STILL BURNING : Despite the Years, Connors, Now 35, Hasn’t Lost That Old Fire
He had his legs stretched out in front of him, afraid that if he bent them or crossed them, he might cramp up. The heat was oppressive, but he didn’t want to go inside where it was air-conditioned. Again, cramps.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my career,” Jimmy Connors said, rubbing a leg. “But I’ve never quite figured out how to stop the aging process.”
Looking at him, one might be tempted to argue. There are whispers on the tennis tour that Connors lightens his brown hair to keep it from showing any gray, but it isn’t the mop-top cut that makes you forget he is 35. It isn’t even the body, still rock-solid.
With Connors, it’s the eyes. Bright brown, they flash with anger when he makes a mistake on the court. And, they light with delight when he talks about his life as Peter Pan.
“I’ll tell you why I still play tennis,” he said, his voice soft, but the eyes sparkling. “About five years ago, during Wimbledon I was staying in the same hotel as Dean Martin in London. He was over there doing his show.
“I knew his son pretty well back then and one night I saw him walking through the lobby on his way to perform. I went over and said, ‘Mr. Martin, hi, I’m Jimmy Connors, how are you?’
“We stood and talked for a couple minutes and then I asked him where he was heading. He just looked at me and said, ‘Son, I’m going out there and fool ‘em again.’ I think about that every time I go on court now. All I want to do is just go out there and fool ‘em again.”
And now, because he knows that even he can’t stop the aging process, Jimmy Connors would love to fool ‘em--really fool ‘em--one last, sweet time. He is seeded sixth in the U.S. Open, a dark horse at best, for a sixth Open title. But now he is, at least, clearly the sentimental favorite.
James Scott Connors plays tennis like a street kid and has the image of a gunslinging street fighter. In the country club world of tennis, he is the guy from East St. Louis, Ill., a tough-sounding town for a tough-talking guy.
But Jimmy Connors didn’t grow up in the streets any more than he grew up at a country club. He is actually from Belleville, Ill. His grandfathers were the mayor of nearby East St. Louis and the police chief. His father, Jim, managed the toll bridge across the Illinois River that linked East St. Louis with St. Louis. It was a political appointment, a prestigious one at that.
He learned to play tennis, as the world knows, from his mother, Gloria Thompson Connors, whose father, in addition to being police chief, was a boxer. She was the daughter of a fighter and a fighter herself, on and off a tennis court, and she taught both her sons, John (two years older than Jimmy) and Jimmy the game she loved.
John, bigger and stronger than Jimmy, might have had more physical potential, but he never had the desire to play, according to friends, that Jimmy had.
Gloria Connors had a tennis court built in her backyard and there she taught Jimmy not only how to play, but how to compete. Every day at lunch time Jimmy would race home to practice with his mother.
By the time Jimmy Connors was a high-school senior, his mother knew what she had. He was only 5 feet 9 and weighed barely 150 pounds, but he could whale the ball, especially with his two-fisted backhand and service returns. But he needed more than she could give him. So, she packed him up, took him to California and put him under the tutelage of Pancho Segura.
It was under Segura that Connors emerged as a star, first at UCLA, then on the pro tour. In 1972, at age 18, he won his first pro tournament. By the end of 1973, he was ranked No. 3 in the world and, in 1974, he was No. 1, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He stayed there for four years and in the top four through 1985 before dropping to eighth a year ago.
It is a record of consistency matched in tennis only by Chris Evert, the woman he almost married in 1974 when he was 21, she was 19.
“It’s interesting that our careers have been so similar,” said Connors. “We’ve both been on top, drifted down a little and come back. We’ve both stayed around a long time. We’re alike in a lot of ways, which is probably why we’ve stayed friends.”
They are alike in more ways than most people would imagine. When they were engaged, their images could not have been more different. He was the brash, often rude, sometimes crude, dirt dancer. He was the guy who would as soon roll in the mud as hit a white tennis ball. She was the Florida Princess, the teen-age sweetheart, the girl next door.
But even though he shouted and screamed and made obscene gestures on the court and she never did anything more violent than purse her lips, they were--on a tennis court--the same person. Don Candy, Pam Shriver’s longtime coach, once said of Evert, “all she ever wants on the court is every bloody point. Every one.”
After their breakup, he courted beauty queens and eventually married a Playboy centerfold. They called him a playboy. He lives now with his wife and two children and refuses to be apart from them for more than a week at a time.
