It is funny of Jack Kramer to recount his ‘40 years in tennis’ under the title The Game, given that he was a pioneer of tennis as a business. I received my serious call to a life of devout tennis-watching in the year (1947) when Mr Kramer took the men’s singles championship at Wimbledon. His court personality was that of a Nice American Kid. (He still speaks of latterday players as ‘kids’, a term that sits on John Newcombe and Stan Smith as askew as on a lord mayor.) He was tall and, if not quite clean-cut, skinny. He looked as if he would converse by shuffling his large feet and muttering ‘Aw, shucks’. (Thus kids muttered in novels of the period. What they said in real life I don’t know. ‘Aw, Huck’, perhaps.) That he would become not only a player but a promoter and organiser of professional tennis should have been predictable from his tennis style, which was bleakly businesslike. He was a powerful serve-and-volley player who put down each delivery with a worried seriousness as though it were a massive sum of capital which he bore the responsibility for investing wisely.
Something of the Huck Finn personality survives into the present book, which reads as if it was elicited (presumably by Frank Deford) onto tape and transcribed under rough subject headings, with the ‘Aw, shucks’s’ edited out and the chatty tone and bad grammar (‘to lay down and rest’) left intact. The text, printed in England in North American spelling, seems not to have been revised since its copyright line of 1979. This unjustly leaves Mr Kramer looking a bit slow when he says that there are at present ‘only two male super-stars, Borg and Connors’ and adds: ‘John McEnroe is the one kid who does look like he will make it soon.’ You get a glimpse of Huck Finn’s untarnished infantile narcissism in Mr Kramer’s account of how, as a boy in the Thirties, he hung about the Los Angeles club and sometimes played tennis with Bill Tilden. ‘This was almost a decade before he got arrested for going after little boys, but he certainly never acted improperly with me,’ he declares, with the manifest (and fulfilled) intention of being fair but no discernible suspicion that Tilden might not have thought him an attractive little boy. Ah well, it was by a smart answer on those lines that Wilde wrong-footed himself in the witness-box – which may be why, when some tennis mothers were reported this year to be mounting indignant guard to protect their teen-aged daughters from homosexual seduction in the locker-rooms, none of the grandes dames of the circuit uttered an assurance that in most cases there was no risk.
For an instant Mr Kramer shews himself susceptible to glamour: ‘If you never saw tennis players in their long white flannels, I cannot begin to explain to you how majestic they appeared.’ But flapping trouser legs must, I suppose, have impeded business efficiency. In his next breath Mr Kramer records: ‘I was the first Wimbledon champion ever to wear shorts.’
Perhaps in deference to long trousers, he makes Donald Budge his tennis hero. He speaks well (perhaps in deference to his first name) of Budge Patty, but he is in the main more impressed by victorious than by winning players. Yet even his string of amateur victories does not redeem Fred Perry, whom Mr Kramer accuses of giving professional tennis a bad name, of want of professional solidarity and, much as Picasso has been accused of doing to modern painting, of accidentally ruining ‘men’s tennis in Britain’. Mr Kramer’s belief is that coaches ruined their pupils’ natural strokes by trying to impart to them the inimitable Perry forehand. That Britain has, in the post-Perry era, produced some women champions but no men champions he ascribes to the fact that ‘the women at least are not being taught to try and hit forehands like Fred Perry.’ Perhaps by now they are and that’s why the new crop of British women players has failed to come up. Maybe patriotic British tennis mothers should be guarding their daughters from the insidious Perry forehand.
The cast of Mr Kramer’s thinking about tennis is mathematical. He is concerned with percentages: not only the percentage split of professional profits but ‘percentage tennis’. The latter, Mr Kramer says, came naturally to him because he was born in Las Vegas and brought up to card games, where he learned to calculate odds: ‘I don’t think anybody in tennis ever played the odds better than I did.’ Percentage tennis is essentially the doctrine (which you might have deduced from Mr Kramer’s own serious play) of conserving effort until you can invest it with minimum risk and maximum potential profit. If, for instance, you have a service break in hand, don’t strive to break your opponent’s service again, because if you fail he will draw level and you may be too tired to hold your own service. Instead, you take the set at its easiest, which is on your own unfatigued service.
