What Jimmy Connors remembers hearing at the U.S. Open 30 years ago this week--the words of two black teenagers outside the gates of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills--is essentially what he heard everywhere during 1974, the Year of the Great Tennis Insurgency: "Hey, Connors, get us in!" Get us in on this sport too long reserved for blinkered bureaucrats and lemon-sucking swells. Give us a glimpse of those public-park groundies that raised the chalk on the lines, of that return of serve that could jujitsu the most powerful net rusher, of that finely groomed fiancée who reminded us that the good girl always falls for the bad boy. Give us someone to pull for. Or someone to root against. (Even the many who detested him wanted in.) But either way, give us a stake, dammit.
What was Connors going to say to those two kids? Certainly not. "Sorry, no can do. It's against the rules." Connors was always looking for some new rule to break, and he had already laid waste to most conventions--of decorum (he grabbed his crotch and made obscene, onanistic gestures with his racket handle); of hail-fellow-well-met-ism (he didn't stay at the same hotels as other players, and he locked himself within an entourage); of professional solidarity (he had not only refused to join the Association of Tennis Professionals but had also filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against it); even of the pieties of playing for his country (he refused to play Davis Cup) or for a Grand Slam title (he would say, "There'll be 127 losers and me").
Connors recalls leading the two kids, Doug Henderson and Robert Harper, to the threshold of the men's locker room and deputizing them as bodyguards. Then all three of them marched through the dining area of the club, which had a black member, Arthur Ashe, only because winners of the Open were automatically added to the rolls. By the time they reached the Stadium Court for the top-seeded Connors's first-round match with Jeff Borowiak, the good folks of the West Side Tennis Club were picking monocles out of their vichyssoise.
Tennis players in 1974 didn't do entourages--except for Connors, who seemed to add to his on the fly. But then the '70s had sent good taste into full retreat, and to turn tennis into prizefighting constituted the sport's logical next step. The game by then carried most of the hallmarks of boxing anyway, from the alphabet soup of governing bodies, all apparently in litigation with one another, to the over-the-top personalities who hardly bothered to conceal their feuds and refused to face off against one another. (During 1974 Connors never once played Rod Laver or John Newcombe, then considered two of the top men's players in the world.) Though he had been taught tennis by his late grandmother, Bertha Thompson, and his mother, Gloria, who, while carrying Jimmy in utero, had cleared the land for a court in the backyard of the family house in East St. Louis, Ill., Connors felt wholly at home in the fight game. His grandfather Al Thompson, Bertha's husband, had been a Golden Gloves middleweight and would help condition his grandson with roadwork and jump-rope sessions. Connors's manager, Bill Riordan, a fight promoter's son, had once owned a piece of a boxer himself. What Connors brought to the game in 1974 could be found right there in the phrase two-fisted backhand: pugilism and contempt.
"To be close to Jimmy back then you had to have a lot of spunk and spark," says Chris Evert, his former fiancée, who with her mother, Colette, was a regular in the entourage. "Menwise, the people closest to him were all characters." Ilie Nastase, his longtime doubles partner, served as a behavioral boundary marker, an anarchist who could make Connors look more tame. Connors's Ecuadoran émigré coach, former pro Pancho Segura, was the son of a janitor at a tennis club in Guayaquil and had figured out how to win as a child because if he couldn't hustle money he wouldn't eat. The USS Jimbo was a frigate full of rebels and bootstrappers, most of them Catholic, chugging through a sea of WASP privilege.
"Gloria intentionally kept him separate," says former pro Trey Waltke, who got to know the Connors clan during his and Jimmy's junior days in St. Louis. "She set up the us-versus-them mentality back when he was really young. I just know him as, to the bone, antigroup. That's it. I don't see that as bad or good. It's just who he is."
To Connors "tennis was not the art of excellence," tennis journalist Joel Drucker writes in his new memoir-cum-biography, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life. "It was the craft of enthusiasm." Hidebound tennis people may have preferred the former, but it was the latter that the average sports fan could relate to, and it was the average sports fan whom Connors sucked in. In the fall of 1968, as Connors turned 16, his mother moved with him to Southern California and entrusted his game to Segura, the pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, and there Connors sat in on a sort of graduate seminar in tennis theatrics. He marveled at the arrogant carriage of Pancho Gonzalez, wondering how any opponent would not be petrified by someone so imperious. Then Bobby Riggs would shuffle in, a comic foil looking to kibitz and find some mark he could play for 20 bucks. Harold Solomon, who first encountered Connors when both were eight-year-old juniors, noticed a change soon after the move to the BHTC. "He got the entertainment aspect, got the crowd involved," says Solomon. "Those of us who came up the other way wondered, What is he doing? But it didn't take us long to see his appeal in the marketplace. You couldn't help but respect that it was going to bring big sponsors and lots of people."
