A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of conqueror, the confidence of success which often induces real success.
Jimmy Connors was the indisputable favorite of his grandmother as well, and so, he is most abundantly infused with this magic milk. It surges through his veins, suppressing every doubt and every defeat. And why not? The two women had promised him the world, and, just so, he grasped it in 1974: only 21, but already champion of all he surveyed, Alexander astride Bucephalus astride the globe. He won the Wimbledon final with the loss of but six games, Forest Hills with the loss of but two. Wise men in tennis sat about and seriously contemplated whether he would win every major title for, say, the next decade.
Conqueror was what he was, too, because Connors did not merely win. He assaulted the opposition, laid waste to it, often mocked it, as well, simply by the force of his presence. The other players feared to go against him, because the most awesome legend that can surround any athlete sprang up about Connors: The better any mortal played against him, the better Connors became. So, he became invincible upon the court, because no man could beat him, and he was inviolate off the court, because his mother had told him so.
Two months ago, on July 8, Connors lost the 1978 Wimbledon final, winning only seven games against an ascendant Bjorn Borg. Since 1974 Connors has played in seven major finals and lost six.
What has happened is disillusioning for Connors and his mother. They speak of the latest wrack and ruin by Borg in hallucinatory terms, and Jimmy fitfully retreats to the glorious conquests of yore: "They'll be talking about '74 when I'm dead.... Don't forget what I did in '74.... Nobody can ever take '74 from me." On and on like that. And the greatest irony is that '74 will be devalued if he does not triumph over Borg in '78, because this year Borg can win the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup—and as extraordinary as '74 was, Connors did not achieve that. For history, then, what would '74 become but a real good year a kid had just before Borg became great?
And that was so long ago: 1974. Since then Connors's father has died, and his surrogate father—his manager. Bill Riordan—has become estranged from him. His only male instructor, Pancho Segura, has been discharged. His engagement to Chris Evert, the one sweet love of his life, was called off, nearly at the altar. Looking back, it all began to unravel then, the loss of dear ones and tournaments alike. A kind of incompleteness plagues Connors. In the big tournaments, the ones he shoots for, he virtually never loses until the finals. What is it there? What seizes him at the last step? There is a flaw somewhere, something that denies him consummation in his life.
"It happened so fast," Evert says. Oddly, she and Jimmy have matured more in the difficult ways of their love than they have as players in a simple game. "There was no emotional foundation, nothing to fall back on," Evert says. "You must never forget that he made No. 1 when he was 21, and now he's not No. 1. That makes him so defensive. You see, he's still a champion. He isn't No. 1, but he hasn't lost the qualities of a champion."
It is suddenly fashionable to blithely dismiss Connors as a mere cipher against Borg—as easy as it once was to consider Connors unbeatable. But no, there is too much of the sublime in Connors's game to suggest that anyone ever could own him. The technique is still all there, but the passion has been muted. So now, starting this week at the U.S. Open, we shall find out if the man is capable of what once the boy and mother accomplished. For that matter, we shall find out soon enough if there is a man to surmount the boy.
In retrospect, Arthur Ashe may have dismantled the invincible Jimbo by upsetting him in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Although he won Forest Hills in 1976, Connors has never really been the same since. In the months before the Ashe match, in the period after Jimmy and Chrissie broke up, Connors had already begun to self-destruct—ballooning in weight, running imperiously over good people and firm obligations. But by Wimbledon time he was primed, and all the more forbidding for the callousness he had displayed.
Now rampant upon the court, he did not lose a set in the early matches at Wimbledon. In the semifinals he came up against Roscoe Tanner, who has the best service in the game. Tanner was serving at his very best, yet Connors obliterated him 6-4, 6-1, 6-4. New York Times correspondent Fred Tupper, an able—and restrained—tennis authority for several decades, wrote in awe, "Did anybody ever see a ball hit so hard?...Connors's performance today staggers the imagination and confuses the memory."
