Tennis' Old Guard
A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
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.
Other senior tennis tours, usually featuring players over 45, had come and gone. Yet while tennis aficionados enjoyed the collegiality of such ex-champs as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson, none of these tours came off as anything more than a boutique operation, a curiosity on the scale of watching old vaudeville acts hoof a few. The Association of Tennis Professionals Tour, which runs the pro circuit, has operated a senior tour for five years that's primarily focused on a doubles round-robin.
Jimmy Connors didn't want a cute doubles event. He wanted a big deal, and aided by Benton's business acumen, set about doing it his way. For starters, this tour would draw strictly on players 35 and over. "If you weren't in tennis shape, there's no way you could play," says Benton. "None of this hit-and-giggle stuff." Second, unlike prior tours, many of these were players who made their mark in the sport's most visible, Technicolor years of the 1970s. Bjorn Borg, winner of five consecutive Wimbledons and six French Opens, would participate. John McEnroe, Connors' successor as the hot-headed, left-handed American genius, would be eligible for the tour in 1994. "Connors, Borg and McEnroe were tennis' equivalent of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player," says ESPN and ABC broadcaster Cliff Drysdale, a top-10 player in the '60s. "They captured more millions of viewers and public attention than previous generations of players had ever dreamed possible."
In addition to these headliners, the tour would feature such supporting acts as Guillermo Vilas, a former number one player who'd won such important titles as the U.S. and French Opens; John Lloyd, the top British player who'd previously been best known for his marriage to Chris Evert; Johan Kriek, a talented South African and holder of two Australian Open titles, and many others.
Most of all, the new tour would have Jimmy Connors. And that, as tennis fans knew for 20-plus seasons, made all the difference. It may seem like ancient history now, but back in the '70s, Connors was the leading man in tennis' transformation from amateur game for the elite classes to professional sport for the masses. Prior to Connors, most champions were cool, understated craftsmen. In the spirit of Brando and Elvis, Connors burst through this patrician wall. Long before Andre Agassi ever knew what a Nike swoosh was, Connors' brash intensity took tennis to new cultural settings. According to Stan Canter, a movie producer (Greystoke) who managed Connors for a brief time, "Jimmy was the first tennis player who brought tennis to the cover, not just of Sports Illustrated, but to Time."
Connors and Benton were betting that this history of prominent exposure would thrust the rocket off the launching pad. In 1993, the Champions Tour began with three events. The next year, there were eight, offering total prize money of $1.2 million. In March 1995, the tour concluded its first official season, hosting the Nuveen Masters in Naples, Florida. Other sponsors who've come aboard include Big Six accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, Corel software and U.S. News & World Report. The biggest break of all came in 1996 when Nuveen, an investment firm, signed on as title sponsor, a $1.5 million annual commitment between now and 1998. The Champions Tour is now known as the Nuveen Tour. Benton and Connors are planning 15 to 20 events in 1997.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Nuveen Tour is tennis' decline in popularity. By the late '80s, the tennis boom was long gone. Everything from player participation to equipment sales, sponsorship and media coverage is affected by this market-driven spiral. It's a challenge Connors relishes clawing his way through. "I loved it when people underestimated me," he says. "I loved proving myself when no one thought I could do it. I lived for those moments."
It would always be showtime for Jimmy Connors. Striding into The Lodge at Pebble Beach on California's Monterey peninsula, Connors is here for "The Challenge," a four-man exhibition airing on ABC. It is intended to build credibility and generate exposure for the Nuveen Tour. It's no coincidence that the television producer of this event is Terry Jastrow, the same man behind the helm of the "Skins Game," the four-man golf event that helped propel seniors golf in the early 1980s.
Once you've seen Connors play, it's hard not to feel a tingle of electricity anytime he approaches a tennis court. Jastrow's not the first to compare him to Arnold Palmer. Fans flock around Connors. It's always the ladies who come first, the older, doting, zesty ones who cherish Connors less as a sex symbol and more for his spunk.
