Westwood, Calif. — It is incredible that nearly half a century after he became the youngest United States Davis Cup player (at age 18 in 1939), Jack Kramer is still a major force in tennis. Players continue to copy his total game, sales of Kramer-autograph model rackets remain brisk, and his opinions probably are as widely sought now as they ever were. Jack's name also continues to appear regularly on committees for the US Tennis Association.
Asked why the United States isn't producing the number of champions people have come to expect, Kramer replied: ``A lot of it has to do with parents. Tennis is such a great carry-over game, because a person can play it practically all of his life, that today's parents are anxious to get their kids started early. That's alright if they are being taught the proper fundamentals, but the problem is that they're not.
``Once parents discover that their kids, usually between the ages of 9 and 12, can keep the ball in play and win by hitting rainbows, nothing else matters. Instead of establishing a kid's game by having someone who knows how to teach him fundamentals, all they ever see is the winning part.''
Kramer says that what wins for a kid in the 9-to-12 age bracket won't buy many points when the young person reaches 16 or 17 and has to compete against players who have been properly trained.
``The situation isn't easy on our tennis coaches either,'' Jack explained. ``Even if they are given a kid to train at age 13 or 14, it's usually because he's been winning and the parents want him to be able to do even more. Of course the coach recognizes what he's up against right away: poor mechanics and other bad habits that have to be eliminated. But it's tough to make someone who has been winning understand that he can only improve by changing his game.
``Worse yet, if he changes and starts losing, the next thing he changes is coaches. So basically the tennis coach in most cases is trapped. My feeling is that until we develop an attitude with kids focusing on, `Who cares what I do between 12 and 15, it's 18 and beyond that counts,' the US is not going to produce its fair share of champions.''
Kramer also has an opinion on why the US Davis Cup team hasn't done better in recent years.
``Because the Davis Cup these days is played on more than one type of surface [usually fast hardcourts or slow clay], I don't think a country can have just one team anymore,'' Jack said. ``I think you need two teams, and that you need to develop specialists. A perfect example is Sweden, which has gone this route with great success.''
Inevitably, the names of John McEnroe and Boris Becker sliced into our conversation.
``I can't believe that McEnroe at age 27 is over the hill,'' Jack told me. ``He simply has too much talent for that. If John could go back to exactly the kind of game he played when he was ranked No. 1 in the world, he could be just as big a winner as he was before.
``What I'm talking about is the game he played when he almost always held serve, defended well, and no one could consistently handle his passing shots.
``Right now McEnroe is mentally overplaying the ball,'' he continued. ``I've also noticed that since Mac came back from his long layoff, he isn't quite as quick as he used to be, and that he makes more mistakes. But these are all things that could be corrected with a little help and a change of attitude.''
Kramer says that Becker is a tremendous player who is extremely mobile. ``Yet,'' added Jack, ``and I know this sounds like a contradiction, Boris doesn't move as well as he should. He could make things easier for himself by getting the balls even quicker than he does.
``One thing Becker needs to do is stop reading his press clippings and start to tighten up his game. He is so good that he doesn't have to make super shots to win. All he has to do is be consistent. Yet sometimes he beats himself by overhitting the ball.
``Basically, tennis is a game of consistency. It's not really the good shots you make that win for you, it's the errors that you don't make.''