Evert dated a president’s son and Burt Reynolds, married a tennis player, split with him, admitted to an extramarital affair with a rock star, reconciled, divorced and took on a downhill skier as her new traveling companion.
In short they both played hard, on and off the court. Which is why Connors thinks it would have been a terrible mistake for them to have gotten married. “It would definitely have hurt both our careers,” he said. “For one thing, we were both very young. Our relationship could never be private, which was too bad but inevitable. There were a lot of pressures.
“But the bottom line is I was going to want my companion with me all the time. She was 19. How could we both have had what we wanted out of our careers and our marriage? It would have been very, very hard.”
Ironically, when Connors is in California now one of the people he practices with is John Lloyd, Evert’s ex-husband. “A good guy,” Connors said. “A damn good guy.”
Because his career has stretched on for so long, Connors has perhaps had more great rivalries than anyone in the game. He came in at the tail end of John Newcombe’s reign and played several superb matches with him. Then came Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Throw in some pretty good matches on the side with Guillermo Vilas, his pal Ilie Nastase and--amazingly at this late date--Boris Becker. It has been a full plate.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is that I’ve had so many really good rivalries,” Connors said. “The interesting thing is that each of them has been so different.
“Borg and I were fire and ice. We were just entirely different people on and off the court, and we just went at it out there. McEnroe and I went even further. We went at it on and off the court. That was because we were fire and fire, we were so similar. Still are. Lendl and I didn’t get along, and I won a lot early. He’s won a lot later. And Becker, well, I’m different now. I really like Boris. I think he’s handled himself awfully well. I enjoy him on and off the court.”
Once, Connors would have been hard-pressed to find anything nice to say about a rival, especially one who has been beating him. Now, although he is still the same person on the court--sometimes angry, sometimes profane, sometimes funny--he has in a very real sense become the wise old man of the tour.
“Don’t get me wrong, I liked the image I had when I first came on tour,” he said. “I liked the idea that I thought I was the best, I went after people, I didn’t take anything off of anybody and didn’t ask for anything.
“People weren’t ready for my way because I was different. But I was able to back it up. Back then, I didn’t give a damn what anybody in the locker room thought of me. I had a job to do and the whole thing was a war and nobody better get in my way.
“Now, on the court I’m the same way I always was. But off the court it’s different. I don’t think there’s anyone out there I’m not at least on speaking terms with. Even Mac and I have gotten to a point of mutual respect. We even have fun together sometimes.”
Last year, when McEnroe took a hiatus from the tour, the player who defended him loudest and most often was Connors. “I did it because that was the way I felt,” he said. “The tour can burn anybody out and that’s what it did to John. He needed a break. Then a lot of people started saying it would be good for tennis if he didn’t come back.
“That’s just bull. The guy is a great player who has been great for the game. I don’t always agree with him and he doesn’t always agree with me. But to say it would be good for him to be out of tennis, that’s just crazy.”
McEnroe admits he was stunned when he heard Connors had defended him. “It amazed me,” he said. “When I came back I thanked him for it. He just said, ‘No big deal, good to have you back.’ That’s the thing about Jimmy. You can never predict what he’s going to do next.”
In the 1970s, Connors was the protege of promoter Bill Riordan. Riordan’s arch rival in those days was Donald Dell. Connors got caught smack in the middle of their battle for control of the game.
In 1974, when Connors was absolutely unbeatable, he was barred from the French Open by the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, which at that time was controlled by Dell. The reason was Connors’ participation in team tennis. He won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open that year. Dell and Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Federation, almost certainly cost him a Grand Slam.
Connors sued the ATP and Dell. Their war was an ugly, angry one with lots of name-calling.
The suit never went to court, and Riordan eventually dropped out of tennis. Dell and his ProServ management company became a major force in the game. Connors continued to have his business affairs handled by his mother--"she kept everything in a shoe box"--until 1982 when he signed with Dell’s rival, the International Management Group.
But Connors was unhappy at IMG. He re-ascended to No. 1 in the world that year, winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Yet, he felt that IMG was more interested in clients like Borg, Evert and Martina Navratilova.
“I didn’t feel I got out of that year what I could have gotten, given what I did,” Connors said. " . . . That’s why my mom contacted Donald.”
