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Tennis' Old Guard

A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Jimmy Connors was lonely. Then again, wasn't that business as usual? From the pebbled court in Belleville, Illinois, where he learned to play tennis, to the velvet lawns of Wimbledon, Connors' gift had been the ability to channel solitude into a cauldron of intensity, desire and tenacity. "I played like a caged animal," he says.

This warrior-like intensity brought Connors to his sport's peak, earning him 109 professional titles, including eight Grand Slam crowns and an epic 268 weeks (including a record 159 consecutive) as tennis' number one ranked player. In a sport in which players complain about burnout before they're old enough to buy liquor, Connors was ranked in the top three for 11 years.

Yet while Connors' on-court prowess commanded immediate respect, friendship was another issue. Connors was tennis' biggest box-office attraction, but he couldn't be bothered to join the nascent players association. Though Connors placed a premium on his national championship--winning five U.S. Open titles--he rarely represented America in the Davis Cup, the sport's premier team competition. Through lawsuits, sporadic rudeness and the combative nature of a sport predicated on individualism, Connors remained a resolute isolationist. "People don't understand," he once said, "that it's a goddamned war out there." It wasn't always clear if he was referring strictly to his matches.

But as Connors continued fighting well into his 30s, he realized that life as a one-man army wasn't much fun. Players like Roscoe Tanner, Dick Stockton, Brian Gottfried, Harold Solomon and Eddie Dibbs were retiring. Others were vanishing, too, like Bjorn Borg, Connors' biggest rival in the 1970s. Even John McEnroe, seven years Connors' junior, never reemerged as a major force after 1985. These onetime enemies, Connors started sensing, were actually comrades in arms. He'd competed against many of them since he was 10 years old. They'd made great music together, playing on every continent, building the sport through the tennis boom years of the '70s.

When Connors turned 35, in 1987, he was still ranked fourth in the world. No one else within the top 30 was within six years of his age. Of course, he was used to hearing his day was done. Connors' imminent decline had been an ongoing theme since he was dethroned as Wimbledon champ by Arthur Ashe in 1975. Like Frank Sinatra, he rode the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with delight. No one so personified Old Blue Eyes' "My Way." I chewed 'em up, and spit 'em out. By the mid-'80s, Jimbo was tennis' Chairman of the Board, the wise old man who still played, and frequently behaved, like a brash young punk.

But as he neared 40, even Connors knew he was in the twilight. An early signal came when he went nearly four years without winning a tournament. A bigger shadow came when a wrist injury forced Connors to sit out virtually the entire 1990 season. For the first time since he'd held a racket as a 3-year-old, Connors was facing tennis mortality. This was worse than loneliness. To face the final curtain involuntarily was unacceptable.

The solution would emanate from what he always called "the tennis." On the court, no one was more adept than Connors at sensing an opportunity, drilling a weakness and moving in for the kill. As the sport's premier shark neared 40, he knew it was time to build a new ocean, where he could once again reign.

Step One came in 1991. At his signature tournament, the U.S. Open, Connors captured national attention by reaching the semifinals at the age of 39. In three of the matches, he rallied from a one-set deficit or more, continuing his crusade as The People's Choice.

It was a grand coda to a 20-year symphony. Call it a requiem, and you'd draw Connors' wrath. Along with Nolan Ryan and George Foreman, he became a rallying icon for aging baby boomers, hawking Nuprin and Pepsi, chumming it up with Regis Philbin and Jay Leno, surfacing once again as a pop-culture icon. The pump was primed.

Now for Step Two. The lightbulb flicked on instinctually, with one thought on Connors' love for tennis and another on entertainment value. Soon after turning 40 in September 1992, he met with Ray Benton. Benton was previously president of ProServ, the sports marketing agency that had represented Connors throughout much of the '80s. Witnessing the success of seniors pro golf, Connors and Benton wondered if a similar concept could work with tennis, complete with the elements lacking in the contemporary pro game: intimate venues, ample schmoozing, clinics, pro-ams, parties.

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