As Connors scrabbled through the nitty-gritty of a point, he could seem almost robotic, as if he had been assembled in parts--vest by Fred Perry, hair by Prince Valiant, socks by Hang Ten. With almost impossibly flat, hard, well-placed ground strokes, he could strike an outright winner off either side of his racket. "In those days of the three grass-court Slams, you almost had to serve-and-volley," says former pro Cliff Drysdale. "You had to get in [to the net] quickly because you could never trust a bounce. But Jimmy was a genius at both the baseline and net games."
And there was his consistency. "He was a complete package at 11, for better or worse," says former pro Sandy Mayer, who first played Connors as a junior. "The job was done. And there was a simplicity to what he did. Jimmy said to himself, 'It worked, so I'm gonna do that again.' I really don't think the force I faced at 11, and the one I faced at 31, were any different."
Connors may have been unchanging, but all around him tennis was going through convulsions. Fabric went from cotton to polyester; colors from white to anything goes; equipment from wood to metal. Connors had picked up the Wilson T-2000 racket for the same reason any teenager would, because its extruded-aluminum frame looked cool. Yet the T-2000 proved to be a perfect technical match for his game and far too temperamental for anyone else's. No one but Connors had the eye and the grooved ground strokes to find and exploit the racket's tiny sweet spot. "Everybody thought I hit the ball hard--I didn't hit the ball hard," he says, with a nod to the T-2000. As tennis journalist Peter Bodo puts it, Connors simply brandished "a futuristic instrument that gleamed with the promise of heroic deeds and lethal power. It was Arthur and Excalibur all over again."
What's more, he played a kind of tennis that, on television, could yank hackers out of their Barcaloungers and send them to the courts. No weekend player had a chance of duplicating Roscoe Tanner's 140mph serve or Nastase's sublime brushstrokes. But Connors's long rallies and lapidary shot making fired imaginations, in fans and even in opponents. "He wasn't making adjustments, playing it safe, adding spin or babying the ball because he was down match point," says former pro Dick Stockton, "and that affected the other players."
But just when his tennis began to seem bloodless, there'd be the pumped fist or obscene gesture, the aside to a ball boy or fan, the colloquy with the chair umpire or a linesman. He might bow after striking a winner or, if displeased, show his rear end to the source of his displeasure. "He introduced vulgarity to tennis," says Gianni Clerici, the veteran tennis writer for Italy's Corriere della Sera. Yet Connors didn't care what people thought of him. He cared only that they thought something.
"Some people came out to see me win," he says. "Some came out to see me lose. And some came out to see me have a hard time but not lose, because they wanted to come back the next day and see me again."
-- WINTER --
Connors began 1974 by winning the first Grand Slam tournament of his career, beating Phil Dent in the Australian Open final on New Year's Day 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Dent, an Aussie power player, thought he was handcuffing Connors with serves into the body. "Sometimes you feel like you've got a guy, and I really thought I had him frustrated," Dent remembers. "And about 10 minutes later I'd lost six games straight." It was a reversal of fortune many more opponents would come to know over the year. "You'd get to 30--15 on your serve and suddenly be looking at break point," says Segura's son, Spencer, who played briefly with Connors at UCLA and did cameos with the entourage.
Most pros spent the months between the Australian and French Opens playing Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis, a circuit much like the one Robert Culp and Bill Cosby plied on TV's I Spy: Johannesburg, Munich, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Toronto. WCT had the money, glamour and top competition. Connors contented himself with the International Players Association tour, the vehicle Riordan had created for him. The IPA was an archipelago of Palookaville events in college gyms and bush league auditoriums in Omaha and Roanoke and Paramus, where, Connors recalls, "The crowd was in your lap. Why not involve them?"
Only a handful of top players joined him on the Riordan circuit: Sandy Mayer and his brother, Gene; Vitas Gerulaitis; and most notably Nastase, the lone rival with whom Connors would forge a close friendship. But therein lay the boxing-promoter genius of the IPA. Connors could husband his energies and burnish his mystique for the title fights, Wimbledon and Forest Hills. "Tennis was taking off, and everybody was trying to grab something--the agents, the players, the tournaments, the union," says Spencer Segura. "Riordan's pitch to Jimmy was, 'I don't have anybody else. I'm just here for you. And you're the next big guy.'"
