Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Sports Icon Fondly Remembered

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 10:02 PM

Years ago when I aspired to become a professional tennis player, I worked at a Colorado resort hotel's tennis facility. My job included cleaning the place, gathering balls for the pro during his lessons, playing with resort guests who needed a partner and stringing rackets. In my off-hours I devoured everything I could read about the game.

The player I most admired at that time was Jack Kramer. Kramer who died this past week at age 88, was a Wimbledon and U.S National (now U.S. Open) singles champion in the late 40s and won dozens of national and international doubles titles. Plagued by an arthritic back, Kramer retired from amateur tennis in 1954 and started a successful pro tennis tour that traveled the country giving exhibitions.

Like a lot of aspiring players of the time I played with a Jack Kramer autograph model Wilson racket, which was the best selling racket worldwide for close to three decades. I went a step further salting away a portion of my monthly earnings to buy a pair of white Jack Kramer signature tennis shorts.

So when my boss the tennis pro walked in one day and announced that Jack Kramer and part of his touring company would be staging an exhibition at the resort, I was ecstatic.

Two months later four of tennis' greatest players arrived early one morning to check out the courts and the facility. Besides Kramer, there was his longtime doubles partner Ted Schroeder and the two Panchos- Gonzalez and Segura.

Pancho Gonzalez was known not only for his incredible service speed (100mph - a marvel in the wood racket era) but also as one of the first young American players to rise to prominence from public tennis courts (in this case in L.A.) in the then very much country club player-centric world of tournament tennis.

Ecuadorian Pancho Segura was known for his tireless energy, charisma on the court and finesse at doubles.

After a short tour around the tennis facility, Kramer gathered all the young wannabes like me who had volunteered to be ballboys during the exhibitions for a short course on how to do our job properly. He did so with the tone of a caring parent rather than that of a big time tennis star. He inspired us all to do the best job possible.

On the second day of the exhibitions, Kramer opened with a clinic. After discussing some of the finer points of the game Kramer looked around for a young player to hit with him. I was chosen and almost threw up I was so nervous.

Kramer immediately put me at ease and after several long rallies we played two games. In the second game I aced him. He roared with laughter and swore he'd ace me back. He did, twice.

I slept little that night being so keyed up by not only playing my idol but also doing it in front of several thousand people. By the end of the three-days of exhibitions, Kramer was calling me by name.

The following year, Kramer and the same group of players returned to the resort. This time he singled me out to prep the ball boy crew and also employed me as a babysitter for his two young children so he and his wife could have some evenings to themselves.

As the three-day exhibitions unfolded, Kramer spent a great deal more time with the young players than he had the previous year. He also invited several of them to be on the court with him during his clinic session. Each kid that got a few minutes on the court with Kramer seemed to grow not only as a player but as a person in those precious few minutes hitting with the master.

My only claim to fame that year was getting hit in the stomach by a 100-mph Pancho Gonzalez serve and passing out.

In ensuing years, I got better paying summer jobs that relegated my tennis practice to after work hours and weekends. With Kramer as my role model, I was still determined to make tennis a career.

Those plans seemed less of a reality when my family moved from Colorado the San Francisco Bay Area. I questioned my future prospects in the game because the caliber of talent in California was so much higher than I'd ever experienced. I went from winning a lot to struggling a lot and as a result was having trouble working my way into the Northern California tennis community.

Just when I was starting to feel most adrift from tennis, I read that Kramer was playing a charity exhibition match at the famed Jack Gardiner Tennis Ranch in Monterey.

I drove down and watched an entertaining match pitting Kramer against a up-and-coming collegiate star half his age.

At match end, Kramer caught my eye and made his way over to me. Shaking my hand, he said, "Woody, it's great to see you. What are you doing out here in California?"

From that moment on, I never had a problem getting a match in Northern California.

So thanks Jack Kramer for being a classy athlete through and through and such positive role model to all of us who looked up to you.

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