Incredibly, Connors rose to this majesty despite a secret leg injury—something called an interior compartment syndrome—which he had suffered in his opening match. After beating Tanner, Connors went to Chelsea Hospital, and as he lay on the examination table the doctors called Riordan aside and told him that the damage to the leg was growing dangerous, and the final could be played only at the risk of crippling Connors, perhaps of ending his career. Riordan broke the news to Connors, who replied that it was the final of Wimbledon, and he had to play. Riordan then turned to leave, and Connors called plaintively to him. "Bill," he said, "don't tell Mom."
Connors and his mother shared a hotel room (they are as frugal as they are close). She knew he was going for treatments, but not that he was putting his playing life—the one she had created for him—on the line.
Ashe beat him badly. There was no evidence that Connors was at a physical disadvantage, but he played as if in a daze. Ashe changed his style for the match, but Connors could not, or would not, adjust. There were no alibis afterward. There never are. Although often crude and ill-mannered upon the court, Connors is almost always a gracious sportsman once the game is done. But Ashe had belled the cat. The conqueror that the mother and the grandmother had carefully fashioned was exposed. Riordan, who did not tell Mom, was banished by the end of the summer; Chrissie and Segura were already gone. And also departing soon enough was that unshakable confidence, the mystical armor his mother had spent a childhood dressing him in.
Two months after the Ashe defeat, Connors lost another final, to Manolo Orantes at Forest Hills. By now he was indulging himself with groupies and food, taking both to excess. Under tension, Connors gorges himself. At tournaments, in training, he will devour four or five large meals a day. At that time, in '75, lost and depressed, he gained 30 pounds. One day in Acapulco he saw himself in the mirror—"a spare tire, fat face; I only had slits for eyes." He reached for the phone. "After I called my mom, I lost 18 pounds in the next two weeks," he says.
And so he started back; but something was never recovered from that night at Chelsea Hospital and the next afternoon on Centre Court. By this summer of 1978, even before he fell to Borg, other players had begun to see in Connors a pathetic parody of his old self. "Jimmy's always exuded such confidence," Ashe says, "and real or not, it seemed all the more intimidating because it was cocooned in that aura of bravado and brashness. But now even that seems specious. He's scared about something. I don't know what's happened, but he's not the same."
"The kid is psyched," says Riordan. At Wimbledon, Riordan took Borg at 7 to 1 to win in straight sets and cashed in big against his Jimbo.
Gloria Thompson Connors proudly points out that she and her mother are the only women ever to have developed a men's champion. Whatever more Jimmy achieves, theirs was an amazing accomplishment, and no one should be surprised at the obvious—at how much the mother lives for the son and how much he depends on her. Naturally, if this were not so, it never could have worked.
Of the other major influences upon Jimbo, Segura was merely brought in as a retainer, a male totem, to help Connors "think like a man" on the court, while Riordan was tapped as something of a necessary evil in the shattered times after the grandmother, Bertha Thompson, died in 1972. Bertha was known as Two Mom, a name bestowed on her by Johnny, the older of the two Connors children. Johnny had originally been cast as the future champion, but, as Gloria has noted many times, he lacked the requisite "guts." The second boy, the lefthander, did not. Eerily, it was Jimmy whom Gloria was carrying when she personally cut and cleared the land behind their house to build the tennis court that would give meaning to her life.
This sporting monument at 632 North 68th Street, East St. Louis, Ill., is now grown over, in disrepair. But then, so is the whole town run down, forgotten by the whites who abandoned it. But while East St. Louis was never fashionable, while it was always the other side, when Gloria Thompson was growing up there, it was a well-kept blue-collar borough, the municipal manor of Mayor John T. Connors.
That was Jimmy's grandfather. Mayor Connors had one son, Big Jim, a good-looking, well-liked fellow of no particular abilities. He was sent off to Notre Dame and, back home, was provided with the sinecure of running the toll bridge that spanned the Mississippi into St. Louis at the other end of 68th Street.