Riordan was a reformed drinker who worked out of a dress shop he owned in Salisbury, Md. During the U.S. Open he might be found at the piano in the players' lounge, fingering out some standard or arranging to have bottles of champagne sent to the press room after his client's victory. He trafficked in Runyonesque epigrams ("Life is 6 to 5 against") and Bunyanesque hyperbole ("When this chapter of tennis is written, Jimmy will be beatified"). It didn't really matter whether Riordan had actually sent that telegram to Donald Dell, agent, broadcaster, all-around operator and poster boy for the tennis establishment--the one that purportedly read, "Dear Donald: F--- you. Stronger message to follow." It was quite enough that everyone believed that he had, and thus the dandruff encrusted for years on the navy-blue blazer of the game began to fall away. "Bill was a big thinker," says Waltke, who played the Riordan circuit. "You'd ask him, 'Are you gonna do X?' and he'd reply, 'Yes, but we also need to do Y.' At the time tennis didn't know it needed any of that. But it turns out we did."
Meanwhile Connors's romance with Evert sent the sport tumbling into the lifestyle pages and into conversations in offices and taverns and beauty parlors. Together they had picked out her engagement ring the previous November at a diamond mine near Johannesburg, where both had won the South Africa Open. Now they arranged to see each other roughly 10 days a month, staggering their tournament commitments so each would play two weeks, then take a week off to drop in on the other's event. They played mixed doubles at the few tournaments that offered the event. Connors would keep Evert's second service ball in his pocket.
"Jimmy back then was the greatest first love a girl could have had," Evert says. "He was a gentleman, kind and respectful. And there was no [gender] role-playing. My tennis was as important to him as his tennis was important to me, and that meant a lot to me. The women in his life--not only me, but [Connors's wife] Patti and all the others--they've seen a side to him that the public hasn't. He's that way with his mother too. There's that old saying: Before you marry a man, look at how he treats his mother."
Evert recalls how much her fiancé identified with the solitary idols Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison--"the loners who were brilliant," she says. But nothing particularly tabloidworthy took place within his protective cordon. "I've never eaten so much room service in my life," says Nastase. "Or watched so much TV or played so much backgammon."
Columnist Bud Collins once referred to "the Evert-Connors Mafia," but the self-segregation would justify itself with a single statistic: By the end of the '70s only one player had a lifetime winning record against Connors, and that was Nastase, the one guy Connors had allowed to get close.
-- SPRING --
As Connors did his solitary best to vulgarize the sport, World Team Tennis did the same on a mass scale. WTT permitted virtually anything during matches, from player substitutions to coaching, cheering and outright heckling. But WTT alarmed the Europeans with more than bad taste. Its spring season conflicted with the gemstone events on the Continent, the Italian and French Opens, and European constituents of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) feared an exodus of the top pros. After Connors signed with WTT's Baltimore Banners, the French Tennis Federation (FTF) barred him from Roland Garros, thereby foreclosing any chance for him to pick up the second leg of the Grand Slam. Riordan filed suit on May 30 to lift the ban, and a day later there was Connors in the Palais de Justice in Paris, cheeky as ever, saying, "I'm in the wrong court. I should be on clay."
The lawyer for the FTF asserted the federation's right to invite or not invite anyone it so desired. He called WTT "a vast circus" and "an obnoxious, disruptive organization ... not sport, but show business, like the Harlem Globetrotters." On the possibility that Connors, the plaintiff, might be deprived of a chance to win a Grand Slam, a spokesman for the FTF sniffed, "This is not a question of persons but of principle." At his seat Connors doodled. English Leather, the cologne company, had put up a $100,000 prize for anyone who completed the Slam, and that happened to be precisely the sum the Banners were contracted to pay Connors, so the French judge plausibly ruled that Connors's livelihood faced no "emergency." Score one for the establishment--Connors would not play in Paris--but the game's rear guard would count few victories for the rest of the year.
Suing the French tennis bureaucracy was one thing. But on the eve of Wimbledon word reached London that Riordan and Connors, charging that the players' union (ATP) was in cahoots with the ITF, had sued Dell and Jack Kramer, the lawyer for and director of the ATP, respectively, and both prominent opponents of World Team Tennis. To those who regarded the union as essentially the sum of its members, Connors was suing virtually every male tennis pro--"127 defendants and me," as it were. The suit, which charged interference with Connors's ability to make a living, also named the sport's main sponsor, the multinational insurance company Commercial Union. "That suit cost [the ATP] about $100,000 in legal fees," says retired pro John Newcombe, who recalls seeing crude graffiti about Connors and Evert in locker rooms that year. "Riordan always had his own agenda, and he was using Jimmy to implement it. It was a sort of unsavory start to a guy's career."
