By now, just about everyone knows the Wilson-Serena stories. Here’s mine, about Jack Kramer. The Hall of Fame tennis great had won the singles title twice in the forerunner to the U.S. Open in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, barnstorming for money by tennis pros was new. Kramer started then what we all now see on a global scale at Wimbledon, Australia, Paris, the U.S. Open and other tennis spots around the world. In those early days of the professional tennis tour, Kramer traveled around the United States for one-night appearances with then-stars Bobby Riggs, Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzalez, playing for money (I believe the payoff then was $3,000 for winning a night’s play).
One Kramer traveling group (he was joined by Sedgman, McGregor and Gonzalez that night) came to the indoor arena in Syracuse, N.Y., when I was a student at the university. A group of tennis enthusiasts were asked to be linesmen. We had no training, and our pay was one free ticket for a guest. That was enough for me to name-drop for weeks in advance of the match and to invite a lovely date to a box seat at the arena to show off my new public status.
On the evening of the event, I was assigned a chair behind the baseline on one side of the court. It was very awkward to see the lines when a player ran between the officials and the lines we scrutinized. When three of the players were serving or receiving service in front of me, they were friendly, occasionally chatted with me. Except Kramer; intense, all business, he never said a word. He was playing against Sedgman, a very friendly, chatty Australian gentleman. During both singles matches there were occasional, some quite vocal, player complaints to all the judges about specific calls, but no one questioned my calls.
At match point, with Kramer playing on my side of the court, Sedgman hit a return just inside the line. That is, as I bent around Kramer to observe, I saw it in. Thousands of fans in the stands, and Kramer, saw it out. Balls are not called “in,” only “out.” If there is no call, professionals play everything. Kramer saw it so far out, he didn’t even attempt to return the ball. Point, set, match.
And outrage. Fans jeered. Kramer came at me, racket raised. I lifted my wood chair in defense. How could I, he screamed? Why didn’t you play the ball and argue later, I responded?
Mortified, I was escorted out of the noisy arena. Needless to say, I was not a hero to my date, as I had planned. I received sarcastic phone calls for days with joking messages saying it was Jack Kramer, and would I meet him on the street?
I still play competitive tennis (in my 70s), but I’ll never officiate again, in tennis or anything else. So I have some empathy for the sad and shaken referee at Serena’s match. Though her call was wrong in fact and worse in its timing, Serena’s inexcusably excessive outburst will remain on her career description forever. She will survive and thrive. But the petite, frightened lineswoman will go down pathetically and ignominiously in trivial pursuits for her gaffe. I sympathize with her as I recall Serena Williams’s and Jack Kramer’s remarkable careers in professional tennis, and my brief and notorious one in umpiring.
September 25, 2009, 05:20 pm