Gloria's father, Al Thompson, was chief of the city parks police. Hers was a disciplined, rock-ribbed upbringing. As the Connorses were open and genial, so were the Thompsons tight and skeptical, even suspicious. Jimmy Connors got his athletic genes from the maternal side. Al Thompson had been a middleweight boxer and a lifeguard, and when he and Two Mom were courting, they shared their love this way: He taught her to swim, she taught him to play tennis. They had one child, and the happiest times of Gloria's life were spent at Jones Park, which she recalls as a nearly idyllic place where she would swim in a sand-bottomed pool and then skip past a beautiful lagoon to the tennis courts. "Believe me," she declares earnestly, "I never went to a country club as nice as Jones Park." The remark is not offhand. Tennis was a country-club activity, and the Thompsons, the cop's family, insular by nature, grew even more defensive as tennis brought them into contact with the swells across the river.
Says a St. Louisan who has known the family for many years, "Gloria was taught, 'They're all out to get us,' and that's what she taught Jimmy. His mother is the only person he trusts. They're really not comfortable with anybody else. They have such overpowering loyalty to each other that they're incapable of any lasting outside relationships. Their own relationship is spooky. I swear, it's always been like there was a tube going from her veins into his." One of the first things mother and son bring up (independently) is that she can correct his game over the telephone merely by sensing what has gone awry.
Gloria was a fine athlete in her youth, but there was no evidence then of the drive and single-mindedness that would consume her on behalf of her son. Pauline Betz Addie, a world tennis champion in the mid-'40s, says, "It's impossible for me to believe these accounts of Gloria today—hard and mean. Never. She was the sweetest, most ingenuous, lovely person." She was pretty, too, a good catch. Surely no one in the world photographs worse than Gloria Connors. In fact, she is a lovely woman, gossamer feminine, all grace and poise. The good-timing mayor's boy wooed her, married her, and they settled in the trim little redbrick house on 68th Street.
This marriage of opposites never worked. Big Jim died of cancer last year, and both Gloria and Jimmy stoutly uphold his memory, but from all objective accounts, theirs was a house divided by tennis. Big Jim learned of his son's engagement to Chrissie over the radio. When Jimmy won Wimbledon in '74, he couldn't be bothered to take his father's congratulatory phone call. Gloria explains it this way: "My husband enjoyed being around people in the evenings, and, of course, he had to take care of Johnny. We all had to sacrifice. You see, we more or less had to part ways if Jimmy was to play the tournaments he had to. Two Mom and I had a job to do."
Unlike Johnny, now a teaching pro in Atlanta, Jimmy had an interest in competitive tennis that never flagged. "I've been known as a pushy stage-door [sic] mother, but my biggest problem was to stop him from playing tennis," Gloria says. "He's always been the same. Why, he couldn't wait to kick the slats out of his playpen and get started in life. But always a homebody. Johnny would like to spend the night at other boys' houses. Not Jimmy. He was so happy just being in his own home. You know, he was so much like his grandmother especially. We were a team. We were three peas in a pod."
Soon everything was devoted to Jimmy's tennis potential. It was Gloria's pleasure to become, as she describes it, "a human backboard." No detail was overlooked. On the boys' circuit, free tournament housing would be declined, and the team would spend money it really couldn't afford to spend to stay in a motel, so that Jimbo would not get chummy with the children he had to beat. In St. Louis, Gloria would transport him about to clubs, soliciting good adult players to hit with the child. Those who lacked the zeal for this pastime were dismissed as snobs. At the same time, those pros who took an interest in the boy and sought to help his game were suspected of trying to "steal" him from his mother.
Two Mom told Gloria, "Don't bring anybody else into the picture. You made him, Glo. Don't ever hand him over to anybody." If there is one thread that weaves most prominently through the whole fabric of the relationship, it is this one. And yet, contrary to what is generally assumed, Mrs. Connors does not appear to be motivated by selfishness. No, she is simply and utterly devoted to this son, and she is convinced that no one else can serve him so well as she. "Yes, sir, we fought it," Gloria says. "But if no one would play with Jimmy, he had me. I played him every day—every good day—of the year, every year. And we played hard. We taught him to be a tiger. 'Get those tiger juices flowing!' I would call out, and I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat, and he learned to do this because he found out that if I had the chance, I would knock it down his. Yes, sir. And then I would say, 'You see, Jimbo, you see what even your own mother will do to you on a tennis court?' "
Ah, but off the court he was pampered: bikes and go-karts, a pony. More important, he was spoiled emotionally, always shielded from life's little adversities. This arrangement remains in force to this day. Connors is about as difficult to reach as any public figure in the country; he has been protected for so long that he will go to almost any lengths to avoid personal confrontation off the court; by his own admission, he finds it constitutionally impossible to say no. He avoids contention in real life as he seems to seek it on the court.