Ashe, a stalwart of the players' union, wrote in his diary, "I swear, every time I passed Connors in the locker room today, it took all my will power not to punch him in the mouth."
Within a few years Connors and Riordan would be in litigation with each other. "I was used in a lot of ways," Connors says today. "I was just a young kid trying to win. But basically Riordan was good. He could make a chicken sitting on an egg sound exciting. He was the only guy--he and Lamar Hunt--with the guts to go the other way."
By June, Connors elicited another emotion in the locker room: a respect bordering on fear. "I always liked my chances against a guy who stayed back on grass," says Sandy Mayer. "But even on grass, guys had the feeling that [Connors] was going to roll. He was one of the first players who gave you the sense that you weren't going to win."
Adds Waltke, "With the entourage and the ground strokes, he had so much mojo going back then, it was almost scary. It was like the feeling that you were being thrown in against Muhammad Ali--almost sacrificial."
-- SUMMER --
A political standoff and a players' boycott had gutted the two previous Wimbledons, respectively, before a single ball could be struck, so despite the Riordan lawsuit, even unprecedented amounts of rain couldn't dampen the excitement at the All-England Club in 1974. Bobbies had to be detailed to protect an 18-year-old Swede named Bjorn Borg from the crush of schoolgirls, while most other Brits supported the Aussie elders, Newcombe and Ken Rosewall. At one point during the fortnight Nastase tried receiving serve while holding an umbrella; at another, when a pigeon overstayed its welcome on Centre Court, the chair umpire's idle question went out over his microphone: "Anybody here with a gun?"
If so, it could always be turned on the vulgarians at the gates. Here is how the Connors entourage struck Philip Howard of The Times of London during Connors's win over Jan Kodes in the quarterfinals: "His clique, led by his manager and other larger, red-faced Americans, the men among them wearing big cigars in their mouths, was equally noisy, clapping like gunfire and shouting 'Attaboy, baby,' 'Great lob, baby,' and other witty advice. When Kodes, on the point of losing the third set, was applauded by them for netting a half-volley, he walked over to the hubbub that is the Connors supporters' club, and asked why they did not shut up. As might have been predicted, the question only made them noisier."
On Connors's impending nuptials, Howard added, "He promises to be a noisy husband to have around the house, leaving a trail of broken glass and loud shouts behind him. It is lucky that Miss Evert seems so placid, so neat, and so unflappable."
After each victory Connors returned to the Inn on the Park, where he holed up with his placid, neat and unflappable fiancée, who was dispatching her opponents with similar ease en route to the ladies' title. There they would order room service and watch the day's replay on the BBC.
"After I'd won my quarterfinal and Jimmy'd won his," says Stockton, who faced Connors in the semis, "Arthur [Ashe] was quoted in the papers as saying that Jimmy was suing me. Suing me personally. The whole thing was so bizarre. The year Jimmy had was so incredible, and it was disrupted by all the political stuff."
As Stockton describes what it felt like to be caught in the riptide of Connors's service returns, he sounds much like Dent recalling the final in Melbourne. "I was up a set and a break, serving well," says Stockton, another serve-and-volleyer. "All of a sudden, in the middle of the second set, he steamrolled me. He put so much pressure on you every time you served. I mean, if the better you serve, the better he returns, what does that leave you to do? You'd be picking every ball off your shoe tops. To watch it is not to experience what it felt like. It was such a mental game, playing against him."
Right after beating Stockton, Connors joined Nastase for doubles against Newcombe and Tony Roche. The match went five sets, and Roche said afterward that he and his partner had intentionally sent shots Connors's way, hoping to soften him up for their 39-year-old countryman, Rosewall, in the men's singles final. Rosewall could use the help, for he had needed to rally from two sets down in his semifinal to beat Stan Smith.
But Rosewall wasn't going to win his first Wimbledon at Connors's expense, even though the crowd tried desperately to pull him through. Spectators actually cheered a Connors double fault, something not ordinarily done at the All-England Club. "C'mon Ken, give it a go," one fan screamed in the midst of the second set. "What the hell." But the American kept hopping up smartly from his chair to return to his task after each changeover, whacking his thigh as a jockey might a racehorse. Finally, in the press box the man from The Guardian intoned, "Someone stop this senseless slaughter."
Rosewall was gone in 93 minutes, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. It was, wrote Henry Raven in the Daily Telegraph, "the kind of defeat which would have plunged Centre Court into the blackest of mourning ... if people had ever been given a chance to realize exactly what was happening."