"Jimmy, I saw you in Boston in '73, when you beat Stan Smith," says one.
"Boy, that's when I could move," he responds.
"Jimmy, loved your match with Krickstein at the Open. I was there."
"Wasn't that something?"
"Jimmy, how's your mom?"
"She's fine. Now how's every little thing with you?"
He's milling, he's gripping, he's grinning. Pose for a photo? No problem. Autograph the racket cover of a Wilson T-2000 (the menacing steel racket that only Connors could wield successfully)? You got it, pal. Greetings from a mutual friend? How the heck is Robert? Give him my best, would you please?
In 1977, Connors stormed out of Forest Hills after losing a U.S. Open final. Today, he has become a committed entertainer, a guy who gets a thrill out of making somebody's day. Walking two steps behind Connors is his husky manager, Billy Lelly, carrying the racket bag, making sure no one crowds Jimbo. Cameras click. More autograph seekers. "So nice to see you ladies," says Connors.
No one in tennis history has so evoked Ali, Elvis, the entourage, the limo, the helicopter, the private jet, the quick getaway. In this corner, the once and future heavyweight champion of tennis. We're out of here. Jimbo has left the building.
Well, not yet. Walking on the court, Connors strolls onto the bench towards an unassuming blond man who looks faintly familiar. While Connors joyfully schmoozes his way through the thread of fans, the blond sits unbothered, fiddling with his racket strings, making small talk with a ball boy, just staring that famous 100-mile-long gaze.
"Hey, look," says a pointing fan, "that's Borg."
"No, you're kidding."
"Yes, it is, it is Borg."
"God, he looks good."
"I haven't seen him in person. Ever."
Borg and Connors shake hands with the cordiality of two sales reps opening up a booth at a trade show. Connors inquires about the flight from Sweden. Borg nods. "It is always so good to see Jimmy," Borg says later. "So much history we have, so much tennis." Connors starts walking off the gritty clay court. Jimbo's not going to hit after all. He's climbing up into the TV tower for a series of satellite interviews all over the country. Borg will practice with Vilas.
A red-haired woman politely asks for Borg's autograph. Borg's still wearing those ultra-cool, cushy Tretorn shoes he popularized in the '70s. "Very comfortable," he says with a grin.
As Connors was Andre Agassi's ancestor in the hype department, so did Borg precede Agassi in the heartthrob category. Borg's blond locks and cool manner made him the original "Teen Angel," mobbed by young girls the world over. While his topspinning baseline game initially struck many as severely limited, its narrow tunnel of possibility proved fortifying. Unforced errors were not part of Borg's vocabulary. When necessary, he'd hammer a big serve, whip a return or strike an angled passing shot. "Ice water in his veins," was the phrase popularized by his coach, Lennart Bergelin.
The price Borg paid for being an angel was no freedom to be a human. So much of Borg had been devoted to tennis that he had nothing left to give--to the fans or himself. Emotionally spent, unwilling to reclimb the mountain after McEnroe took over the number one spot in '81, Borg picked up his toys and became tennis' Rip Van Winkle.
The rumors of Borg's years in exile are endless. Lots of money, lots of girls, lots of hedonism, as if he was making up for all those repressed years when he would never express himself with his racket or mouth. No one knows exactly how much energy was expended in what direction, but now, Borg has realized that "when I stepped away from the game, I thought I wouldn't like to play tennis again. I think I missed tennis without realizing it.
"I don't like to lose, I want to win all the time," he says. In the summer of 1995, he earned his first Nuveen Tour crown, vanquishing Connors, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. "I like the Nuveen Tour," says Borg. "I like playing with my generation. The atmosphere is great. The competition is great. Tennis is fun." The angel has returned to earth--at least for now (throughout the '96 season rumors were floating that Borg was again feeling burnout and devoting his time to off-court pursuits).
Forty-five minutes later, Borg and Vilas are sweating heavily. Connors walks out of the TV booth, smiling approvingly at his drenched buddies. Turning to a fan, he says, "The guys didn't realize at first how much work it was going to take to get in shape for this tennis. Now everybody's starting to grind it out that much more." Pointing his index finger to Borg and Vilas, he calls, "See you guys at the lunch."