It is all bizarre and contradictory. Once Connors has been treed, he is not only wonderfully genial, but he also seems to enjoy himself. In paid personal appearances, he is charming, considerate of strangers and supplicants to a fault. He will never refuse an autograph. Children adore him, and he seems happiest of all in the haven of their innocent affection.
But now it seems the price of a lifetime of the Connors insularity must be paid upon the court. Connors seems incapable of making hard decisions—even to honestly assess, much less change, his game or strategy. Out there, on the concrete garden, only the tiger was formed—and his only response is to salivate more tiger juices. That very quality of his mother's that protected him, that let him gain the world championship, now appears to vitiate him. "Wouldn't you be different with your mother around all the time?" Ilie Nastase says. "I don't mean better or worse, I just mean very different."
Nastase was once very close with Connors. Then, at their TV challenge match in 1976, Nastase was wounded by some tiger-juice insults that Connors hurled at him, and last year, in a match at Caesars Palace—where Connors had never been beaten in a dozen outings—Nastase was prepared. When Connors began abusing him, Nastase stopped him dead by saying, "You don't want to fight. Go get your mother." Connors, shaking, was beaten for the first time on that court.
Acknowledging the incident, Nastase adds beseechingly, "Hey, don't get Gloria mad at me." For, notwithstanding Pauline Addie's tender memories, Mrs. Connors is feared. She is feared as a zealot, for being an implacable advocate for her son. When, after months of negotiations, Riordan obtained the unheard-of guarantee of $500,000 for a single match—a figure so large that even CBS considered it obscene and refused to divulge it—Gloria's first response was that it should be a million. Last year a three-man round-robin among Borg, Guillermo Vilas and Connors was set up for television. Michelob was bankrolling it for $1 million: $500,000 for the winner, $300,000 for the runner-up, $200,000 for show. At worst, 200 grand for losing two exhibitions over a weekend. "Isn't there something else?" Mrs. Connors said to the promoter, Gene Scott. "There has to be an extra $250,000 for Jimbo." Michelob, aghast at this hubris, walked.
Such examples are legion. The possibility that somebody will "use" Jimbo haunts the Connors entourage. What makes this all the more fascinating is that neither Gloria nor Jimmy gives a tinker's damn about money. In all their lives, they have been extravagant only with their love for and loyalty to one another.
In her devotion to him, Gloria makes sure that everyone pays in some way to use Jimbo; the press pays in the currency of delay and exasperation, which it can least afford. She is herself, frankly, "scared" of the press, and she has a right to be, for she is never treated sympathetically, and often savagely. Jimmy's image may be as negative, but the press is hardly to blame; his cockiness and vulgarity, the strut and bluster, are visible enough that they do not need to be filtered through newspaper columns in order to produce a bad public taste.
But poor Gloria: The existing impression of her derives more from deep-seated biases. People who don't know Mrs. Connors from Mrs. Calabash just plain don't like the idea of her. She is, first of all, dead correct in what she has perceived: that she is viewed as a stage mother and that Americans do not approve of that species. It is dandy for Mickey Mantle's father to instruct his son to switch-hit, but only a pushy dame like Judy Garland's mother would shove that poor kid onto the stage. Moreover, in our affluent society, parents who lavish stereos and Toyotas upon their children are approved of, while those who only devote their time and talent are eyed suspiciously; they make other parents feel guilty. This is all the more so with Gloria, because as a coach she comes in the wrong sex. She and Jimmy are also victims of sexism.
To be sure, it is an unusual relationship. To be sure, Gloria is on guard in private, and Jimmy is obnoxious in public. Guaranteed, they will find a way to louse up public relations. And yet, for all the negative consequences that this unusual relationship might have, nobody ever pauses to acknowledge the greater truths: that this relationship contains an extraordinary amount of love, and that it made Jimmy Connors champion of the world.