As Connors waited to accept the winner's trophy, the spectators gave him a slow hand clap, the European equivalent of a Bronx cheer. Yet the brashness of the new champion seemed momentarily to give way to humility, or at least recognition of what he had just accomplished. "When I was six years old I dreamed of this happening," he said. "Unless you're a Rod Laver or a John Newcombe, it only happens once in a lifetime." Of Rosewall he added, "I knew he was the sentimental favorite. Maybe someday I'll be a sentimental favorite."
"I should live so long"--Bud Collins's comment in The Boston Globe--captured what everyone was thinking.
That night at the champions' dinner Connors and Evert passed notes to each other behind the back of the chairman of the All-England Club, who sat between them. Asked to select the song for the traditional first dance between the men's and ladies' champions, they demurred. The bandleader, as every newspaper in the modern world soon reported, chose The Girl That I Marry.
The London betting shops had featured a Connors-Evert parlay called the Lovebird Double at 33 to 1. Riordan and Segura hadn't been shrewd enough to take it, but they had wagered a pile on Jimbo alone to win Wimbledon at 13 to 1. Columnist Mike Lupica recalls the scene the next morning in Riordan's hotel suite. "All the London papers were spread out on the floor, like someone had laid a new carpet. For two weeks Riordan had been going around the grounds selling pieces of the action, like a carnival barker pulling people into the tent. Now they were filing back into the tent to get paid."
The next month, at the final of the U.S. Clay Courts in Indianapolis, Connors would win his ersatz French Open, beating Borg, the champion in Paris, on the closest thing Stateside to French clay. Given that Borg failed to beat Connors regularly until 1977, it's not unreasonable to grant Connors's request that an asterisk be added to 1974--not, as is usually the case in sports, to diminish an achievement but to enhance it, to acknowledge that had he been allowed to compete at Roland Garros, he might well have joined Laver and Don Budge as the only men ever to have completed a Grand Slam.
The final in Indy produced a vignette that emblemized the sport in all its dysfunction. Dell and Kramer, who were broadcasting the tournament for PBS (lending credence to Riordan's charge that they had spun a web of conflicting interests), buttonholed Connors for a postmatch word. Their interview went off as if it were perfectly normal to chitchat with someone who's suing you for $10 million.
Doug henderson's recollection of that opening day at Forest Hills differs from Connors's. According to Henderson, he and Harper had penetrated the upstairs lounge of the West Side Tennis Club all on their own. From a row of windows they watched Evert as she warmed up on a practice court--"mostly," Henderson remembers, "out of prurient interest." Suddenly they heard a voice behind them.
"Mind if I squeeze in?"
It was Connors. They chatted. Pancho Segura joined in the conversation and, as Connors got up to change, said, "Jimbo, buddy, you get these guys and nobody fs with you. They walk you to your matches, and you have no problem with the crowd." Soon Henderson had slung Connors's leather racket bag over his shoulder, and he and Harper were escorting him to the Stadium Court.
Connors seemed to be even less popular in Queens than he had been in London. Watching him over those two weeks, Richard Schickel, a cultural critic with Time, drew the most unflattering comparison possible in August 1974, equating him with a certain U.S. president who had been forced to resign only a few weeks before: "[Connors] is a narrowly ambitious man, concentrating a furious energy on a narrowly defined goal--being a winner in his chosen field. To this end, he will sacrifice anything--the graceful presentation of self, the pursuit of pleasure whether it be cultural or merely idle, warming human relations. It accounts for that air of dark suspicion that hangs about him, his powerful feeling that everyone is out to make a fool of him."
Three years earlier the New York crowd had toasted Evert, then 16, in her Open debut. Now Connors only diminished the fans' opinion of her. During the first week, as Connors and Evert played mixed doubles against U.S. teenagers Billy Martin and Robin Tenney, the fans cheered Martin when he sniped returns at Evert at the net, and booed the favorites, even as Connors graciously spun in first serves to Tenney. Connors and Evert won in two sets, and in the gloaming NBC's Dick Schaap asked the couple why the crowd disliked them so.
"They're jealous," Evert replied.
"There's nothing more to be said," Connors added. "She said it all."
But while it ate at his fiancée that the crowd was no longer pulling for her, the hostility scarcely bothered Connors. "I actually liked it," he says. "I say that with kind of a twinkle, but that was me. I knew it was nothing personal. I walked out on the court and turned into somebody different."