Borg waves back, swings a few classic services and completes the practice session. Vilas signs half a dozen autographs and gathers his racket bag.
A half hour after the workout, Borg, Vilas and Connors are in a large tent. It's filled with approximately 60 guests of Challenge sponsor Quality Inns, a dozen print reporters, three TV cameras and assorted tour officials. The trio is now joined by McEnroe. Just arrived on a 7 a.m. flight out of New York's Kennedy Airport, McEnroe's wearing a New York Rangers hat, a white-and-brown Nike jacket and red suede Nike shoes that look 20 years out of date.
A Nuveen Tour rep turns on a large video screen. As images of the players flash by, Rod Stewart's voice comes on, singing that Bob Dylan homage to youth and tenacity, "Forever Young." Here's Borg dashing, Connors lunging, Vilas scampering, McEnroe darting. May you always be courageous/Stand upright and be strong/May you stay forever young. Two nights later, at a dinner Quality Inns hosts for 700 VIPs, the nostalgia rush from the video will electrify the crowd into hearty applause.
Afterwards, McEnroe and Connors begin practicing. Connors is a mechanic, the well-trained technician who knows how to put every piece together. Just look at that backhand, ain't she a beaut? McEnroe is an artist, the tortured soul who'd prefer working alone on the canvas. I'm concentrating, would you get the hell out of here?
The tennis roadies who'll be producing the event are checking out the acoustics, as "The Girl from Ipanema" softly echoes over the speakers. The workout moves along in Zen-like tranquillity. No bad calls to glare at. No umpires to yell at. Just Jimmy and John, spinning and bashing, gliding and grunting.
In the middle of a Wimbledon semifinal match, Jimbo once told McEnroe that "my two-year-old is more mature than you." McEnroe once said that "no one could be more phony" than Connors. It's all water under the bridge.
"You hit that line, Jimbo."
"Good volley, Mac."
It's as if these two hotheads realized something about each other: rivalries make your greatness look that much more vivid. Ali needed Frazier. Bette Davis needed Joan Crawford. Montgomery needed Rommel. Neither of these guys ever needed Ivan Lendl. "Jimmy's the most charismatic player in tennis history," says McEnroe. "If everybody in the sport tried as much as Jimmy, tennis would be in a lot better shape."
"Along with Pancho Gonzalez, Mac's the one guy I'd have play for my life," says Connors.
No doting ladies or teenyboppers hover around McEnroe. No queries about matches gone by. He signs autographs perfunctorily. Well, OK, motions McEnroe to one fan with a camera, posing for a few seconds before donning his shades and strutting off. At sponsor parties, McEnroe dresses up and works the crowd with all the awkwardness of an adolescent implored to chat with his grandparents. His pro-am attendance is sporadic. Don't even think about seeing him give a clinic.
Then again, he's John McEnroe, tennis' great artist--and Connors' heir apparent as the Nuveen Tour's marquee player. But with his time spread between his family, his SoHo art gallery, his fledgling music career and broadcasting, McEnroe has indicated that he's not so keen on assuming that responsibility. "There's a lot more dirty, grimy conditioning work I'd have to do to play this tour full-time," he says.
Aside from McEnroe, Nuveen Tour players are omnipresent at tournament sites. Munching on his third hot dog of the day in front of the Pebble Beach pro shop, Connors explains that "it ain't none of this 'play your match and boogie back to the hotel room' stuff."
Twenty-four recreational players are spread out on two courts. John Lloyd and Johan Kriek are conducting a clinic. Pebble Beach tennis director Mike Trabert (son of Hall of Famer Tony Trabert) and his colleague, Marc Moran, are feeding balls and volleying them back. Lloyd is giving technical pointers. "Turn your shoulder sooner," he shouts in his polite British accent. "That's the way," he says as a woman runs up and knocks off a volley.