By now they expect no quarter. Having been cross-examined on their relationship for so long, they are both defensive—as Nastase proved consummately—and they both have pat answers. They maintain that all final decisions are Jimbo's, and both will intimate archly that people who are offended by their relationship probably have very unhappy family histories themselves. Says Jimmy, "The people who talk meanly about my mom and me are just a lot of people who are jealous. Wouldn't most people like to love their mom or dad the way I do?" He always adds the "or dad" when making this point.
As important as Gloria has been to her son, she has never really been isolated with him until now. Two Mom was a constant presence for the first two decades. "Our right arm," as Gloria always refers to her, Stonewall Jackson to her Lee. Jimmy is just as emphatic: "Both my mom and my grandma gave me my blood." So much was Two Mom on the road with Gloria and Jimmy that the family took to calling Al "Lonesome Pop," and, after Two Mom died (while in Los Angeles, with Gloria), Lonesome Pop suggested it might be more appropriate for Gloria to take his cemetery plot next to Two Mom's.
One of the reasons why Riordan, the outsider, could come to exert such authority for a time was that he was, in effect, Two Mom's legacy. She had admired him, suggested to Gloria that if they ever did need a male specialist off the court, he might fill the bill. Riordan, who is in bitter litigation against the family now, is in their eyes a nonperson who tried to take over tennis by "using" Jimmy as the wedge, but the fact cannot be avoided that he was a major male influence in Jimmy's life at precisely that time when Jimmy was leaving adolescence and becoming a public figure. With legal suits that became a crusade with hints of paranoia, Riordan probably brought a surfeit of contentiousness into the life of a boy already brimming with antagonisms.
But Riordan did provide Connors with a close, influential adult male figure for the only time in his life—and it showed. Away from the tennis establishment, Connors exhibited an ease and good humor that he has never again shown. Granted, some of his comic material came with lines written, inflection indicated, by Riordan, but the public image was of a dead-end kid who could stop and laugh at the world and himself. Since Riordan's leavening influence has disappeared, this breezy Cagney figure has hardened into a surly and sour wiseguy—the bluster and forced antics culminating in the mortifying episode at Forest Hills last year when Connors ran around the net onto the other side of the court and erased a ball mark that his opponent, Corrado Barazzutti, was citing as evidence of a bad call. (Connors says now that he blacked out on his feet and doesn't recall the incident.)
Jimmy was so at home with Riordan because he obviously could see much of his father in him. Like Big Jim, hanging around the Stop Light Restaurant back home, telling stories, having some Scotches, laughing with the gang—"My husband enjoyed being around people in the evenings," says Gloria—Riordan is a social animal, in search of any crowd to which he can distribute his blarney and sly jests out of the corner of his mouth. He really fit in: a conservative Catholic, devoted to tennis, with a strong wife and tight family ties. "Bill was a father image for Jimmy," Chris Evert says. "Jimmy put a lot on the line for this guy. I don't mean just his reputation. Jimmy put his emotions up for Riordan."
Playing, competing, with a racket in his left hand, Jimbo is more a Thompson than a Connors—in a sense, he is Jimmy Thompson. Has any player ever been more natural? But then, in an instant, he wiggles his tail, waves a finger, tries to joke or be smart, tries too hard—for he is not facile in this way, and his routines are forced and embarrassing, and that is why the crowds dislike him. He is Jimmy Thompson no more. He is trying so hard to be Jimmy Connors, raised by women to conquer men, but unable to be a man, to be Big Jim or Bill Riordan. He is unable to be one of the boys.
Connors says he "holds no grudges" against Riordan, but there is no question but that the older man took something valuable of Jimmy's when he was sent packing. "So much of it goes back to Jimmy's growing up, to the way people back home treated him," Evert says. "This was all inside him, and then he confided in Riordan, put his emotions on the line for him, and now he feels betrayed. So now his attitude is: You see, it is true. It is. I can't trust anybody."
