In the middle of the news of the death of Patrick Swayze and Jody Powell, as well as the antics of various tennis players like Serena Williams, one event barely registered a blip on the media radar screen: the passing of Jack Kramer.
Kramer won Wimbledon in 1947 and the U.S. Championships in 1946 and 1947 before turning pro in an era in which that meant a player could no longer compete in those international events. Upon his retirement, he was widely regarded as one of the five or six greatest players who ever lived.
Kramer was one of the inventors of what was called the “Big Game,” meaning that he followed all his serves into the net area to win points with his volley. His first serve, first volley, and forehand approach shot down-the-line (to his opponent’s backhand) were legendary.
But Kramer’s most enduring legacy has little to do with what he actually did on the court.
It has to do instead with the racket that bears his name: the Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph.
Anyone who played tennis in the 60s and 70s used a “Kramer” at some point in their career.
I learned to play the game using a Kramer when I was 7, foolishly abandoned them at 10, and then returned to the fold at 16 and not coincidentally played the best tennis of my life at 17.
With the advent of graphite rackets with larger heads, the Kramer slowly but surely fell out of style before being taken off the market altogether in the mid-1980s. I still remember just how good a new Kramer racket felt in my hands, especially when it was strung tight with VS gut.
Even today, I have two frames in my closet for old time’s sake.
The irony about the new, larger head rackets is this: when they first came out (1979-80), we all thought they would bring players’ net games to new heights. I remember thinking, “I can never hit the ball past that guy at the net; his racket is huge!”
The reverse has happened. Because large headed rackets have a much greater hitting surface, and because the new composite materials are so strong, these days players’ groundstrokes are unbeatable. Those who are brave enough to venture into the forecourt find themselves lunging helplessly as the topspin-laden ball whizzes past them.
So just as Jack Kramer’s signature racket was rendered obsolete by technology, so did the very way he played the game.
Too bad on both counts.