Like gambling or, indeed, the abstract laws of chance, percentage tennis pays off, I think, over a series of matches rather than in a solitary case you might pick on to test it. Once the theory is generally current (and it is now among the commonplaces of tennis commentary, albeit sometimes in muddled form), you forfeit surprise, since it is easy for your opponent to calculate which are the crucial points from your side of the net, and you risk being surprised by an opponent who can take advantage of your lull to strike a rhythm, raise his own morale and take off into an inspired streak which you may not be able to resist even when playing from your strength.
Recent changes in tennis will, I surmise, work against percentage players. They tend to be the players with a big service, because that is both the strongest weapon and the worst drain on its owner’s energy. But techniques are now much more widely known and practised than even ten years ago for returning the big serve or actually using its own power to counter-attack it. Moreover, the recent abbreviation of tennis (of the set by the introduction of the tie-break, and of men’s matches by their reduction in many tournaments from best-of-five to best-of-three sets) is a condensation that leaves less slack for a percentage player to coast along in and that renders more of the points played crucial to both sides.
The condensation gives men’s matches, in form at least, a greater resemblance to women’s matches. The fact that it was introduced in order to make tennis more entertaining seems to support Billie Jean King’s argument on the other percentage issue: namely, that the women players deserve a pool of prize money as large as the men’s on the strength of their equal entertainment value. I imagine it was by way of putting in a little propaganda for this view that Mrs King spoke of herself in her recent television interview as ‘an entertainer’. There used to be a valid objection that men winners had worked harder than the women winners and had delivered more hours of entertainment to the public by playing longer matches. This has virtually vanished with the abbreviation of matches, which may well soon become universal. Even the objection that a man champion had to play through and beat a greater depth of top-class opposition has lost most of its force now that the layer of cream at the top of women’s tennis has been thickened by recruitment from a previously unbelievably low age group. Perhaps coaches have learnt to exploit the comparative precocity of girls or perhaps, which would lend further support to the claim for equal prize money, more girls are drawn into tennis by the larger sums that women now stand to win.
Foreseeing that the depth-of-the-opposition argument would soon collapse, Mr Kramer accepts entertainment value as a just criterion but brings out a fresh argument against equal pay. Women’s tennis, he holds, ‘can never become a superior spectator attraction’ because ‘in women’s tennis the defense is always going to beat the offense’ and, ‘over the long haul’, a good baseliner like Chris Lloyd will always defeat ‘the top offensive women’ such as Mrs King and Martina Navratilova. According to Mr Kramer, ‘the men are exactly the opposite’ and attackers beat backcourt players. This seems pretty desperate defensive play. I think it wrong to assume that attack is always more entertaining than skilled counter-attack. Indeed, two aggressive big servers who get their antlers locked can produce the most tedious tennis on earth, which is why the tie-break has taken on. And in any case the thesis is, I think, mistaken in point of fact. The most notable example where, over a long (indeed, record-breaking) haul, a counter-attacker has consistently beaten the most vehement serve-and-volley attackers occurs not in women’s but in men’s tennis and is named Bjorn Borg.
The ‘open tennis’ revolution of 1968 was, as Mr Kramer makes clear, wickedly and wantonly belated, and he describes the ‘sad existence’ of players who turned professional before it, a vagabondage in which the profits to be divvied up were not even always large. He agrees with Mrs King at least on the shamefulness of the shamateur system. The disadvantage most often mentioned is the dishonour of taking payments ‘under the table’, but of course the other drawback, which players are, but have no just cause to be, bashful about naming in public, was that you couldn’t wage-bargain across the table when the wage was slipped under it. What I do not feel sure about is that the present system, insofar as it involves sponsorship and endorsement, is immeasurably more honourable. It is reported that some sponsorships have been withdrawn from women’s tennis since Mrs King made public acknowledgment of a homosexual love affair; money is being wielded to enforce on the player either conformity or hypocrisy and to reinforce intolerance in the public. And Mr Kramer, ostensibly writing about metal rackets, casts this light into the system under which players earn a living; ‘The metal rackets are a marketing advance, not a competitive one. You’ll notice that most of the good players who don’t have endorsement contracts ... use wood ... It is well known that some players have tried to paint old-fashioned wooden rackets to look like metal, so they could keep their contract and also win.’ It looks as if tennis needs to go a good bit more open yet.