Gloria Connors had never fought with Dell the way her son had. Her approach to him was simple. “She just called me one day and said, ‘Would you like to manage my son?’ ” Dell said. “I had always wanted to manage Jimmy. She said there was one caveat: she wanted me to personally manage everything he did for at least the first year. I told her that was fine with me.”
Quickly and cleverly, Dell reshaped Connors’ image. Connors became more accessible, less snappish with the media, a much more appealing figure. Connors readily admits this was done consciously.
“I was ready to change my image,” he said. “I was older and I understood what Donald wanted to do. I liked my old image. But I like my new image, too.”
His new image has been quite lucrative. Connors is now associated with nine major companies, has become a very familiar face on television commercials--"Thank you, Paine Webber"--and is involved in enough commercial ventures to keep him extremely comfortable for life.
“Jimmy is as marketable as anyone has ever been in tennis,” Dell said. “Guys have had runs and been on top, but no one has sold as many tickets for as many years as Jimmy Connors.”
Dell also pushed Connors to reconsider his attitude toward Davis Cup. Unlike McEnroe, who always played Davis Cup, Connors rarely played. “If you want to be a legend in this game,” Dell, a one-time Davis Cup captain, told Connors, “you have to play Davis Cup.”
Connors agreed to play in 1984. But when the United States lost the final in Sweden and he and McEnroe were accused by the corporate sponsors of the U.S. Tennis Assn. of conduct unbecoming U.S. tennis players, Connors walked away, vowing not to play again. Now, he says he would even reconsider that position if captain Tom Gorman asked him to play in the zonal matches the United States must play in 1988.
“I really like Tom,” he said. “If he was interested in me, I would definitely be interested in playing next year. I sort of like the idea of being part of something that’s at the bottom working back up. That’s where we are right now.”
Where, then, does the insatiable drive continue to come from? This is a man with eight Grand Slam-event titles--one more than McEnroe and three more than Lendl--more tournament victories (105) than any man who has ever lived and enough money to live comfortably forever.
“I would just love to do something big, really big, one more time,” Connors said, smiling. “At Wimbledon, I was an inch from doing something really big. I got two huge bags of mail when I came home and that was just for making it to the semifinals.”
It wasn’t just for that, though. When Connors came from 6-1, 6-1, 4-1 down to Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round to win, he stirred passions even in the dispassionate English. Maybe that will be all there is. He has not won a tournament since 1984, but has played much better tennis this year than he did in 1986.
“In ’86 I had the long layoff because of the 10-week suspension (for storming off court during a match against Lendl) and I never really found a rhythm. I was hurt a little or I was a little rusty or I wasn’t match sharp. Whatever it was, I just wanted to get out of the year still on the planet.”
In ’86 he lost in the first round at Wimbledon for the first time in his life, and his run of 11 straight Open semifinals ended when Todd Witsken beat him in the third round. They asked him about retiring and he snarled and hissed. Now, though, his ranking is back up to sixth and he has reached at least the quarterfinals of all but one tournament he has played this year.
“I went for a while going into every tournament thinking I had to win,” he said. “Hey, let’s be honest, for me to win anywhere at this point in my life would be huge, really huge. But I had to stop myself from thinking, ‘I must, I must, I must.’
“I almost didn’t go to the French Open, but I decided at the last minute to take my family, go to Paris for a vacation and play some tennis while I was there. That’s the best attitude I’ve adopted yet. Since then I’ve felt less pressure and played better.”
He paused. “And I still think there’s something good ahead for me. I really believe that. If not, though, shed no tears for me. I’ve had a hell of a run.”
He says he wants to play at least another year or two and signed a three-year racket and equipment deal with Slazenger in May to prove it. Winning a Grand Slam event at an age when he is eligible for Grand Masters competition or just winning another Grand Prix tournament would be remarkable.
“But I know the end is near,” he said in his best Sinatra-like voice. “I also know, though, that when the end comes I’ll have no regrets. I’ll never look around and wonder if I could have played a little longer, had a few more good times out there. I wonder if Borg won’t feel that way someday. I don’t know. I just know that I won’t.
“You know, a couple years ago when people asked me how I wanted to be remembered I would launch into a long speech. I would say this or that or this title or record or match or whatever.
“Now, I say one thing: ‘Just remember.’ I hope people say, ‘The guy could play.’ ” He smiled one more time and spread his hands. “No further explanation needed, right? ‘Jimmy Connors could play.’ ”
He could, and almost as remarkably, he still can. That too is worth remembering.