×
Home Culture Culture Features

Jimmy Connors: The Games He Plays

In which tennis’ original bad boy talks about his on- and off-court antics, how family life has affected his career, and the critics who claim he is washed up at twenty-seven

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors during an interview, New York City, January 7th, 1979

Santi Visalli/Getty

How quickly sports fans forget. Mention the name Jimmy Connors to tennis mavens and, in most cases, you’ll hear a sweeping denunciation of his talents: he’s washed up, a mere shade of his former self, an aging, twenty-seven-year-old hero past his prime. No matter that he was ranked Number One in the world as recently as last year, and that he had held that position for the previous five years (with the exception of one week in 1978, when he dropped to Number Two behind longtime rival Bjorn Borg). When you slip to third place, you’re out of it, a bum.

In the case of Jimmy Connors, a bit of gloating accompanies this temporary amnesia. The wiry little lefty from East St. Louis, Illinois, has always been the kind of superathlete fans love to hate. Since bursting upon the international tennis scene in 1972, Connors has revolutionized not only the technique of the game – there are now few junior players who don’t wield a two-fisted backhand – but the manners of the sport. As recently as fifteen years ago, tennis was confined to the verdant pastures of Wimbledon, Newport, Philadelphia and Forest Hills, where members of polite society played the game with a stiff British upper lip. A pox on the ancestors and heirlooms of he who would applaud an opponent’s error, rejoice after smashing a winner or question a linesman’s call. That is not how gentlemen played this last of the gentlemanly sports.

Jimmy Connors changed all that. Relying upon a repertoire that ranges from comedic to obscene, Connors has forged his own style of tennis etiquette. He cheers his opponents’ unforced errors, bows deeply after serving an ace and thinks nothing of badgering an umpire after a disputed call. This may not be the style of a blue blood raised on the grass courts of Forest Hills, but it’s made Connors a winner – and a millionaire.

Connors learned his game from his mother, Gloria Connors, and from his grandmother. Even as a junior he was at the top, winning national tournaments at fancy clubs around the country and then returning to the public parks of East St. Louis, where he developed the blistering topspin strokes that keep his opponents off balance – and losers. At seventeen, when his mother could teach him no more, “Jimbo” left Illinois for Los Angeles and a swank, private high school that had no qualms about releasing him at 10:30 in the morning to practice with old pro Pancho Segura. Out there he learned the slashing, machine-gun, cross-court game that earned him the NCAA singles title in 1971 as a freshman at UCLA and the distinction of being the best tennis player in the world in 1974.

Much of the rest is familiar history: his on-again, off-again and finally finished romance with Chris Even: his $3 million libel and slander suit against Arthur Ashe; his refusal for years to play on the American Davis Cup team; his near fights with heckling tennis fans; and his five-year dominance of the game. Last year he married ‘Playboy’ magazine’s 1977 Playmate of the Year. Patti McGuire. They had a son, Brett David, last fall.

I caught up with Connors between practice sessions at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston before the start of the U.S. Pro Championships (in which Connors would bow in the quarterfinals). “Just a warm-up for the U.S. Open,” he told me, referring to the late-summer classic in New York, which Connors has won three times. Since his marriage and the birth of his son, the word is that Connors has a new attitude – more mature, less abrasive. He also hasn’t won many tournaments during this time. I thought I’d see if there was a correlation.

***

The new Jimmy Connors seems to be filled with sweetness and light. Has married life really done that to you?
I don’t think so. I think people see me in a different way. They might realize now that everything I did when I was young – when I first started playing as a pro – was to make me play better tennis.

What sort of things?
Well, I’d talk to myself and slap myself on the leg and yell and scream. I always did the yelling and screaming at myself, not at anybody else. And it wasn’t to hurt anybody, or to take my anger out at anybody but myself. I still do the same things, but now people understand that I do them to help me play better tennis, and it works.

Billie Jean King was one of the first modern tennis players to emote on the court. Did you emulate her in that regard?
No, I’m a natural. Everything I do out there is natural. There’s nothing that’s planned at any time. Everything that happens to me while I’m playing, and the things that I do, just comes out on the spur of the moment. That’s why I can’t regret anything that has happened or will happen as far as my tennis goes.
A lot of people don’t realize what it’s like out there. I’m playing against somebody equal in talent, on a hot day, and I’m tired and thirsty; and I’ve got something else on my mind. A lot of people have never been put in that position and can’t understand what can really go on out there. It’s pretty tough sometimes.