Then, Riordan gone, body and soul, Connors's real father died of cancer on Jan. 30, 1977. Jimmy was holding Big Jim's hand at the end. At the time, Connors's traveling companion was Marjie Wallace, a former Miss World, but she faded from Jimmy's life shortly after his father died, and there has been no serious new romantic interest since then.
Last year Connors was sometimes convoyed about by a hard-nosed phalanx of Gilbert and Sullivan bodyguards, but they have been superseded, mercifully, by Lornie Kuhle, an affable 34-year-old Las Vegas teaching pro. Kuhle is a favorite practice partner and a devoted friend ("You know what Jimmy is? He's just a good American kid"), but obviously he cannot harvest the emotional ground that lovers and fathers have turned and planted.
So Gloria's universe expands. Now she is everything to Jimmy: mother (he calls her "Mom" in that capacity), coach ("Coach"), best friend and business manager ("Glo"). So totally involved are Gloria and Jimmy with each other that, since it was knocked down to a two-person operation, the mother and son have engaged in some dreadful arguments—shouting matches in hotel rooms, Jimmy using some four-letter names that tennis people have been embarrassed to overhear. Both mother and son dismiss these episodes as healthy outbursts. "Look, I can cut it for you," Connors says. "First, she's my mom—you know, the one who creates you. She's my mom first and always will be. But she's my coach and my friend, too, and if we scream at each other sometimes, that just clears the air. That's good among friends."
Only Evert appears to be in a position to exert a major influence on Connors. She fills all the necessary criteria. She is female, which he prefers—"I'd rather be friends with a woman than a man any day"—and she is enduring. All of the Connors family intimates must stand the test of time. Besides, it is obvious by now that Chrissie and Jimmy can't get each other out of their systems. That doesn't necessarily mean they will marry someday. It just means they can't get each other out of their systems.
In fact, what has emerged from a teenage infatuation is a tender, understanding adult affection. "We fell in love when we were so young," says Chris, "before we were friends. Jimmy has always worked harder on the court than anyone, but he's always been completely pampered off. His mom thinks he deserved it that way. So you must be very attentive to Jimmy. And I don't want to sound harsh, please, because much of this also applies to me, to athletes in general. So when we were together, each of us was thinking about ourselves. It's very tough for Jimmy to give on those occasions, because he gives so much on the court, and you come to expect it off. And then, of course, most of the time you do get it off the court. Imagine us, two kids, so young, in love for the first time, each expecting the other to give." She shakes her head.
With Chris, with any woman, Connors feels more relaxed "because I'm never in competition with them." Besides, as he was schooled to be a tiger on the court, so was he taught to be a gentleman off, and nowhere is this more evident than in his relationships with women. He believes in ladies, old-fashioned manners and modesty. The well-publicized itinerant liaison with Marjie Wallace was really something of a baffling interlude, because the family background, as Mrs. Connors volunteers, was very puritanical. She herself had a "girls' academy" upbringing. Jimmy spent several years in parochial schools, and, indeed, the ostensible reason for Two Mom being drafted as an extra escort was that the family considered it scandalous that a married woman would journey about alone, with only a child. In private conversation, Jimmy can go literally for hours without so much as a "damn" escaping his lips, and in the men's locker room he is known for his obsessive modesty, never appearing without a towel held primly about his waist.
So here, perhaps, is the greatest contradiction of all between the public figure and the private man: a genuine personal prudery contrasted with the grotesque machismo and vulgarity he flaunts upon his stage. Connors's court pantomimes are invariably sexual, his imprecations obscene, his attempts at comedy and his belligerent statements sexual or scatological. He and Nastase used to drift into a mincing "queer" act. Jimbo was going to show the world that he is not some sissy or mama's boy, but that he can be as coarse and crude as any father's son.
Not even Riordan could fathom these upside-down transformations. "Jimbo was so thoughtful," he says. "He always called his mom. Whenever he saw me, he'd ask about Terry, my wife. When I first sent him to Europe, he clung to me at the airport. 'Bill, please don't leave me,' he said. He was such a child. And we had such fun. I could make Jimmy laugh. But then all of a sudden he'd be obscene, and I'd just get lost, because it was so distasteful to me. I never understood that in him, because it doesn't fit. Which is strange, because that's how he is on the court, that's what people see the most. But it's not his dominant side. And I could forget it because we had so many good times, and there should have been so much more of that ahead."
