Jack Kramer’s “The Game” with Frank Deford is one of the finest tennis books you’ll ever lay your hands on. Jack Kramer was a grand master of the sport, winning everything there was to win. With that kind of tennis success comes an expertise that only a select few can acquire.
Kramer, now deceased for several years, could analyze and breakdown any match, any player, the mental side of the sport in a way that educates the reader.
Discussing Stan Smith and his sudden rapid decline from the top, Kramer’s description seemed to also fit the current Federer situation…
“When you reach a certain plateau in tennis, you do almost everything automatically,” wrote Kramer. “I would hit down the line at a certain moment without really knowing that I had made a choice and carried it out. When things start to go bad for a player, the first thing he loses is that spontaneity. He starts to think a little, which is bad enough, but then he starts to overthink. That’s what happened to (Stan) Smith. And then after a certain number of losses, he couldn’t march about with that air of confidence. Listen, let me assure you that you play better as Number l because most players cannot forget that fact, and thus they play worse. Once Stan was an ex-champion, the others wanted him all the more – which made it that much more difficult for him.”
Kramer added some more thoughts: “He was reaching the peak of his career; he was still only 26, Number l in the world. And I think it is possible to speculate that had he played that (boycotted) Wimbledon, had he won it – which was the best guess – he might not have declined so spectacularly in the years that followed. The week after (boycotted) Wimbledon there were two tournaments on the continent, and the one at Gstaad in Switzerland had a much stronger field. So we asked Stan if he would switch to the other tournament, at Bastad, Sweden. As always, he promptly agreed to help. The tournament there was played on clay – hardly Smith’s favorite surface – but he won, which gives a pretty good hint that he was primed for Wimbledon.
“But then he came back home from Wimbledon as an ex-champion, somehow he had lost the ability to win. Smith didn’t win another tournament for something like two years. It was not like he collapsed overnight though. A whole year later in the semifinals at Wimbledon ’74, he was serving for the match against Rosewall, up two sets to love, when he completely fell apart. That was the last nail in the coffin. That and Connors. He couldn’t stand Connors, and that made it all the worse that he couldn’t beat him.”
Maybe Federer losing to Djokovic at the U.S. Open, with the two match points was one of the final nails in the coffin, though Federer did rebound, unlike Smith, to win Wimbledon last year.
We’ll never know for sure the exact roots of a great champion’s decline. But it sure makes for an interesting discussion, where every pundit and fan, even an expert like Jack Kramer, has an idea.
“first thing he loses is that spontaneity”