Was your behavior consistent throughout your junior days?
I’ve always had a temper. I can handle most big things, most big problems. It’s the little things that drive me nuts. My wife, Patti, can handle the little things but not the big ones, so we kinda make a good pair.

Has marriage, settling down, in any way diminished your competitiveness on the court?
No. I think I have more to play for now with my boy. Last year was probably the best year in my life, because becoming a father was the most important thing to me. My tennis slipped a little bit, which is no big secret, but I’ve learned to separate the two – family and tennis. Once I got that under control, I was all right.

Do your personal and professional lives ever conflict?
I’ve always enjoyed my private life. Unfortunately, that’s what people like to know about the most.

And they have no business knowing.
That’s right. My private life has attracted a lot of attention in the past. It’s good that people are interested, but it’s been bad because it was gone about in the wrong way – as far as the people who were reporting it.

***

Connors has never been press-shy. He banters easily with reporters. Before a $500,000 winner-take-all challenge match with John Newcombe in 1975, Connors chatted with reporters. Earlier in the day he had entered a hospital for tests, then returned to Caesars Palace for a workout.

“What did the tests show?” a newspaperman asked.

“Syphilis,” Connors said, “Say, did you hear about the old man who told his friend he got syphilis at seventy-six? The friend said. ‘Well, I got Penn Central at one-sixteen.'”

“You seemed a little uncomfortable at the beginning of the workout,” another reporter observed.

“Yeah,” Connors said. “I had the farts.”

***

You’ve never exactly avoided publicity.
No. I’m a straight shooter. I’ve always been. I wish that people would shoot straight with me instead of cutting corners and beating around the bush. Everything I say I will always take full responsibility for. No, I’m not shy in that respect. I don’t know if that’s a gift or not – to speak your mind – but I’ve always spoken mine, sometimes when I probably shouldn’t have.

You said once that you couldn’t understand why Americans didn’t embrace you as a truly American tennis player.
I never said that. What I always said was that it was difficult for any one American to be taken in as a tennis player because there are so many: myself, Dibbs, Solomon, Tanner, Smith, Ashe…. . . .
It’s not like an [IIie] Nastase in Romania, who is the country’s only sports hero.
What I always said was that people go out – especially in New York – to see blood. They don’t care who’s playing, all they want to see is some guy get in there, punching in the ribs, and see blood spurting out. They want a battle. That’s what they love the most, because they’re true sports fans.

Like rabid Romans watching gladiators in the pit.
Sure, and Christ, that’s who I’d rather play for. I don’t want to play in front of somebody who’s sitting on his hands, and no matter what, he gives a polite clap, clap, and then he’s back on his hands. I want somebody yelling and screaming for me, or yelling and screaming against me, because either way that’s going to bring out my best tennis.

Why do you need that kind of feverish pitch in a crowd?
That’s the way I was brought up. I was brought up that you go out there and you fight for your life. It’s me against you, kill or be killed, and the people up there watching just draw that out.
I’ve played a lot of great matches and won. I’ve played a lot of great matches and lost. A couple of matches that I’ve lost have probably been the most exciting, just because of the crowd participation and reaction.

***

During a challenge match with Rod Laver, Connors battled the wily Australian in a fourth set that many in the audience thought was the best tennis they’d ever seen. Connors was leading 5–4 in games, with Laver serving. After Laver hit his fifth ace. Connors smashed a forehand down the line to send the game back to deuce. They played sixteen more points, with Connors reaching match point five times. At the height of the drama, the late comedienne Totie Fields begun riding Connors. Jimbo responded with another of his digital signs of opprobrium. He wound up losing the game, but Miss Fields was silenced for the rest of the match.

