Skip to main content
Original Issue

Jimbo does his bit for Uncle Sam

Playing Davis Cup at long last, Connors helps topple Venezuela

America's longest-running tragicomedy, Waiting for Jimbo, came to a breathtaking conclusion in a Davis Cup match in Tucson last weekend when a Venezuelan named Humphrey Hubert Hose struck two serves that appeared to have been unloaded from a Gatling gun past an American named James Scott Connors.

Connors looked puzzled, then retreated to the back fence, wagged a finger, shook his Raggedy Andy locks and did a tiny jig. Eighty billion controversy fans, not to mention a few USTA officials sweltering nearby in their blazers and button-downs, breathed a sigh of relief. For it was indeed true. Old Blue Mouth was back and the Davis Cup had a new life for the U.S.

If it seemed unlikely that Connors of Belleville, Ill., the Los Angeles freeways, Caesars Palace, Chris Event's heart, Manuel Orantes' palm and Paul Anka's vocal studios would make his first Davis Cup appearance on a turquoise-colored court in the middle of the burning desert battling against Venezuela, it really wasn't. Where else should a legendary patriot show up but in the land of Barry Goldwater? And what other match should a nervous rookie be thrown into but one against the 6'4" Hose, the best player ever to come off the island of Curaçao?

All week Connors had admitted to a "special feeling" about Davis Cup play, but he didn't seem able to make up his mind just what the feeling was. One day he would say something like "It's great to be playing for 210 million Americans instead of just Jimmy Connors." Another day it was "super to be here with these guys helping each other in a team atmosphere." Finally, his debut as this country's cup savior was "no bigger than the finals of Wimbledon and Forest Hills or the first round of the Belleville Open, they're all big."

The sum total of these thoughtful pronouncements went a long way toward reassuring everybody that our Jimbo was indeed experiencing the strange and wondrous vibrations that evidently come over tennis players when they represent their country.

The atmosphere, the very aura of the event was exactly what cup adherents had been telling Connors he was missing since he left the team in 1972 (without playing any matches) because of differences with then-Captain Dennis Ralston. So it must have been satisfying even to old cup hands to see so tough a competitor as Connors consumed by butterflies as he opposed Hose in the second match of what was to become a U.S. rout of Venezuela.

Hose won love games the first two times he got his huge hands on serve and, in between, he took Connors to four break points before the shaky American finally held his own serve. Burly and unorthodox, Hose was batting his forehand with the grace of a bear falling off a log, but his service arrived like a tumbling redwood. With a combination of these serves, some slow, looping backhands, drop shots off his toes, net-cord winners and even one carry shot that officials failed to call, Hose broke Connors, held his own serve and, leading 4-1, came to two more break points in the sixth game for a possible 5-1 lead. On the first he rifled a forehand passing shot down the line that was barely out. On the second he set up Connors perfectly with soft stuff to the baseline only to rush net and miss an easy backhand volley. A wry grin crossed Hose's face, undoubtedly because he knew the spell was broken.

Connors, hitting strongly and with confidence now, won the game and ran out the match 6-4, 6-1, 6-3, literally beating the pants off his opponent. After the first set the popular Hose split his shorts and had to retire to the locker room for a change.

In the normal course of events, a Davis Cup second-round American zone match would have drawn only the occasional society-set groupies and a passing Gila monster to the Tucson Racquet and Swim Club. What made the event so special—and attracted sellout crowds of more than 6,000 all three days—was the magnetic presence of Connors. This and the public knowledge that in five of the last 10 years the U.S. team has gone up against enterprising Latins—who were supposed to be easy pickings—and ended up losing. Most recently, Colombia and Mexico handed the gringos their heads while Connors was off sulking and knocking over Las Vegas for a lot of ugly old money.

However, when the USTA replaced Ralston with Tony Trabert—a move subtly dictated if not outright demanded by Connors and his managerial Svengali, Bill Riordan—the prodigal son agreed to participate in 1976 cup play. It should be pointed out now that 1976 Davis Cup play begins a good three months before the conclusion of 1975 play in which Sweden will meet Czechoslovakia in the December finals.

Trabert's appearance with the Davis Cup team was a true homecoming. With Vic Seixas, he had been the mainstay of the U.S. in the early '50s. In a five-year period Trabert compiled an undefeated record in zone play, though he was on only one team that won the cup. He was a logical choice for captain when the USTA was throwing out the names of every Connors-approved human they could think of from Riordan to Pancho Segura.

