friends, he is given to saying publicly things like: "Gonzales is surly, abusive and has got a lousy disposition—when he loses." The point is, when he wins, Pancho is not much better. One sore point with him is that he is probably the only champion in sports who—thanks to Kramer—has to take the short end of the purse when he defends his title. Kramer has argued for years that the amateur is the big draw for the tour—which Kramer may very well have believed, but which has both nettled Gonzales and given him an incentive to splatter Kramer's pet amateurs into oblivion with evident relish. Pulling on his clothes savagely in San Francisco after the opening match, Big Ponch announced he was violently opposed to the prize-money system: "I won't make as much money as I made last year even if I win every match!" he exploded.
OUT OF THE GATE
Nevertheless, there is reason to believe Gonzales may not have things quite as much his own way as he has in the past three or four tours. He has not conspicuously slowed down, and he began the tour in San Francisco coming out of the gate like a 1-to-5 shot, playing his best game in years. He mowed down Cooper one night and Hoad the next without breaking into a real sweat. When the tour hit Los Angeles, he ripped Anderson, who looks like the more promising if the less determined of the two amateurs, and seemed about to duplicate his opening performances.
But then, on the second night in Los Angeles, Lew Hoad demonstrated that he, too, has become a pro. A humorless competitor on court, Hoad slipped out to the arena on the afternoon of his decisive match and volleyed himself into concert pitch. That night in the big match against Gonzales, he flew at the jugular instantly. Winning the spin for serve, Hoad surprised by electing to receive. He was gambling that Gonzales was not warmed up. And he was right. He broke service immediately. In one of the tensest and most dramatic matches ever seen in Los Angeles—it was played in almost sepulchral silence punctuated by ear-splitting roars of applause—Hoad and Gonzales stormed the net on each other for a bristling hour and ten minutes of board-rattling tennis, and Hoad won 6-4, 9-7.
In the second set with the games 7-6 in his favor, the harassed Gonzales put on one of his more impressive displays of bad manners when a service call went against him. He turned white, then red, then purple and advanced on the offending linesman. He put his face within inches of the luckless volunteer's face and began to rant. Then in the midst of the breath-sucking, embarrassed silence that had overtaken the auditorium, Gonzales turned and addressed a silent appeal to the umpire's chair. The umpire cleared his throat. "Did he call it out?" he asked. Gonzales stalked across the court waving his racket like a hatchet. "He called it out, and then he called it good!" he screamed. "Just ask him." The linesman looked miserably at his feet. "Indecision on the linesman's part," ruled the chair. "No point. Two serves, Mr. Hoad." Hoad stood watching impassively. Gonzales, with a helpless gesture, approached the net to explain to his opponent. Hoad deliberately wheeled and turned his back, snubbing Gonzales. Pancho shrugged and returned to the baseline to await the next serve. Hoad, teeth clenched, played fiery tennis to run out three straight games and the match. Instead of being crestfallen, Gonzales stormed off the court, slashed at the guy ropes with his racket and screamed at a photographer who hadn't shot a picture since the first set. In the language of the streets he excoriated the poor fellow for upsetting his concentration and then finally, furiously, returned to the dressing room.
All in all, Promoter Kramer has an attraction which combines the grace and elegance of tennis with the naked emotionality and aggression of the prize ring. Meantime, waiting in the wings (i.e., touring Australia) are Tony Trabert, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall and Mervyn Rose. They will join the North American section for pro tournaments (in early June in Los Angeles and late June in Forest Hills), and Kramer will pair all his players in Europe in what he calls "league play" with a view to staging a 21-city "Grand Prix" tour of the four who emerge on top of the league.
But what of the future? Kramer feels "We have the best tennis it is possible to get. If the public doesn't buy this it will hurt not only me but the sport iself. But if it goes over it will give a tremendous boost to the game, amateur and professional, and will bring the open tournament nearer to reality. It will put tennis on the same footing as golf. The top tennis player will no longer be able to remain at the top by beating a rookie and playing the equivalent of 80 golf. He will have to keep shooting 68s to stay on top from now on, and this will really make the pro game come of age."