***

If you look at tennis fifteen years ago, espousing that kind of atmosphere where people are yelling and cheering – not sitting on their hands – would have been considered pretty radical, or unsophisticated.
Tennis was always a “gentlemen’s” game. That’s why it’s difficult for the champions of years past – twenty-five or thirty years ago – to accept what’s going on now. But a lot has to do with the amount of money coming into the game. The old champions were playing as amateurs and they played for pride. I’m playing for pride, but also for a living. Now it’s not only me against you, but it’s you taking away my dinner and my living for my family.
Before tennis became open in 1968 – I was fifteen then – I didn’t know if I wanted to be a tennis pro. I’d just been playing for a long time and I liked to play tournaments. Then all of a sudden. I’m nineteen and I’m playing for $2500 to win a tournament. Jesus, that was unheard of. And then boom, you’re playing for $100,000 and then $200,000. It’s ridiculous how the money has just grown and grown.

What would you say has provided the greatest incentive or ambition for you? Were you attracted to the celebrity of tennis as a youth?
I never had that. I never had any of that.

But did you aspire to it?
Who knew anything about that at all? You don’t know how good you’re going to get. You dream of playing Wimbledon, winning Wimbledon, but the glamour part you really don’t think about. I was never brought up in a country-club atmosphere. My mom wasn’t, my grandmother wasn’t. We played in Jones Park in downtown East St. Louis. We were always at public parks where there was no shade and you had to walk a hundred yards to get a drink of water. Actually, a minimum number of champions have come from a country-club atmosphere. It’s too easy – you walk off the court, you have a Coke, you have a hamburger. Things are made too simple.
I’m not condemning them now, because they have a lot of great tournaments at the country clubs. But they’re the gravy part of all the public parks I was brought up in: no shade, jogging to get drinks and things like that. My upbringing as far as tennis goes was just about perfect.

Do you like tennis people as a whole? The club crowd, the polo shirts?
That wasn’t my upbringing. I’m not saying that against my folks or the place where I was born and raised. In the Midwest – in East St Louis – you fight for what you get. And the tradition in many places, Wimbledon included, has no place in my heart. Nobody ever gave me nothin’ for nothin”. Anytime somebody does I’m skeptical of it. As far as I’m concerned, you go out and you grind and you bite and you claw, and you get what you deserve. And I was always taught that winner takes all. I was not taught that if you lose in the first round you still get paid.

How did you feel as a junior player? You came from a modest background. Tennis was not a money sport when you were growing up…. . . .
A sissy sport.

A sissy sport, or a glamour sport. If you were good, you got to associate with royalty. How did you feel traveling to national tournaments as a kid playing a club sport, but not being able to join the club?
Even then, when I traveled to the tournaments with my brother [Johnny], my mom and my grandma, I was always a loner. I practiced with my brother and my family. I was never really a part of that, that . . .

. . . …club scene?
No. I was never really part of it then and I’m not now. It’s even difficult for me to associate with other players. To go out and play them and try to beat their brains out, and then spend time with them and become friends and play them again – that’s very difficult.

***

When Connors first turned professional, he was the unchallenged star of an under-publicised wintertime tennis tour operated by his manager. Bill Riordan, a former boxing promoter. Connors reigned supreme, primarily because most of the world-class players toured on a more prestigious circuit, the World Championship of Tennis. Bowing to pressure to join the big boys, Connors immersed himself in the European circuit in the summer of ’74 – and bombed. He returned to the States and entered the U.S. Pro Championships at Longwood. On the plane to the tournament, where he was slated to play top seed Stan Smith in the first round, Connors wrote notes to himself: “Beat son of bitch. Beat son of bitch.” He ousted Smith, along with Ray Moore, Dick Stockton, Cliff Richey and finally, in five sets, Arthur Ashe. “That’s my code word for all those guys,” he says.

***

Do you have to hate your opponents?
I do. Yeah, If I don’t, I don’t feel right.

Does that hatred spill over off the court?
No, no.

Do you think people make too much of your rivalry with John McEnroe? The general perception is that there’s no love lost between the two of you.
Probably not on the court. Not on the court with anybody, I’m sure. And I don’t spend any time with him off the court. He has his friends, and I go my way. So I don’t see him that much.

You seem to have similar temperaments. I always use my attitude to improve my tennis and to make me play better. I don’t know about McEnroe. I don’t watch him that much. I don’t pay much attention to him.

At what point are you provoked enough to go after somebody in the crowd – moon them, for instance.
Do what?

Moon them.
I’ve never done that! [Affecting a British accent] I dare say!

