A Tennis Brat Grows Up

Originally Published in People Magazine
May 5, 1975

By R.B. Scott

 Jimmy Connors on the cover of People Magazine. Photo by Co Rentmeester

“And now ladies and gentlemen,” the tennis umpire announces breathlessly over the public address system, “the featured match of the evening. From Belleville, Illinois, the champion of the world—Jimmeeeee Connors.” On cue, here’s Jimmeeeee—as 22-year-old James Scott Connors Jr. prances into the arena, his hot-combed Prince Valiant coif bouncing with every step. He obligingly breaks through a “No. 1” banner which has been stretched across his path and jogs to the courtside table where his red-faced manager, Bill Riordan, is sitting. “I think only four people are clapping,” Jimmy says. “Don’t worry kid,” Riordan snorts, “you’re the greatest.”

Ever since his stunning sweep of Wimbledon and Forest Hills last season, Jimmy has rightfully claimed he is the best player in the world. His two recent ventures into mano a mano tennis, first against Rod Laver, then last weekend against John Newcombe, have made him the richest too—he got nearly $1 million for those two matches.

His skill at stroking perfect shots from any angle on the court is so overwhelming that capable opponents are often left in nervous shreds. Far less admirable is his studied talent for arousing audiences—shouting obscenities at those who boo him, waving his middle finger in the air when he makes an errant shot or receives a bad call, and stalling when he gets behind.

Now there is growing evidence that Connors is genuinely trying to cure his bad-boy habits. (One reason may be to cash in on more endorsements, which rarely go to unpopular athletes.) This month he has reined in his temper and baited officials less. Even in small matters like tactics he has mellowed—where once he bounced the ball incessantly before serving, hoping to put his opponent on edge, he now dribbles it only four times to get his rhythm. Nearly everywhere they go, Riordan and Connors ask plaintively, “Why is Jimmy so hated?” They hint it is only an act and that underneath it all Jimmy is really only a guileless schoolboy. Riordan can shrug off Jimmy’s court antics, but when Connors started skipping tournaments and other commitments this spring, Riordan was piqued. Since then they have reached an understanding, and Connors has been showing up faithfully. “I still think you’ll see him get angry, that’s Jimmy,” says a friend. “But I think the vulgarity will be gone—he realizes that it’s kid stuff and it’s now time to be a man.”

As a boy of 2, Jimmy began dragging a full-size racket around the tennis court. “That’s how I learned to hit two-fisted shots—I had to use both my hands to pick up the damn racket,” Jimmy remembers. Most of his early instruction came from his mother, Gloria, and his late grandmother, Bertha Thompson, both teaching pros. To this day he acknowledges an adoring gratitude toward his mother: “She could have been a touring pro, but instead she decided to devote full-time to me. That’s why I am here today.”

Jimmy’s father, James Sr., who manages a toll bridge that connects East St. Louis, Ill. with St. Louis, let his wife have her way with Jimmy. He says his son’s reactions were so quick he would answer the door before a caller rang the bell. “Some of the other boys resented Jimmy’s competitiveness,” says James Sr. “He wasn’t one of the guys.”

By his fifth year Jimmy and his older brother Johnny were heralded as tennis prodigies. Their heated matches on the asphalt court in front of the family home in East St. Louis often drew crowds. “Tennis was everything to them,” says the elder Connors. “Whether it was Christmas, New Year’s or birthdays, there was always some tournament to enter. Even our Thanksgiving dinner was blown because of the National Indoors.”

Johnny was considered the player with the most promise. “But Jimmy worked so hard,” says his father, “it became an obsession. He had an added spark.” The rivalry finally drove Johnny out of competitive tennis when he was 12.

As Jimmy reached his mid-teens, Mrs. Connors and Grandma Thompson decided he had learned everything he could from them. So the trio went to California, where 16-year-old Jimmy could be tutored by Pancho Segura, Gloria’s one-time mixed doubles partner. Segura is still Jimmy’s coach. To Segura, “Jimmy has become like my adopted son.” Connors rarely sees his own father.

By 18, Connors had become one of the best young players in the country. He enrolled at UCLA and as a freshman won the NCAA singles title and then dropped out to turn pro. He scorned the wealthy World Championship Tennis, under whose aegis most highly ranked players compete, preferring the independent circuit managed by Riordan. “I felt it was better for me to play and build my confidence,” Jimmy says. “In the WCT I would probably have lost a lot of first round matches.”

Although he played well, no one seemed to notice Jimmy until 1972, when he showed up at Wimbledon on the arm of America’s 20-year-old sweetheart, Chrissie Evert. “I loved her the minute I met her,” Jimmy remembers. “I love her now, and I know I’ll love her just as much at 65. But, my God, it was tough going out with her and trying to carry on like normal people.”

Their romance seemed made for the media—especially when both Connors and Evert swept the singles titles at Wimbledon in July 1974 and announced a November wedding. But shortly after Forest Hills, two months later, where Jimmy won again, but Chris lost in the semifinals to Evonne Goolagong, the engagement soured. “We both needed time to think things over,” says Jimmy. “The pressure was so intense.”

Now Chris and Jimmy are back together again, nearly inseparable, if not insufferable. Chris is encouraging Jim to put on a sweeter face—”there’s really a nice guy underneath the bad act,” she says. When tournaments keep them apart, Jimmy and Chris spend most of their free time playing backgammon with other players or watching daytime television. “We usually call each other two or three times a day,” said Jimmy one day in a Virginia motel room, “sometimes more if we get really bored.” At that moment, the white phone on the nightstand rang. “Hi peanut,” Jimmy said without waiting to hear who was calling. “Did you take your phone off the hook? You’re feeling sick? That’s too bad,” he offered sympathetically. “I’ll tell you what to do, take some Pepto-Bismol, then some soup. If that doesn’t work, jump up and down a lot to get it all out of you.” A few minutes later Chris called to tell him that a Jerry Lewis movie was on her TV in Dallas. “Sometimes,” Connors said, “we talk on the phone while we’re watching the same show. It’s almost like being together.”

Recently both families and manager Riordan have begun worrying that Jimmy and Chrissie might forego a formal church wedding and elope. “I’ve been predicting that for some time now,” says Riordan. “You can’t be around Jimmy very long without getting those vibes.” Last month Jimmy canceled a tournament appearance in Ridgefield, Conn., to accompany Chris to her Manhattan gynecologist. Two days later he flew to Boston, where Chris was playing the Virginia Slims circuit. In April Connors canceled out of a tournament in Washington, blaming lung congestion. Conveniently, illness struck him in Los Angeles where Chris was winning the Slims championship. “They’ve both been missing important commitments so they can be with each other,” says one close friend. “Chrissie isn’t much help either. She’ll say, ‘Jimmy, you’ve got to play, you’ve got to practice.’ But a minute later she’ll ask coyly, ‘but who’s going to drive me to the match tonight?’ Marriage certainly would help Jimmy’s career at this point.”

Friends say marriage could also help him move out from under the protective wings of his mother and Riordan, who has not only acted as his manager but as a quasi-father on the road. The maturing Connors is becoming aware of gaps in his life. “About every five weeks,” he was saying recently as a car whisked him through Manhattan to yet another hotel, “I get depressed with my life and I have to get away from the game. It’s all I’ve known for the past 20 years—there has to be more than just tennis. Hell, I’ve missed out on a lot of things that I’d like to start experiencing with all this money.”

While he was in Los Angeles a short time later, he and Chris went shopping for a house. “I’ve got clothes stashed in Belleville, at the Riordans’, at the Everts’. I’d like to have one place to dump it all. Besides,” he says wryly, “it is about time I began putting down roots.”

Source: http://people.com/archive/cover-story-a-te...