In Tucson, Trabert was fortified by the presence of two of his camp counselors, a business partner, his sister-in-law, his mother, his wife Emeryl and their dog Little Stuff. There was no denying the emotion of the occasion. Walking from his casita to the courts for the first match on Friday, Trabert told his family he was dedicating the team's 1976 effort to the memory of his brother, who died in a plane crash last year. Tears streamed down Trabert's face. "I'm not ashamed," he said. "This is one of my proudest moments, like making the Hall of Fame."

Later Trabert laughed off any nervousness, but Connors said, "Don't let him kid you. Coach was really twitchin'."

Rumors of discord between Trabert and Connors were easily put to rest by the obviously easy camaraderie between the two. During practice Trabert would make suggestions on shot strategy and Connors would acquiesce. The captain even had the temerity to confront Connors about his famous language and curious finger motions on the court. "I did it quietly," Trabert joked. But Connors was the model of decorum against Venezuela.

"If I mess around when it's just me and lose, then it's just me who lost," Connors said. "But here it's not just me. I'm not going to take any chances of letting down Roscoe and the rest. One person can't win the Davis Cup."

After all his inflammatory lawsuits and reputation as a loner, Connors' legitimate concern was how his teammates would react to him. Room assignments—a key in this regard—were taken care of by the marital makeup of the team. Roscoe Tanner and the doubles pair of Erik van Dillen and Dick Stockton were with their wives. That left Connors to share a casita with Vitas Gerulaitis and Billy Martin, and Trabert to watch closely how everyone got along.

"I hoped team spirit would build a close personal relationship," said Trabert. "I think it has."

The 24-year-old van Dillen has been playing Davis Cup since he was in swaddling clothes, and he was a rival of Connors when both were juniors and van Dillen was beating everybody on the way to the major championships Connors wound up winning. The two also have been separated over the years by the bitter machinations of their respective managers, Riordan and Donald Dell. But van Dillen was loudest of all in praise of his new teammate.

"Whatever you write about Jimmy here, write something good," he said. "He's really made an effort and worked his tail off. I think he has learned, just as in business when you can't work a guy over then expect him to have lunch with you, a tennis player can't be an ass on court and a pal off.

"Segura once told me Jimmy hated me," van Dillen went on, "but I didn't really know the kid. I'd see him at tournaments and say, 'Hi, good win' or something. Now I won't hesitate to ask him to lunch or to go out on the town at night. That's what Davis Cup competition does to us guys."

In a dramatic change from the regime of the intense Ralston, Trabert ran a thoroughly casual camp. Once, spotting the U.S. team playing touch football (in past years, a no-no), Trabert inquired when somebody was going to "run a stop-and-go pattern." He also kept reminding everyone about "a 4 a.m. curfew for the boys in blue."

"I think Tony realized we've done enough on our own that he couldn't come in here and teach us how to win the Davis Cup," said Tanner. "He knows this is our team as much as his."

Venezuela, the first hurdle to the cup, turned out to be a fascinating conglomeration. There was the Cura√ßaoan, Hose, whose name is pronounced like the Spanish José ("In Venezuela, though, it is Hose just like a water hose because if it was José, they think my name backwards, José Humphrey," he tried to explain). There was Jorge Andrew, Hose's former teammate at Corpus Christi College in Texas; blond Freddy Winckleman, a senior at Maryland; and Captain Angel Gracia, a veterinarian who participated in the first transplant of a cornea from dog to man.

Gracia was asked what kind of dog it was, Seeing Eye?

"No," he said, "was mixer dog."

"Of course," said a journalist. "Was Seeing Eye man."

The Venezuelan captain expressed confidence his team would handle the U.S. because, as he put it, "The balls are round, and Connors, in big ones, had pathological tensions."

"You know something?" said Riordan. "I think he's right."

After Tanner bombarded Andrew with his southpaw ballistic missiles, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 ("I don't see none of those serves few times," said the Venezuelan), Connors polished off Hose and declared, "I'm taking the game more seriously. I don't care about being the best in 1975. I want to be the best ever. It is important to me to be a legend by the time I'm 30."

The next day van Dillen and Stockton defeated Hose and Andrew 6-2, 6-2, 7-5 in 80 minutes to wrap up the win for the U.S. and start the team packing—probably to head for Mexico City and a revenge match in either December or January.

By that time Connors still won't be 30, but Americans should be resting more easily anyway. A brand new legend is going after the old Davis Cup.