A few months earlier Newcombe had written a piece for Sport magazine titled "Why I Will Win Forest Hills." Before taking the court to play Tanner in the semifinals, Connors reclined in the players' lounge, watching on TV as Rosewall made a mess of Newcombe's prophecy. In his Hang Ten stocking feet, chewing on Twizzlers, Connors came off as even younger than he was. "He watched that match the way a hawk watches a chicken," Henderson recalls. "When it was over he bounced up and charged off to finish getting dressed. It invigorated him even more to play Tanner because he knew if he could get to the final, Rosewall couldn't beat him."
The next day Connors attacked Rosewall's renowned backhand out of a belief that to rob a man of his strength is to defeat him. Rosewall won only 19 points on his serve in the entire match. Several times Connors hit shots so hard that they knocked the wooden Slazenger from his opponent's hands. Improbably, this slaughter turned out to be even more senseless than the one in July, taking longer (107 minutes) to reach an even more emphatic result (6-1, 6-0, 6-1). For the second time in two months Connors had humiliated in a Grand Slam final the man who had played his first U.S. Open 22 Septembers earlier, on the day Jimmy Connors was born.
Afterward, as they made their way to the press conference, Connors turned to Riordan and asked, "What's it gonna be like?"
"Somebody's gonna ask, 'What's next for you?'" Riordan replied in his best Burgess Meredith. "And you're gonna say, 'Get me Laver.'"
"How do you know they'll ask that?"
The question came, and Connors nailed his line. The following year in Las Vegas he would beat Laver, then Newcombe, in two Riordan-brokered matches both billed as the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis. Riordan actually had the phrase copyrighted.
At dinner that night in New York, the new U.S. Open champ sat at one end of the table, with his mother, manager and coach. His fiancée, who had lost to Evonne Goolagong in the semifinals, sat at the other end.
-- FALL --
A year earlier, when Jim and Colette Evert floated the idea of a May wedding, Gloria Connors was said to have objected, "Nobody wins Wimbledon on their honeymoon." So a fall date had been set, Nov. 8, at the Everts' stucco Catholic church in Fort Lauderdale. In late September, Jimbo and Chrissie went house hunting in Los Angeles. But within days, during a marathon phone call that ended at 4 a.m., they called off the wedding. He was supposed to have seen to the purchase of the house they'd agreed upon but, she recalls, "hadn't gone out of his way to do so." At some point during their conversation she said, "Let's forget about it." He said, "O.K."
At first the public learned of a mere postponement. But by mid-December, Evert was no longer wearing the ring they'd picked out in South Africa. "Our careers are the most important things," Connors said. "And so we thought it would be best to cool it."
"We were much too young," she remembers. "I think he was relieved too. Jimmy was an extrovert, and that's why he was so great with the crowds. But when it came to one-on-one, it was more difficult for him to be intimate with his emotions. He didn't have a lot of experience with it. I'm sure Gloria instilled in him a little bit of the feeling that you can't trust anybody. I have three boys now, and I can understand it. A few years ago I called Gloria and told her, 'Now I understand what you were doing.'"
The tennis world wanted very much to believe that Gloria, unable to abide anyone who failed to put her son's career first, had been behind the split. "Chrissie was going through her own great season," says Spencer Segura, "and that didn't go over with [Gloria]."
Evert disputes that. "Gloria didn't break us up," she says. "But in her mind I'm sure she would have liked someone who could travel with him and take care of him. And if I were trying to be Number 1, I couldn't do that."
Connors, with an assist from Evert, had nonetheless taken tennis for quite a ride. A Nielsen survey released in the aftermath of the '74 Open found that nearly 34 million Americans now considered themselves to be at least occasional tennis players, a more than threefold increase in four years. The sport had made even greater strides as a spectacle, with a Harris poll finding that the number of Americans who followed tennis had jumped from 17% to 26% over the year, placing it just behind the holy trinity of football, baseball and basketball. Of course, many others had laid the foundation--"The boom began before Connors arrived," says Drysdale, sticking up for the old-timers--including Riggs and Billie Jean King, with their smackdown in the Astrodome a year earlier, and Hunt, who was able to place WCT matches, usually featuring Laver, Newcombe, Rosewall, Ashe or Smith, on network TV.
Early the next year Newcombe, the one member of the old guard who could match Connors in talent and flair, sounded a warning. "He can pull every antic he likes," he said shortly before the two met in their second Las Vegas challenge match. "But without winning he's not going to be what he is today.... He's aggressive, he's young, he's American, and he's a fing good tennis player. The rest of it is just Bill Riordan, an old-time fight promoter."