I think you did it during a practice session at the U.S. Open.
Ah, yes. But it was raining that day. I just had to cool it off a little bit. It wasn’t meant to be viewed by anybody in the crowd, really And there shouldn’t have been anybody out there, if they were smart. It was pouring down rain. But it got a little blown out of proportion. It got back to East St. Louis, and my mom saw” it. She called and said, “What the hell’s going on here?” And I said, “Mom, they never left my waist.” But it got a little blown out of proportion as to how far down they were.

So let’s settle it. How far down were they?
Not far enough! I didn’t bend over and rip them down. I was running for a ball at the time and I just kinda grabbed the waistband a little bit. It was very cheeky.

Have you ever directed your animosity toward a fan?
Well, it depends, you know. Nah. I went up after somebody in the crowd one time, and when I got up in the stands, the guy stood up. He was about six feet six, and I said, “Excuse me! Wrong guy – it’s the other guy up there.” It’s a funny story, because two years later I played in Philadelphia and was in the locker room, and somebody said there was a guy outside who wanted to see me. I walked out and it was the same guy. He said. “Hey, you remember me? You little shrimp, you wanted to come up and get me in the stands!” But he was nice, he turned out to be a nice guy.

***

Sometimes his histrionics get out of hand. During a World Team Tennis match in Philadelphia in 1975, Connors was being heckled fiercely. Meeting the challenge, Jimbo ran through his entire repertoire of insulting gestures – the flashing of his derrière, the raising of his middle finger toward the sky and a series of stalling tactics, which included blowing on his hand and stroking his racquet handle with masturbatory movements. Finally, the chief heckle/began making some not-so-subtle sexual allusions to his then-fiancée, Chris Evert. Connors rushed the stands before a guard hauled him down. “I was going to kill the guy.” Connors said. “Heckling’s all right so long as it doesn’t get crude.”

***

Would you say that your mother is the original “tennis mom”? It seems that she pretty much controlled you and pushed you from tournament to tournament.
Well, everybody else had their dad. I’m the only world champion ever to be taught by a woman.

Two women.
Well, two women, right. I’m the third generation of my family. My mom had a difficult role. Number one, because she was my mom, and number two, because she was my coach. And she’s been condemned for years and years for that. What a lot of people don’t understand is that she – along with me – can separate the two, the mom and the coach. But the people on the outside couldn’t. My mom knows my game so well I can talk to her on the telephone and she can help.
If you want to go one step further, my mom’s also my friend. I enjoy her company. Like everybody, sometimes I feel like saying, “Just leave me alone”. I’m sure she feels the same way toward me. As far as life goes, I’m her youngest, and no matter how old I get, I’ll still be her youngest.

I’ve heard you say you wanted to be the best tennis player of all time. Do you think you’ve reached that?
No, I’m still working. A career is not made off of one or two tournaments. My time is not up yet. My impact on the game up to this point has been pretty strong. My mark has been made, but it’s still going.

Do you think ahead to when you’ll quit tennis?
My time will be up when I feel I can no longer play like the best player in the world. If I feel I can go out there when I’m thirty-five and play like I’m the best, then I’ll continue. If not, I don’t want to hang around and come to tournaments just to come. There are a lot of young guys who are waiting for a shot at a tournament like this. And they should have the shot.

How do you respond to certain tennis pundits who look at you at twenty-seven and say you’re never going to regain the form you had four years ago?
They’d like to be able to play like me even now. I haven’t even reached my peak yet, and I may not until I’m twenty-eight or twenty-nine. It’s not so much that I’m not playing well right now. I am playing well, but it’s going to take a little time. Last year was just a little vacation for me.

Thinking ahead to when you begin to ease yourself out of the game, I’ve always wondered how it’s possible to go on to anything else when you’ve done something better than anyone else in the world, and to strive for that same level of excellence.
That’s your competitive spirit. I don’t even like to sit down and play my wife in backgammon without trying to beat her brains in. That’s the way I am in anything – competitive. It’s going to be difficult when I’m unable to compete in tennis anymore. I don’t know how I’ll handle that, but there are a lot of things I’ll be able to do – broadcasting, commentary, whatever. As long as I have something I can try to be the best at, that’s the main thing.