One day when Jimbo was 11 or 12, Gloria and Two Mom took him out to the backyard court and told him it was time to abandon his childish two-handed backhand and start learning to hit backhands with one hand. This had always been their intention. The two women watched the child hit one-handed for a couple of days, and then Two Mom said, "Let's put it back, Glo. By the time he's 19 or 20 he should be able to tear tennis apart with the two-handed backhand." Two Mom, as usual, was right as rain.
Still, as great as Connors's backhand is—one of the three or four best shots in tennis history—what always set the kid apart was his ability to be offensively unorthodox; he scores best from defensive situations, especially with the return of serve. No one ever used an opponent better against himself. No wonder players hated to face him.
For power, Connors learned to literally throw himself at the ball. His strength comes mainly from his thighs; it is his secret, a perfect, fluid weight transfer. And then, finally, he grew adept at what is known in tennis as hitting the ball on the rise—meeting the ball as it comes off the court, before it bounces to its apex. That is the ultimate attack, taking it on the rise, a man spitting back bullets. It speeds up the game infinitesimally in time, exponentially in fact, by putting constant pressure upon the other man. To hit on the rise requires three essentials: excellent vision (Connors's is 20-15), superb coordination (he even slugs with a trampolinelike steel racket) and utter confidence.
And so the Connors all-court game grew as a whole, each part advancing with the others, and one day, when he was 16, only five years before he was to win Wimbledon, he beat his mother. He came to the net apologetic and said, "Gee, Mom, that hurt. I didn't mean to do that."
Gloria almost cried. "No, no, Jimmy," she said. "Don't you know? This is one of the happiest days of my life."
But now it seems that everything thereafter has been anticlimactic. Even 1974 just came naturally, in the wake. Nothing ever changes. To even acknowledge that changes might be considered would, it seems, repudiate all that Gloria and Two Mom did with a child many years ago. For example, Connors's serve had always been relatively weak, and Borg exposed it at Wimbledon as an outright liability. But when Jimmy and his mother worked out for a week after that defeat, no special attention was paid to his serve, to his forehand approach or to any other of the weaker elements of his game. "His serve is good enough for me," Gloria says, peeved. "We just worked on the overall game. Borg just had one of those days, like Jimmy did in '74 against Rosewall."
Unfortunately, Borg and Connors meet only in the finals, on Saturdays and Sundays, and those appear to be the two particular days Borg has. Besides, even if Borg did just happen to get hot at Wimbledon, the real crux of the matter is that only a year ago, under no circumstances could Borg have routed Connors in straight sets. But Borg has worked on his game, and it has matured. Borg, the machine, the robot—"the Clone," his colleagues call him—he, not the exciting, bombastic Connors, has put variety and spice into his game.
Connors is so locked into the past that he cannot bear to change even his practice routines. Practices are rugged and spirited physically, but they only amount to "hits" against lesser players. In Los Angeles, Connors's regular sparring partner is Stan Cantor, a middle-aged movie producer; on the road, he hits against Kuhle. Dick Stockton, who has known Jimmy since childhood, says, "To improve, you must practice against players of your own ability, and you must work on the individual parts of your game. If Jimmy really wanted Kuhle to help him, he'd have him hit 300 balls in a row to his forehand approach. But Jimmy can't change. He only knows one way."
And that is precisely what Connors himself says, again and again, as a point of pride: "It isn't me if I don't play the way my mom taught me.... My mom gave me my game, and she taught me one way, that lines were made to be hit.... My mom and my grandma were the only ones who ever touched my game, and they taught me to play one way. There's no other way."
