Jack Kramer dies at 88; champion ushered in era of pro tennis

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Jack Kramer

Jack Kramer smashes a powerful forehand stroke in a 1946 win over Ted Schroeder for the 1946 Pacific Southwest title. The two were doubles partners and close friends. (Los Angeles Times / May 13, 2015)

Born Aug. 1, 1921, in Las Vegas, Kramer lived his early childhood years there and learned about playing cards. He carried the nickname Jake -- a gambler's term for the jacks in the deck -- all his life. He often said he learned from those card games the value of playing the percentages, and he did so both on and off the tennis court.

Kramer became a star player almost from the moment he left Montebello High School in 1939 to play doubles for the U.S. Davis Cup team.

He was a gangly 18-year-old with an aggressive serve-and-volley game that carried him to the top quickly. Between 1946 and 1953, he was considered the No. 1 player in the world, though in those days ranking systems were less organized and credible than today's computer-driven listings.

His business ventures were as sound as his approach to tennis -- make a big serve, putting your opponent on his heels, and follow it in for a winning volley.

At the height of his tennis career, he was asked to endorse a racket. When Wilson Sporting Goods sent him the racket, he discarded his favorite Don Budge signature model and played for a while with this new Wilson Kramer. But he hated it and was struggling to beat his barnstorming opponent at the time, Bobby Riggs.

He sent it back to Wilson, but the firm wanted a racket with his name on it, so he told them to take his Budge racket and repaint the lamination.

Kramer played with it and it became the most popular racket ever manufactured. Wilson eventually sold more than 30 million and finally renegotiated the original deal with Kramer that had him getting 2.5% of racket sales.

"We just did a flat rate," he said. "I understood. I was making more money than the president of Wilson Sporting Goods."

Ever since his barnstorming days in Australia, Kramer had owned racehorses, and as recently as Labor Day weekend, he went to Del Mar to watch them.

In his playing days, there were severe restrictions on taking money out of Australia, so Kramer took some of his purse winnings in racehorses.

"I remember as a kid going down to the docks in San Pedro," said Bob Kramer. "They'd be unloading the horses and dad said they were ours. I could never understand why I couldn't ride them."

For a while, the Kramer family owned and operated the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills Estates. Players such as Tracy Austin and Pete Sampras grew up playing the game there.

But Kramer eventually realized that tennis clubs were not as lucrative as golf courses. So he bought Los Serranos Country Club in the late 1950s and added an additional 18 holes to the Chino Hills public layout in 1962.

He had a long-standing relationship with the Pacific Southwest tennis tournament, which began at the L.A. Tennis Club in 1927 and has remained in the city under various names and sponsorships and at various sites.

Kramer served as tournament director and tournament chairman, and from 1979-83 it was known as the Jack Kramer Open. Today, the annual summer event at the UCLA Tennis Center is run by Bob Kramer.

At this year's event, Jack Kramer saw his last live tennis match. He sat courtside in his wheelchair as Sampras played an exhibition against Marat Safin.

"Dad loved the way Pete played," Bob Kramer said, "because it was a lot like he played."

Sampras said Sunday, "He was a class act and always willing to help. I was happy to see him and say hi at the L.A. Tennis Open. This is truly a great loss for tennis."

Pam Shriver, one of the premier doubles players of all time, said, "This is like golf, when we lost Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. He was somebody who transcends the sport and who helped build what we have today."

Kramer was always upbeat and positive.

His friend and longtime doubles partner, Schroeder -- a practicing cynic -- once said that when Kramer was around, "The world was automatically a happier place."

Kramer and his wife, Gloria, who died in 2008, always called their five children "the five perfect sons."

Besides Bob, Kramer is survived by sons David, Michael, John and Ron.

Bob Kramer said an announcement of a memorial service is forthcoming.

Times staff writer Diane Pucin contributed to this report.
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