Gathering the group around him, Lloyd tells them how much they can learn from watching the Nuveen Tour pros. "Watch how early someone like Connors prepares for the ball," he says. "See how he's paying attention, getting his racket back with his shoulders, continually moving and putting his entire body into the shot."
Cruising around the adjacent court, Kriek is happy to see how eager his group is to run down the balls Trabert is feeding into the corners. The attendees have been pumped up by the presence of greatness. "I'm a big believer in visualization," says Trabert. "When people see these guys up close, they get to see that technique. It helps them both as spectators and as players."
These clinics are one of the primary attractions for corporate sponsors. "We love being able to entertain customers at these tournaments," says John Lotka, Nuveen's vice president of advertising and promotion. "There's a lot of intimacy we can establish around tennis. The players, like Connors, Lloyd and others, help us tremendously with that."
But you don't have to always be part of the sponsor's network to participate in these events. At the Corel Champions event that was held last May in Rockville, Maryland, dozens of players 35 and over paid a scant $30 for a clinic, dinner and a ticket to the evening's matches.
Many fans also congregate around each Nuveen Tour stop's pro-am, wherein eight of the players team with dozens of sponsor guests in a half-day odyssey of Walter Mitty proportions.
"OK, big boy," Connors shouts to a big-serving weekend player named Dennis, "bring it on."
Dennis complies, nailing a serve hard enough to force Connors to lunge, grunt and drive back a medium-paced return. Dennis is no idiot, and gingerly taps the ball down the alley of Connors' partner. It's a moment he'll never forget. As Connors wags his index finger, the spectators applaud.
Two courts over, Eddie Dibbs, once ranked number two in the United States, is conducting a nonstop monologue in the middle of a pro-am doubles match. "I can't believe you hit that shot. That's incredible. Way to go! You stink! Let's go!" His teammates are in stitches. Dibbs thinks the Nuveen Tour "is a great way to have fun with the fans and play a lot of tennis. Remember, we're all pretty competitive, and still look forward to having a chance to tear the other guy's eyes out."
Clinics, pro-ams and freewheeling access to practice sessions and matches dominate the Nuveen Tour. When they aren't playing matches, players surface at everything from public autograph parties at easily accessible venues to cocktail soirees and big bashes where everyone from sponsor guests to local celebrities show up. One of the smartest things Connors and Benton have done is stage many tour events in smaller metropolitan markets--all the better to create a big splash. At Pebble Beach, for example, an autograph party featuring Roscoe Tanner and Mel Purcell at a local sports bar was covered by a local NBC affiliate.
Most of all, of course, people come for the tennis. The other smart move the tour made was to stage all its matches on clay, a surface that's easier on the players' bodies and slow enough for lengthy, entertaining rallies.
When Borg squares off against McEnroe at Pebble Beach, the tennis is sublime. "To keep McEnroe from attacking too much," says Lloyd, "Borg has to broaden his game. He has to go for bigger, harder shots."
Even if he's the favorite, McEnroe knows he has to work for every point. Massaging his ground strokes into corners, slipping in drop shots, closing in for volleys, gunning his serve, McEnroe brings out the whole bag of tricks.
Watching these two is also a bit tragic, a late-night makeup for a prime-time rivalry canceled by Borg's early retirement. Their 14 matches in the late 1970s and early '80s (each won seven) were tennis classics. The high point was their 1980 Wimbledon final, a match won by Borg, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6. Often considered the greatest match in tennis history, it featured such exquisite moments as McEnroe fighting off seven match points and winning the epic fourth-set tiebreaker, 18-16. And then, in the decisive set, the Swede with ice in his stomach won 28 of 31 service points to earn his fifth straight Wimbledon title. But after McEnroe beat Borg in the '81 U.S. Open final, a win fit for the crowning of a new king, Borg uncharacteristically skipped out on the post-tournament awards ceremony--never again to play a Grand Slam event.
"Borg leaving our rivalry [would have been] like the whole Lakers team quitting after the Celtics won the championship in '81," says McEnroe. "I missed having the chance to play him more."