I gather that you’re looking toward the entertainment field.
I wouldn’t mind getting into some of that. It’s very difficult right now to spend time away from my tennis. A two- or three-month gap would put me six months behind. Once my tennis is finished, though, I’d enjoy that.

You’re not going into singing?
I thought I’d stay away from singing. They can make you sound very good, but they didn’t make me sound quite good enough.

Well, how bad did you sound?
Well… . . . [joking] actually; I’ve got the tape right here. It was a very good experience for me. But it was such a different lifestyle than I was used to – asleep all day, up all night.

You cut a record under the guidance of Paul Anka. A single?
It was a single, but it had two sides. The other side I’m not telling you about.

What was the name of the song?
[Laughing] I can’t remember. Let’s see. Slipped my mind completely. [Moaning, holding head in hands] It was called “Girl, You Turn Me On.”

Catchy title.
Yeah, catchy. Very catchy tune. But it was never released. What a break for me! God almighty…. . . .

So is somebody pushing you into the movie field?
Well, not pushing. I’ve had a few opportunities, but it would have taken up too much time. There are a few opportunities in the future. But who knows what I might want to do in four or five years?

Do you ever get totally sick of this game?
Every year around November and December I do. That’s my time off. I may play a total of two weeks during those months, and then I take my family skiing to Vail.
But otherwise, no, because I don’t play that many weeks in a row. I’ll play two or three weeks maximum, and then I’ll take a week or ten days off, so that it makes my eagerness come back. I couldn’t go from the beginning to the end of the year. If I played six weeks in a row I’d be dead.

Do you feel age creeping up? Any physical ailments?
Not because of age but because of my game and my style. I’m flyin’, I’m jumpin’, I’m twistin’, I’m turnin’ – and it’s too rough on me physically.

You’re like a baseball pitcher. You have only a certain number of serves in your arm.
Don’t say that. This may be the week it runs out, right? It’s not that I have any more aches and pains than I did when I was twenty, it’s just that I feel them a bit more.

Becoming a little bit more of a hypochondriac, now that you have a wife to complain to…. . . .
I don’t do no complaining. She doesn’t listen anyway. I’m more conscious of taking care of myself now. I know I have to come out and warm up properly, and I have to loosen up before I warm up. When you’re nineteen or twenty you go out, “Okay, serve ’em up.” I’m more conscious now to take care of myself before I go out.

Does your new married lifestyle cramp your social life? You don’t hang around Hugh Hefner’s mansion anymore?
I never did. I went up there twice in my life. One time was when I met my wife. That was about three or four years ago.

Was yours and Patti’s a whirlwind romance?
I met her first a few years ago and then I didn’t see her for a little over a year, until July 1978. I walked into a restaurant that a mutual friend of ours owns. She happened to be there playing backgammon. I talked to her a little bit, played a little backgammon, and since that night we were inseparable. So it was kinda whirlwind.

Did the earth move?
Yeah, it was shakin’.

Did the earth move when you were in love with Chris Evert?
You’re going back a long time. That would have been a mistake for both of us. If Chrissy and I had gotten married, she would have been playing someplace, and I would have been playing someplace, and that’s not my idea of being married.

***

Connors is proud to be an American. The U.S. Open title means more to him than any other, and his tennis clothes are red, white and blue: he wears the American Flag on his chest. Despite his celebrity, he seems to identify best with blue-collar workers, like those he saluted during a tennis tournament in Florida. “Here, guys,” he shouted at them, flashing a peace sign. “Half of this is for you.”

***

I gather that you care more about the U.S. Open than any other tournament?
Yeah, I care about anything that has “U.S.” in front of it. It’s easy for me to play over here, at home. It always has been. It’s always been difficult for me to go to Europe and play, mainly because I’m so far from home. If something happens and I have to get home, I’m too many hours away. It’s probably a security thing for me.

Do you like playing for the New York audience at the Open?
I always have. They either love me or hate me, but it’s good because at least I know they’re involved. And I’ve played my best tennis there, a lot of my best tennis.

Would you rather have people love you or hate you?
Yes. Does that answer the question? Either way is all right. If you like me I’m going to perform for you; if you hate me I’m going to make you love me by the end of the match. I think that’s what people like, especially in New York.

In This Article: Coverwall

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment