Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008-09

 

THE RIGHT

to say “shit” is the right to play tennis!

GHLIII

illos by CHARLIE WILLIAMS, ALAN HUTCHINSON
and WAYNE THOMPSON

Hes an old man now, pushing 60 as much as he’s pulling 50, and instead of his tennis whites he wears an expensive suit. But didja notice? During his last public stint, as coach to Andy Roddick at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the camera kept switching to him. Tennis misses James Scott Connors.

Anyone alive in Jimbo’s heyday – the early seventies – knows why. Roddick certainly did. He hired Connors not to help him with technique, but with attitude. To instill an iota of that which filled Jimbo to the brim – a competitiveness that scorched the earth. To summit Mount Federer and be the best in the world. After all, it worked for Connors – much of the time.

It helped that he was seldom the Best. Being the Greatest doesn’t mean you’re the Best. It means you’re the most persistent, the most ambitious, the most focused, the most self-unforgiving, the most intense, the most tenacious. It means you don’t quit till they carry you out on your shield. It didn’t work with Roddick – he still can’t beat Roger Federer. Maybe what Connors has can’t be learned. Maybe it can only be.

That’s half the story I want to tell. The other is more personal. One time in New Orleans a friend showed me a bongo drum he’d found. Ballpointed on the skin was JIMY CONNORS U.S. OPEN CHAMPION. As a follower of Connors’ career, I couldn’t help but wonder about my unknown – and somewhat illiterate – fellow fan. What moved him to hail Jimbo in this way? What about Jimmy made him want to associate Jimmy’s name with something – however incongruous – of his own? I felt like something was being spoken to me, something sad and true, about the nature of heroes – but I couldn’t tell what. Not that I didn’t identify. Let me tell you my “history” with Jimmy Connors.

***

I didn’t pay much attention to Jimbo when he was the best – in 1974. That year he was the Dragon Child, 22, at the powerful heights of his precocious youth, bashing the blue shit out of everything that moved – he won the Australian Open, he won Wimbledon – a chubby Little Lord Fauntleroy, he won the U.S. Open, plain humiliating his generation-older opponent, the great Ken Rosewall. In one of the great injustices of modern sport, a hassle between tennis management organizations cost him a place in the French Open, and a shot at only the fourth Grand Slam in the history of tennis.

This is a sketch of Jimmy Connors playing tennis.

It wasn’t till the next year, 1975, that I began heeding Connors’ exploits. It was Wimbledon time, and I made what I thought was a safe bet with a fellow slave at the hospital where I clerked: five dolla’ on Jimmy. Why not? Connors was the champion, had slaughtered everyone en route to the finals, and his opponent was ten years his senior. That opponent? Arthur Ashe.

What I did not know – nor did Connors – was that Arthur had spent weeks analyzing Jimmy’s game – all power, at that time – and found the weakness that he needed. He threw unhittable garbage at Connors’ forehand and ground the moptop into the grass. There went Connors’ title and my fiver.

The sports press howled. They hated Connors. He was a spoiled rich kid, they said – even though his father was a working man, managing a bridge in St. Louis. He was a Nixon clone – some imbecile actually wrote that. He was trained by women, his mother and grandmother, a mama’s boy. Worst, at least to Sports Illustrated and its slimy head writer, Curry Kirkpatrick, was the offense Connors gave with his nasty, nasty mouf’.

Gee. How dare he? I became a Connors fan. Anyone who could plant a bug so far up Middle America’s tuckus had to be okay with me.

Later that summer Jimbo botched the U.S. Open final, losing his championship there to a Spanish clay court specialist named Manuel Orantes. His astonished comment after the match – “Manuel? Shit!” – on national TV gave birth to my personal Connors motto, my SFPAzine based on him … and the title to this article: The Right to Say “Shit” is the Right to Play Tennis! Maybe the right to sing it is, too. A few weeks later Jimmy tried to sing on Howard Cosell’s short-lived variety show and sounded like a chipmunk with asthma. A bad year.

The press kept up its mockery. I began my series of SFPAzines. For some reason I didn’t do a Right to Say “Shit” after Jimmy won the ’76 Open – an incredible clay court victory over Bjorn Borg that Jimmy has called his most significant win. But I did do one the next year – after a significant loss. This was the 5-set Wimby final against that same incredible creature, Bjorn Borg.

Borg was Jimmy’s great rival, just as, later, he’d be John McEnroe’s. In a way, the kid from the Midwest and the kid from Scandinavia reminded me of knights from opposite sides of the world. Borg was a Teutonic paladin swinging his racket in great slow sliding arcs; Jimmy was a samurai, slashing instinctively, Zen tennis – zennis. Maybe I’m getting a little silly here.

Anyway, that final was not silly. The combatants split the first four sets. Borg swept out to a 4-0 lead in set number 5, so it looked all but over – but then …

As he so often did, Connors kicked his intensity and courage up an extra quantum. I swear he beat his own thigh bloody as he tore back to win the next four games, and tie the match. It wasn’t till he double-faulted that Borg was able to recover his wits, and squeak through to win the second of his five straight Wimbledons:

Odd-numbered years were bad for Jimbo. In 1977 he lost the Open to the brilliant Argentine, Guillermo Vilas, taking a swing at a taunting fan, and Borg beat him at Wimby like the aforementioned bongo. But ’77 was succeeded by ’78. At the U.S. Open Jimmy faced Borg again – on grass. Shrieking, rending, foaming at the mouth, shrapnel in tennis whites, Connors tore the Swede apart. Arthur Ashe called that match the best example of aggressive tennis he’d ever seen. I called it The Night of the Blood Beast.

I did my fourth issue of The Right to Say “Shit”. It would be four years before my fifth.

 

A long drought for Connors aficionados. Borg owned Wimbledon and McEnroe was coming into his own at the Open. Jimbo was still around, of course, but a consistent semi-finalist now, not a finalist. He married the Playmate of the Year – the awesome Patti McGuire – had a baby, and they said the Fire had gone out. But then he took Borg to five grand sets at Wimbledon – softening him up for McEnroe and the greatest tie-breaker of all time. Even Curry Kirkpatrick restrained his sneers. What was going on here?, people wondered. A rebirth?

He showed them the next year.

It was a strange Wimbledon. Borg, beaten the year before by McEnroe, showed himself truly beaten – he stayed home from the tournament to pout and never returned. Ivan Lendl, just beginning to make serious noise in the sport, pleaded allergy to grass, and went off to play golf – no doubt on a clay course. McEnroe did show up – as did Connors. They met in the final on July 4, 1982. Fireworks on the Fourth of July.

At the time it was the longest singles final in Wimbledon history, a 4-hour-and-16-minute gutter brawl on the grass, a contest as elegant as a knee to the groin – without quarter, without prisoners. Connors botched a set and stumbled, for a time, at the edge of extinction. But the Brits knew who they liked. They chanted, “There is only one … Jimmy Connors!”

Up popped the Absolute Fire. That was the name John Lloyd gave to the extra quanta of competitiveness, focus, and ability all sports greats bring to their game – the refusal to lose. Chris Evert had it, he said, Navratilova had it – and Connors was made of it.

And it was his last serve that kicked up chalk dust and flew wild off Johnny Mac’s racket. “Yumpin’ Yiminy” leaped like a frog and, in Greenbsoro NC, I whooped insanely. Pals of my first wife and me were scattered about our living room, passed out from the night before. They gazed at their hysterical host in stuporous wonder.

I went public with my mania. The sports editor of the Greensboro newspaper published a column scoffing at Connors’ claim of tennis supremacy. Had Borg been at Wimby, he sneered, he would’ve creamed him, and so would have Vilas. I wrote a restrained yet still steaming reply. So where were Vilas and Borg? Were armed guards stationed at the Wimbledon gates to keep them out? Seems to me, I said, that tournaments are won by the best guy who shows up. And that was James Scott Connors. Haw!

That wasn’t the last major victory for Jimbo. That September he faced Ivan Lendl in the U.S. Open final. Eventually the Czech champ would come to dominate the tounrament – but not yet. Connors tore out his heart and ate it. The next year he accomplished something he’d never done before, and successfully defended his title – despite the most public case of diarrhea in history. Embarrassment over the long potty breaks he needed gave him more grief than did Lendl. My favorite issues of The Right blossomed out of these victories – as sassy and defiant as their subject. As well as being personally rewarding to me.

This is a sketch of Jimmy ConnorsBetween Jimbo’s fourth U.S. Open championship in 1982 and his fifth, the year after, I had lost my marriage, left North Carolina, and begun law school. Emotionally I was an open wound, ripped, ragged – and delighted by the phone call I received from the president of the Jimmy Connors Fan Club.

Her name was Terri, a sweet teenage girl with a crush on Connors. I forget how she got the job, but Jimmy’s brother John – his manager – hired her to publish a newletter and promote the mythos. I sent her a copy of The Right to Say “Shit” and, in true fannish fashion, she sent me her zine. It was pretty amateurish – lots of newspaper clippings, including my letter to the Greensboro Daily News – but its heart was pure. So was Terri, although she told some very funny stories about traveling with Jimmy’s entourage and being photographed by tabloids. WHO IS JIMMY CONNORS’ MYSTERY WOMAN? read the headlines.

Terri commiserated that John Connors didn’t care for her newsletter, and she thought she’d be replaced. I complimented myself that she’d write something about me – but indeed, she got fired before her next issue, moving on to another – younger – player. Such is the resiliency of her gender. Nevertheless, like Connors’ victories, her call was a bright spot in a hideous season. Terri, where’er you are, blessings.


Connors’ major tourney victories were behind him – but not his triumphs. That Absolute Fire kept flaring up at tourneys – usually when he was losing. The matches would usually go like this: Connors and some good, young kid would bash the ball back and forth, Jimmy’s innate excellence keeping pace with his opponent’s youthful energy. Then Jimmy would fade, the younger guy would pull ahead – and Connors would be staring Defeat in the face. Up would shoot that Absolute Fire. And Jimmy would win.

He won an epic 5-setter at Wimby against young Aaron Krickstein that they still talk about. He beat Andres Gomez in the fifth set of an Open match that left him howling to God like a madman. Perhaps most memorably, he came back from extinction against Paul Haarhuis in the Open with a lob-happy point oft called the greatest point in U.S. Open history. You can still see it on YouTube. The exultation of the crowd to the fist-pumping maniac before them was nigh onto ecstatic – you can see it in Charlie Williams’ illo, from a photo taken at the moment.

The crowds had come to appreciate the Absolute Fire. Connors – the despised “rich kid” punk with the dirty mouth – became the People’s Champion. One of the personality magazines did a poll of America’s favorites in every field. America’s favorite athlete? Jimmy Connors. People held up CONNORS FOR PRESIDENT signs at the Open. At staid old Wimbledon the Brits did a wave in his honor. Sports Illustrated put him back on the cover, the headline THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE. The mama’s boy had become a man. The man had become legend. I felt utterly vindicated. The right to say “shit” is the right to play tennis!

Secure now atop his sport and atop the affections of its fans, Jimbo started up a senior tour featuring some of the other plays from his era. It was a wise and successful move; after all, though fine tennis pros had succeeded Jimmy and Borg and their contemporaries, they were a pretty dull lot, playing a pretty dull power game that eschewed (gesundheit!) finesse and charisma. Even though Jimmy won most of the mini-tourneys on the tour, the matches outstripped tourney play in simple watchability. Charis’, in all things, rules.


***


All of what precedes leads to what follows: the two times I met Jimmy Connors.

The second time is the least interesting so I’ll talk about it first. Jimbo came to New Orleans for an exhibition match against Aaron Krickstein. I cut law school class to see him, and scored an autograph before the match. Jimmy was friendly, gracious, curious about the photo I asked him to sign. “Is that from the U.S. Open?” “One you won,” I replied. “Thanks, mna,” said he with a chuckle.

It was an entertaining evening on the court. Often in exhibitions players fix the first two sets to heighten the suspense for the third, and give the people more of a show. I was delighted to see that instead, Connors – as old as Krickstein’s father – beat the kid in straights. I also admit to delight when a local DJ introduced the event’s “honorary ball boy,” his beautiful blonde girlfriend. Possessing a “three-molecule” nose and a pneumatic figure, she nearly caused havoc when she peeled down to her miniscule bikini. (Years later, I got to know her. She became the girlfriend of a lawyer pal.)

The tennis and the bikini’ed blonde were wonderful, but the best moment of the evening came outside of the players’ locker room, as diehards lingered to greet them as they left. A couple of middle-aged shmos – me and another guy – waited to say hello to Connors. Krickstein was awaited by a raft of teenage girls. “What would you do if he came out in his towel?” one panted. “I’d shit,” moaned her companion. “I’d just shit.” What about Jimmy? “Ewwwww,” they gagged, noses a’crinkle, “he’s so ooooold …”

Ancient and decrepit though he was, Connors emerged, smilingly accepted our congrats, and was off for a reception. That was the last time I‘ve seen him in person. I regretted not being able to speak with him further0. I wanted to apologize for something I’d said seven years before.


The year was 1979. I was working at the Louisiana Unemployment Office, law school a one-time ambition I hadn’t a thought of recovering. Peter Curtis, a local entrepreneur who had once been a champion doubles player, noticed that for a sports-mad city, New Orleans had no significant tennis presence. Having some clout within the sport, he put together a tournament

It was an ambitious affair. Curtis lured the best players of the day to the Crescent City – Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Roscoe Tanner, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, Brian Gottfried, Eddie Dibbs, Johann Kriek, even the great flamboyant umpire Frank Hammond, months from the U.S. Open dust-up which would forever blemish his record. New Orleans’ dingy old Municipal Auditorium, normally used for Mardi Gras balls and little else, was royally decked out and a hard court surface was laid. I paid $35 for my ticket. It earned me a great seat, with a panoramic view of both court and stands. From it, that first night, I easily spotted Patti McGuire Connors in a box seat. Even across the auditorium – and wearing a maternity dress – the 1977 PMoY packed a punch. Man, what a face! Joining her momentarily was a scrawny little guy with a bowl haircut, mobbed by kids proffering program books and pens.

So this was Jimmy Connors, in the flesh at last, and what did I feel like shouting at him? “She’s too good for you, you pimply twerp!”

Jimmy’s first match was against a big server named John Sadri, who would make the finals of the Australian Open that year. 1979 preceding Jimbo’s great resurrection in public approbation, the crowd was obnoxious, taunting Jimmy – and Ilie Nastase, who also played – like the bad guys in a wrestling match. Very middle American. I let myself go: “Show’em, Jimmy!” I shouted, and “You’re gonna win!” when he berated himself – “Waste, waste, waste!” – after a botched serve. Sadri’s serves boomed at Jimbo like howitzer shells, but his samurai spirit prevailed.

The next day Connors showed up again, but not to play. He showed up to watch Borg. While the great Swedish iceman dissected poor Gene Mayer with silken strokes – an aesthetic experience to watch – Jimmy stood in the corner of the court, always behind Borg, and watched. Whether he was trying to psych Bjorn – fat chance – or build excitement towards their projected final, or just acknowledge the other greatest tennis player in the world, who knows? He didn’t have to build excitement in me. The prospect of seeing Connors and Borg go at it in front of my living eyes was enough to make me quiver. Alas, t’was not to be.

Because the next day, Jimmy played Tom Gullikson, the left-handed half of the celebrated twins, later captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Jimmy bantered with the crowd, exchanged good-natured jibes with Gullikson. At one time Jimmy stuck his finger into a split tennis ball and held it up for Tom to see. “No comment!” he laughed. He easily dominated the first set of the match, and I began to relax. Connors was in command.

And then …

During his glory years I saw Jimmy Connors play three or four types of matches. There was the type exemplified by the Night of the Blood Beast, where he reached a level of intensity and quality that seared the air, and did things to his opponent they shouldn’t show on TV before midnight. Similar were the matches when, as in Wimby ’77, he fell behind and comes charging, roaring, seething, blasting back – a performance that should be spoken of in the same breath as Ali in Zaire. There were the easy wins. And then there were the matches where Connors was cruising until something went *click* and Connors went *cluck* and he couldn’t beat a carpet with his effing racket.

And so it went. The second set was amateur hour. Jimmy’s lobsbecame sloppy dying ducks that Gullikson shellacked with ease. AllConnors could do was clown. When one of Gullikson’s smashes bounced high into the stands, Jimmy slipped an extra ball from his pocket and tossed it over the net. A funny moment, but jeeze – it came in the midst of his fans’ agony. I couldn’t take it. I abandoned my seat and headed for court level, where the last bollixed shot sent Gullikson’s arms skyward in triumph (he’d never before beaten Connors) and Jimmy’s shoulders down in a defeated slump. He railed to Frank Hammond about lousy officiating and stormed off thecourt, pissed as Hell.

This is a sketch of Jimmy Connors.Hammond hustled after him to the locker room. Jimmy’s #1assistant followed, his face anguished. God, was Connors that delicate? Was defeat so terrible, no matter where, when, how, or to whom, that he needed every friend he had to buck him up? Forget the gibes of middle Americans – was the panic I sensed the real cost of being James Scott Connors?

(Outside the locker room, a loud woman with lipstick smeared all over her mouth dragged her vacant, silent daughter before Gullikson. He beat a quick retreat.)

The door opened and, shrugging and joking, pretty much over it, Jimmy emerged. “Let’s line up,” he said to the autograph hounds. “Anybody know a good way I can make my living?”

Ah,” I said dismissively, “the right to say ‘shit’ is the right to play tennis.”

In a better life, that would have been the last word. But no. While Jimmy signed my program book, I kept chattering. What is it, world, that compels schnooks like me to yammer and blather when confronted with someone we admire? I could fill this fanzine four times over with stupid things I’ve said to famous and accomplished people, foolishness that would drive a man capable of shame to and past the windowsill. But no, no, we have to make an impression, we have to show the famous that we, the unfamous, also exist and matter, so we talk and talk and talk, and say something inexpressibly stupid …

Me, I mentioned that I’d just met someone “who knows your father quite well.”

Jimmy flinched, and glanced up from his autographing. Ouch. I’d hit something. Connors father had died in 1977.

Knew your father,” I corrected myself. He nodded, drawing inward. It was said they weren’t close, whatever that means.

“Well,” he murmured, “what was his name?”

“I dunno,” I blundered on. “Just somebody applying for unemployment insurance.”

Connors looked over at a friend and laughed. The friend smiled wanly. He’d come up to Jimmy and with a mixture of shyness and need – the guy was barefoot – asked him if he remembered him from their Illinois boyhoods. One could feel the Bite coming, but Connors grabbed his hand warmly, calling the guy by name. .

A kid asked Jimmy if he wanted to play pool, and at first he was interested. “30 cents a point?” he asked. “Where can we play?” “Great place on Bourbon Street.” “Bourbon Street?” Connors blanched. Our French Quarter had a reputation. The kid scampered after Jimbo and his shoeless buddy as they walked away. I hope he was gently rebuffed. I had to consciously restrain myself from following.

Such are, I suppose, the penalties of fame, the cost of being Jimmy Connors. Everyone wants to be your friend. Everyone wants to play pool. Everyone wants to borrow money. Everyone wants to talk about your family. In years since I’ve wished I’d walked directly that night to – and into – the Mississippi. Dammit, we don’t own famous people. We don’t own accomplished people. We don’t even own inspirational people. We own their work, their art –what they do for everyone. But there are limits. When you make a guy flinch for his lost father, you have traipsed unforgivably over the line.

I wish I could tell him how sorry I am.

The tourney went on. McEnroe and Borg played an incredible semi which featured a thrilling, endless tie-breaker. It went on and on and churned the crowd into a froth. Later that summer, the same two geniuses would play another thrilling, endless tie-breaker – at Wimbledon, in a masterpiece of a match that people still talk about. A cynical soul who had seen them in New Orleans might suspect that it was rehearsed – but I don’t think so. I just think Johnny Mac was sending a clear signal that he had Arrived. That’s another story.

***

Let us return to 2009. Connors no longer plays. As I said at the outset of this (admittedly overlong) article, he coached Andy Roddick for a while, but gave that up. The Absolute Fire, after all, can’t be taught.

As long as we’re looking back, Joel Drucker’s memoir, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is a marvelous tour through Jimbo’s career and the effect he’s had on his people. And he still makes news. In late 2008 he got into a fracas of some sort outside of a Santa Barbara basketball game – and got arrested. The incident put him back in the public eye, in a fashion he wouldn’t have liked, but – there are those of us who are just glad to see he’s still out there – still swinging.

Jimmy Connors, above all tennis players, has The Right.

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