Before there was John McEnroe, there was Jimmy Connors. Brash, raffish, quintessential American teen-ager, he blazed a trail for McEnroe and the other umpire-baiting, linesmen-taunting brats of the tennis tour.
He represented a departure. Never again would tennis players go back to the polite, mildly subservient roles they used to play before the pro game revolutionized the sport. A tennis match took on the elements of a dock fight or a welterweight title bout.
Before Connors, the game was as genteel as tea with the Queen. The game was marked by hypocrisy. You had to wear and be white, you had to say “Yes, sir” and “Thank you” a lot. You had to wipe your feet and take off your hat.
You got paid off in silver cups and wall plaques, so it was advisable to have independent means, not to say be downright rich. You got paid off in the dark and you never took a check. You screamed at an official, you took the next plane home.
Master Connors wasn’t having any of this. Born near what may be the toughest section of the world this side of the Marseilles waterfront, East St. Louis, Ill., he came into the game with his fists cocked, his jaw forward and his attitude truculent. He never did anything easy in his life. He hit every ball as if it were an intruder he found in his bedroom at night. Babe Ruth never swung at a ball any harder than James Scott Connors.
It’s hard to believe now, but when he first burst on the tour as a UCLA sophomore, the game thought he was a wimp. That’s because he had this two-handed backhand like Chrissie Evert.
But that two-handed backhand delivered rockets. It was not compensation for lack of strength, it was an outgrowth of the fact that Connors had started to play the game at the tender age of 2, when it took two hands to lift the racket.
He was a mama’s boy in the sense that his mother, Gloria, was the prototypical stage mother. God might have made Rod Laver a tennis player, but Gloria Thompson Connors took no chances with her son. She got a tennis racket into his hands as soon as he outgrew a rattle. He took his first steps not in a nursery, on a deuce court.
He made up in determination what he might have lacked in raw talent--although he had plenty of that. No Connors match was ever over just because he was down love-5 in the final set. He never took the position he was beaten, just temporarily outscored.
It was harder to get a serve past him than a fastball past Henry Aaron. Someone once said it was like trying to get a lamb chop past a hungry lion. He could get a racket on a bullet.
The line about Rocky Marciano, “He fights you three minutes of every round and he throws rocks,” could apply to Connors. And he was Pete Rose. He came to play. And play. And play.
He won more tournaments and more tournament matches than any other man in the game. He won five U.S. Opens at two venues, two Wimbledons and an Australian Open.
Only two men in history, Laver and Don Budge, have won the Grand Slam--Wimbledon, the U.S., Australian and French Opens in the same year. Connors won the Australian and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in 1974 but was barred from playing in the French Open because of a legal dispute. His disagreements with the tennis Establishment were on court and in court. Connors charged the net in real life, too.
He wasn’t a good loser. He wasn’t a good winner, either. But he won more tournaments, 109, than any other man who ever played the game. He also won more matches, 1,337 and counting.
He didn’t get “burnout,” he gave it.
He was ranked No. 1 160 consecutive weeks, a record, and he made No. 1 a total of 268 weeks overall. “Jimbo” still was a force to be reckoned with when he was 40, reaching the semifinals in the U.S. Open with an attacking game, still fiery, still defiant, still unimpressed with the guy on the other side of the net. Tennis is a very formful game in which a protagonist sometimes seems to accept that he’s meant to be beaten. Connors sneered at everyone.
Jimmy Connors, now 41, is out here this week for the Infiniti Champions tennis tournament at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. He and the forty-somethings who have lost a few m.p.h. off their fast one hope to put together a senior loop that may be as successful as golf’s over-50 tour.
He will be playing, among others, Bjorn Borg, who bested him twice in Wimbledon finals--Connors was runner-up four times at Wimbledon. Connors hopes to show they were only temporary setbacks and to reaffirm, instead, the two times he beat Borg in U.S. Open finals, losing only one set in the process.
Connors on court was always one of the finest sights and sounds of the tennis tour. He brought the grunt into the game long before Monica Seles thought of it, and he brought it to a hard and high art, pounding winners from the baseline with the semi-growl of a crouched panther.
“I went to the net with the idea of putting away one volley,” he says. “I never went to the net with the idea of hitting three or four volleys. I went there for the kill.”
He adds, “I was a counterpuncher. I let the other guy take his best shot. But I never changed my game to suit anyone else’s. I played my game. Let him deal with that. I could take the initiative any time it was called for.
“I think what you could say about my game is that I was unafraid. I played with no fear whatsoever, whether it was Wimbledon or Roanoke.
“I never met a man I didn’t think I could beat.”
Every match was a grudge match with Connors. He not only never tanked a match, he never tanked a shot.
He looked back the other day on a career in which Grand Slam events are now just a distant memory. Did he feel he had gotten everything he could out of his racket?
“I think so,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t have an overabundance of talent. But I was never afraid of hard work.”
He was never afraid of match point, either.
He has probably hit more tennis balls than any man who ever lived. He has probably broken more rackets. He has won on every surface the game is played on. He helped elevate tennis out of its servant-class status. Connors is nobody’s butler.
And if anyone expects him to go through the motions in the seniors, they haven’t been paying attention. As his late partner, Bill Riordan, used to say, “When it came to guts, Jimmy was No. 1 seed in any tournament. If he got to Heaven, he’d try to break God’s serve.”
Like Pete Rose, he may not be the best who ever played his game. He just put up better numbers than those who were. It’s called heart. Which, in tennis, is not to be confused with love.