Sure enough, by the end of 1975 the player fellow pros had feared would remain unbeatable for the rest of the decade began to wobble. Relieved of the pressure to win his first major, Connors says, "I could just be freewheeling and hold on for the ride." Slackness crept into his regimen, and his weight ballooned. With Chrissie no longer in his life, he let Nastase show him a good time. He became even cruder, repeating "F you!" at the Las Vegas crowd moments before his match with Laver, and even though he had settled or dropped all his lawsuits by the end of 1976, he picked up a reputation as a defaulter and a gouger who held up promoters for guarantees. Eventually he cut Riordan loose; in 1977 The New York Times revealed that those "heavyweight" matches, billed as "winner take all," had in fact been "winner take most."
But 1974 would stand alone. Connors won 15 tournaments and 95 of 99 matches that year, all of them in the same pair of white shorts, which he washed out in the sinks of hotel bathrooms. If any male pro has since played a better calendar year of tennis--and McEnroe's 1984 season (15 tournaments, 82--3 match record) is comparable--no one has combined such competitive dominance with so large an impact. McEnroe may have shared Connors's knack for the tantrum, but his game was all artiste. Connors, ever the tradesman, would string together the longest run in the top 10 in the game's history: 16 straight years. And it was that prolonged dedication to his craft that, by the end of his career, won for him the public adoration that once seemed so unlikely. Henderson would be his cornerman at virtually every U.S. Open after 1974, including '91 when, at age 39, Connors reached the semifinals as the people's choice. Bud Collins did live so long.
Late in Connors's signal victory at that Open, in which he came back from 2--5 in the fifth set to defeat Aaron Krickstein in the round of 16, Peter Bodo found himself standing in the press box next to Ashe, Connors's old nemesis. Bodo turned to Ashe and asked whether, in the final analysis, he thought Connors was really just an a. Ashe waited a beat and replied, famously, "Yes. But he's my favorite a."
"Jimmy Connors was the tennis boom," Lupica says. "He made people pay attention. It doesn't mean he was one of nature's noblemen, just that it was never the same. He made money for everybody who came after him, like Arnold Palmer did in golf."
And if Connors didn't solely account for the crowds besieging public courts, he surely helped explain why people sometimes came to blows over who got to use them. "Somehow he made tennis a contact sport," says commentator Mary Carillo, a former pro. "He changed what a match could look like and feel like and sound like. He demanded that the fans give a rip. He was like a gospel preacher. If you were in his church, you were going to sing."
Connors often refers to tennis as "the tennis," a phrase that has a way of placing the game within the larger arena he was determined to influence. That conflation dominates the conversation over a three-hour lunch on the terrace of the Montecito Country Club, a few minutes from his house in Santa Barbara, Calif. For much of it he squints into the glint of the sun reflecting off the Pacific, looking like a man ready to take a serve on the rise.
"A lot was happening in the tennis at the time," says Connors, who will turn 52 on Sept. 2. "It wasn't just me. In '74 the atmosphere was becoming electric. There was Nasty, and Vitas at Studio 54, and Borg sneaking out the backdoor because 10,000 blondes were looking for him. A fan didn't know which court to go to. But you had the characters who could handle it, who weren't afraid to talk about everything. And people liked that. So there was all that, and the winning too. It all fit a niche at the perfect time.
"It was never conscious entertainment. I just understood from a very young age that, out there on a stage, you've got to perform. And my grandma told me, 'You can get by with almost anything as long as you're winning.' Talking to people, yelling and screaming, released a lot of tension. Some guys weren't good at that. Nasty had a lot of trouble with it. But I could float around and come back and play better."
He puts his entertainer's chops on display at lunch, sustaining a kind of story line, complete with interjections and callbacks. At one point he muses on an alternative occupation: "Did I want to be a lawyer? Yes. Would I have been good at it? I don't know.... " His graying eyebrows pop suddenly as he says, "Contempt of court!"
An hour later he's explaining how he stuck a few strips of lead tape to one edge of his T-2000. The extra weight caused the top of his racket to turn over ever so slightly, allowing him to add a garnish of topspin to each shot without having to roll his arm. "An engineer," he says in mid-explanation. "Actually, I wanted to be an engineer."
He does not catalog regrets. He cites only one: that, after the French snubbed him in 1974, he refused to play Roland Garros for the next four years. "My stubborn Irish attitude," says Connors, who never did win a French title. "I could have said, 'Hey, I should win this one or two times.' Instead the tournament went on without me."
