The continuing saga of the multi-talented and semi-precious left-handed litigant, Jimmy Connors, reached a milestone in the Mile High City last week. Rampaging into Denver like an April blizzard, Connors, in what seemed a matter of seconds, entered his first WCT tournament ever, bluffed John Newcombe out of it, angered Rod Laver in it, terrified two television networks and caused mental anguish to so many seeded players it was a miracle anybody was left to play him in the final.
The one who was, Brian Gottfried, went down 6-3, 6-4. As Connors is fond of saying, it was a week of "31 losers and me."
Having been hit with myotasis—"call it chest pains," the winking Jimbo said—and laid up for a while, Connors wanted to play Denver as a competitive warm-up for this week's rendition of the Match of the Millennium with Newcombe at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The hitch was that Newcombe also had applied to play Denver for the same reason. The prospect of their meeting in the final on Sunday afternoon left officials of NBC, which regularly televises WCT events, gulping oxygen in bewildered ecstasy and forced CBS, the network for the Vegas match, into alternate paroxysms of fear and loathing.
Aware of Connors' unequaled record in the subtle art of disappearing—in tennis, they call this a default—Denver tournament director Ray Benton insisted that Jimbo and Newk post a $12,000 appearance bond if they wanted to play. "I was skeptical," said Benton. "Was Connors using us? Would he show, or was it a con? My concern was he would drive Newcombe out and then quit himself, and I'd lose both of them."
Bill Riordan, Connors' big-bout manager, said, "The Vegas match was getting dull with Newcombe losing all the time. We needed to hype the gate. Anyway, my man needs the work." Then Riordan rushed back east to watch old films of Cus D'Amato in action.
Before the tournament, WCT Blue Group regulars were amused by the entire charade. Bets were placed on what round Connors and/or Newcombe would either default or dump—in tennis, they call this a tank—to avoid facing each other. "It's probably worth 12 thou to them to play a couple of matches, then go home," said Vitas Gerulaitis.
Laver, who is in a death-lock struggle with Arthur Ashe for WCT's $33,000 regular-season top prize from Haggar slacks, stood to be hurt by a loss to one of the interlopers. He called Connors "a spoiled brat" and said it was unfair of WCT to let Connors or Newcombe play.
When Connors heard all this grumbling, he offered to buy his victims "a pair of Haggars" to soothe the wounds, an announcement that nearly shellshocked the slacks company. "We've been sponsoring WCT for two years and none of these turkeys has mentioned our name yet," one Haggar official was heard to say. "I'm sending Connors a dozen pair. What's his waist size?"
If Connors is the epitome of evil to many of the players (who are sharing the legal costs of a $10 million lawsuit he has filed against the Association of Tennis Professionals), Newcombe is not exactly their Mister Marvelous. Even his fellow Australians regard Newcombe as something of a "Jack Man" (after the British phrase, "I'm all right, Jack," meaning selfish, looking out only after one's own interests), and one player called him "the cockiest guy around, cockier than Connors."
When Newcombe canceled his appearance in Denver, the players agreed that Connors had "outjacked" the Aussie. "A typical Riordan-Connors gambit," Charlie Pasarell called it. "Jimmy made a fool of Newk, a laughing stock."
At midweek Newcombe cast aside all regard for taste and joined the Vegas-inspired flakkery. From his ranch in San Antonio he riddled his adversary with verbal abuse. "Connors has no class," Newcombe said. "Tell Chris Evert I'm going to beat her man and then teach him how to dance as a favor to her. She'll know what I mean."
Promoter Riordan, back home in Maryland, must have shouted with glee at that one. But before Connors could get in a counterblow, his opponent in the Denver semis, Sandy Mayer, replied. "Newcombe was vulgar," he said. "All he does is go around sticking his head in front of TV cameras at basketball half-times. This whole thing is getting worse than two fight pugs shoving each other on the Mike Douglas show."
Connors' first appearance on the WCT tour was enough of a curiosity. Though he encountered no malice, there was an undercurrent of tension whenever "the James Gang," as Connors calls himself and his retinue, encountered the peer group. Connors and his doubles partner, Bob Kreiss, stayed at a different hotel from the rest of the players and dressed and changed there rather than in the locker room. But Connors was always on his best behavior. "I don't want these guys to think I'm invading their territory," he said.
Laver, whose dislike for Connors knows few bounds, didn't want to pose for publicity pictures with Jimbo, but that was the only thing approaching an incident. Ray Moore even invited Connors to a player "roast" on Thursday night at the Colorado Mine Company, a restaurant that WCT had taken over as their basic eat-drink-and-talk-to-foxy-ladies headquarters.
Connors would have gone, too, were it not that his doubles match with the Chileans, Jaime Fillol and Patricio Cornejo, went on and on and he was drained. That match, in which Connors and Kreiss were ahead 4-0 in the third set tie break only to lose 5-7, had the crowd on its feet and WCT officials practically bellowing for a Connors defeat.
In singles Connors raced through the field with the loss of only one set (to the articulate hippie, Moore). It was obvious that his presence alone was affecting the play of others.
First, it appeared Connors would meet Tanner, the defending champion, in the quarters. But Roscoe, looking ahead, went down at the hands of Thomaz Koch. Then, with a Gerulaitis-Connors semifinal and a Laver-Connors final looming on the horizon, suspicion reared its ugly head. Cynics believed Connors was sure to tank to his friend, the 20-year-old Gerulaitis. This defeat would aid Vitas on his late run for points to gain the May WCT playoffs in Dallas while at the same time avoid a match (perhaps a loss) to a revived Laver, which might diminish interest in Vegas/Newcombe.
Connors dispatched such talk with venom. "C'mon, dammit," he said. "Whoever says I tank will get punched in his chops. I hate losing more than I love winning."
Such speculation became academic anyway when Gerulaitis folded against Mayer after Laver was upset by his Egyptian nemesis, Ismail El Shafei. Then Gottfried beat El Shafei to reach the final against Connors, who had put away Mayer 6-4, 6-1.
Connors' shots in that confrontation were matched only by his angled licks at Newcombe. "My mom and dad and Chrissie always tell me to respect my elders," he said, "but Mr. Newcombe makes it very difficult. How can a 30-year-old act like such a baby? He must be scared."
Did JC think he was ready for the big one?
"Ready and raring," Connors said. "In Vegas we're going to see who teaches who how to dance."
Gentlemen, shake hands and come out kicking and screaming.