And as with style, so with intensity. Connors boasts, accurately, admirably, "I peak every time I play." He loved to hear Riordan, an old racetrack buff, tell stirring tales of Bill Hartack, the cantankerous jockey who was famous for two things: fighting the establishment and riding every race as though it were the Kentucky Derby. "My mom taught me she'd rather have me play correctly for 30 minutes, her way, than play messing around for two hours," Jimmy says. "Play 30 minutes right, then I could go ride my pony or mini-bike." Thus, even practice games are conducted as vendettas, with growling and curses. Every shot is for real. As ever, there is Gloria across the net. You see, Jimmy, you see what even your own mother will do to you on the court?
Just as Connors must give his all in every match, so does he exhibit uncommon physical courage. In 1977 he played all of Wimbledon with a broken left thumb. When an X-ray technician brought the news, he said, "Well, Mr. Connors, I guess you won't be playing tennis for a few weeks." Connors sneered, "Want to bet, sucker?" They put on a splint that dug in so hard that blood gushed down his arm. The Connorses came back for another splint; they never told a soul, there would be no excuses, and he went to 6-4 in the fifth set of the final, to that last step, when, as ever, it was not his thumb that kept him from winning.
And yet, in contrast, since 1974 Connors has defaulted from almost 20 tournaments, often with the most transparent excuses of ill health at the 11th hour. "Why should I let someone make a name off of me, beating me when I'm not right?" Connors snaps. Nobody uses Jimbo. What he does not say is what is apparent, that whereas he needs a physical excuse to get him off the hook, he is "not right" for psychological reasons. If there is not enough animosity on tap, not enough tiger juices flowing, then Connors does not dare to even venture into competition.
We should remember that 1974, his year, was swollen with vitriol and tension—and he was near unbeatable. And what of 1978? At the time Borg laid waste to him, it was hard to find a player who did not mention how Connors had mellowed, become friendlier. Bill Norris, a tennis trainer and an old friend, says, "Jimmy's found an inner peace. He's much more aware of other people's feelings."
"Jimmy was brought up to win on hate," says a top player, a contemporary. "How long could anyone keep winning on hate?" If Connors's game is locked into the past, if it remains exactly the same, it may, nonetheless, have diminished in one almost imperceptible way: hitting the ball on the rise. To the keenest eyes, Jimbo does not appear to be taking the ball quite so soon. He has either lost the confidence to perform this feat, or somewhere deep inside a little bit of the killer instinct has paled, and he is giving the poor guy on the other side a chance, an instant more of breathing room. And the balls are coming back.
Borg, though, so bland, unflappable, is a special problem. Connors tries to hate him. Give Jimbo that. For years he would snarl that Borg had "no guts," and he always chases after him. After Wimbledon, Jimbo vowed, "I'll chase the son of a bitch to the ends of the earth." And since then, that has been embellished: "I'll dog him everywhere.... Every time Borg looks around he'll see my shadow."
But the problem is that it is not Bjorn Borg who is the target. It is his own man that the boy is chasing. Jimbo will be 26 next week, and the boy and his mother can only go so far. There must be the man to accept the harsh truths, so that once again he can win finals, win other people. If ever Jimmy Connors would stop trying to be something else, if only Jimmy Connors would again take the ball on the rise, the way he once did, crushing it, crashing forward, taking no prisoners, what a dreadnought he would be. Why, that would make 'em forget '74—and serve 'em right!
But no one knows if he is capable of the necessary changes. What we do know is that only one mother has made a men's champion, but that no mother has ever kept a man a champion.
"As well as I know Jimmy," Chris Evert says, "a lot of times I don't know what goes on in his head. But if he still has me baffled, I know that he's still got himself baffled too. Jimmy might know himself better if he would ever spend some time soul-searching. But he won't. He's always had to hate the men players to be at his best. But they don't hate him anymore. A lot of them have even come to like him. So he's got to find a new motivation, and that's going to be very hard for Jimmy."
It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.
Connors resented Nastase for taunting him about his mother.
Jimmy and Chris won Wimbledon together but then came apart.
Riordan helped Connors relax—until he, too, was banished.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.
"He's scared about something," says Ashe. "I don't know what's happened, but he's not the same."
"Don't bring anybody else into the picture," Two Mom told Gloria. "You made him."
He seems incapable of making hard decisions—even to honestly assess, much less change, his game or strategy.