As today the tennis goes on without him, or anyone like him. "You can't inject my personality or McEnroe's into a [Pete] Sampras or [Andy] Roddick," says Connors. "It would be unfair to them, and people would call their bluff. Players today have to make noise with their racket, and maybe a little without. But isn't it ironic that what people say they want--the glamour and the excitement--is what they had 30 years ago and beat us over the head for supplying?"
If he's ready to heed a voice somewhere saying, Hey, Connors, lead us back, he won't let on. He's not at liberty to discuss the television project he's developing, but TV and tennis people describe it as a reality show based loosely on The Apprentice, in which Connors would play a Trump-like tennis taskmaster looking for the next phenom. (Evert's former husband, John Lloyd, is also said to be attached to the project.) As for the doubles match he hopes to stage in Las Vegas early next year, in which he and McEnroe would take on Sampras and an unnamed star of Sampras's generation (or perhaps from the current crop), he says, "McEnroe and I couldn't get along at 90 feet, let alone five feet."
That comment sounds Riordanesque, he's told.
"There you go."
In 1977 fans at Wimbledon booed Connors for choosing to practice while the centennial Parade of Champions--including Bunny Ryan, an 87-year-old woman who walked with the help of two canes--filed before the Queen. Since then he has passed up almost every pomp-filled tennis gathering, from another Wimbledon parade in 2000 to last month's 50th anniversary gala in Newport for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Most of his old rivals miss him. "He was good for the game, and he should get his arse back in it," Dent says. Adds Stockton, "He's only hurting himself. But then I guess it's the same thing as back then. And he never changes his method."
"Tennis is what I used to do," Connors says. "I like it that people remember, but I'm not a spectator. Once you're used to being onstage, being a spectator is painful. My family let me play well past when I should have stopped. I certainly played a little too long on the regular tour [until '93] and did the senior tour till '99. Why I don't do things around the tennis now shouldn't be tough to figure out."
Today he's the homebody Nastase remembers, only with a home. He and Patti have just watched their daughter, Aubree-Leigh, 18, move into her own apartment, joining son Brett, 25, outside the nest. Now they look forward to traveling, seeing the world Jimmy passed up as a pro for room service and backgammon. And every day he speaks to his mother, now 80, who chooses to live alone in Belleville, Ill. "I figure she took care of me long enough," he says. "Now it's my turn."
As one of the first prominent tennis parents, Gloria Connors was called everything from dragon lady to stage mother. Frank Deford's 1978 SI piece "Raised by Women to Conquer Men" held up the mother-son relationship to almost Freudian examination. No damage, however, seems to have been done. "Gloria wasn't pushy when it came to tennis, not like the fathers of some of the girls on the circuit nowadays," Evert says. "She just wanted Jimmy to be happy. He put enough pressure on himself."
Says Connors, "The last time we talked, my mom asked me, 'If you had to do it all again, would you?' I told her I'd do it exactly the same way. Even today, if I say to her, 'We had a good time doing that,' she'll say, 'Yeah, didn't we?' To me, it wasn't dreadful to go to the tennis courts. I don't think she understands, or maybe she understands but doesn't let on, that she was being my mom, my coach and my friend--and it says something that we're still talking to each other today."
Here he gets visibly emotional: "If it wasn't for the tennis, what would have happened to me? Where would I be, or would I still be?" He was a boy, after all, a proudly incorrigible one, in times that were mixed up enough. "She gave me tennis so I'd do anything but waste my time," says Connors, who allows that, with Patti, he has faced his own challenges in raising Brett.
"Regardless of what you've heard, my mom and grandmother didn't turn me into what I've become," he says. "They gave me what I had. I'm sure there were times they would have liked to have turned me over their knee."
It may be hard for tennis to commit to a man who hardly comes around anymore. And, of course, posterity, as it settles on a lasting image of Jimmy Connors, may not care to lightly substitute the fist pump for the crotch grab. But if the game is still weighing whether to fully take this man as its own, for better or worse, for as long as memories of both shall live, the sport might want to inspect one thing. Thirty years on, it might want to look at how he treats his mother.
Had Connors been allowed to compete at Roland Garros, he might have joined Laver and Budge as the only men to
WIN A GRAND SLAM.
Connors felt wholly at home in the fight game. What he brought to tennis in 1974 could be found right there in the phrase two-fisted backhand:
PUGILISM AND CONTEMPT.
"It was never conscious entertainment," Connors says. "I just understood from an early age that, out there on a stage,
YOU'VE GOT TO PERFORM."
"Jimmy was the best first love a girl could have," says Evert. "He was a gentleman, kind and respectful. The women in his life have seen a side of him
THAT THE PUBLIC HASN'T."