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 fianc�e 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 fianc�e, 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 �migr� 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."