Borg's physique is amazing. His legs are long and supple, his body trim, his arms nimble. McEnroe feathers a slice backhand crosscourt. Borg floats a high forehand down the middle. McEnroe whips a topspin forehand crosscourt and dashes to the net. Borg glides over the court, driving a backhand down the line with his hockey-like stroke. Anticipating that Borg would go crosscourt, McEnroe watches the ball go by for a winner.
Then the Swede does something he rarely did in the old days but does quite often on the Nuveen Tour.
Bjorn Borg smiles.
It is a friendly smile, a nice, appreciative opening that reveals more of his teeth than we'd ever seen back in the old days. Because it's so rare, the smile comes off as strikingly genuine, neither as posed as Connors' nor as anguished as McEnroe's.
Borg takes the first set, 6-4. Connors and Lloyd are among those enjoying the action from up in the Nuveen box. At five-all in the second, with the sun shining over Monterey and the intimate crowd of 3,000 packed in nicely, with the ABC crew moving in for close-ups and the national TV audience savoring the sounds delivered by several on-court microphones, it's hard to imagine a better tennis moment.
McEnroe squeaks through the second set, 7-5. Borg goes up a service break in the third, but the lefty continues moving forward, striking his volleys, coaxing Borg into awkward positions, and at last, after two-plus hours, wins the match, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Connors-McEnroe is also entertaining. Time was when the old guard attendees at this event would have considered each a punk. But now, the revolutionary is the familiar, an athletic Golden Oldies program. Early in the match, Connors initiates his customary banter with the crowd. To the introverted McEnroe, it comes off as demagoguery.
"If you don't go along with Jimmy's thing," says McEnroe, "you're the heavy. He makes jokes at your expense. It gets to be a little frustrating that people can be manipulated so easily."The clay that helped Borg also aids Connors. Jimbo's returning serve well, picking up McEnroe's service toss and ripping it back, pounding his ground strokes and charging forward.
"You the man, Jimbo!" shouts one fan after a long rally.
Five seconds elapse without a comment. Connors is wandering behind the baseline.
"Man, oh man," exults Connors, "I bet you stayed up all night thinking up that one."
Even the guy who shouted the remark is laughing.
The Chairman can still give the people a ring-a-ding time. Nuveen Tour colleagues believe Connors' serve has actually improved from the old days, when it served as little more than a point starter. The rallies are lively, the artistry is impressive, and Connors wins, 7-6, 6-4, pocketing $150,000.
Though Connors plans to keep playing until 2002, when he turns 50, it became increasingly clear throughout 1996 that he would no longer utterly dominate the circuit (he won 19 of the tour's first 30 events). While in his youth he felt as territorial about his champion's crown as a dog with a bone, the promoter in Connors realizes that for the tour to succeed, others must step up and help fill the seats.
McEnroe's intermittent appearances and Borg's return to tennis have helped. The Nuveen Tour's biggest new star in 1996 was 36-year-old Ecuadoran Andres Gomez, the 1990 French Open champ. Though a top-10 player on the ATP Tour, Gomez was never in the same league as Connors or McEnroe. He's emerged as a Nuveen tour star, beating McEnroe four times and Connors twice. Another fan favorite coming on board, albeit sporadically, is the passionate Frenchman Yannick Noah, who won his country's championship in 1983.
But playing on the Nuveen Tour is not just a matter of picking up a racket and showing up. McEnroe, Noah and Gomez are among many who've been surprised at the high level of tennis. Not everyone who plays a tour event is committed to the requisite fitness regimen, a particularly challenging requirement in a sport like tennis. As McEnroe puts it, "We're tennis players, so we can't do what golfers do, make the course shorter and drive the cart up."
Benton insists the circuit has reached the maturity level to flourish without Connors' potent name value. But save for McEnroe, the current crop of eligibles aged 35 to 40--among them Gomez, Noah, Mel Purcell and Johan Kriek, and non-Nuveen Tour players Kevin Curren, Tim Mayotte, Brad Gilbert--are far from headliners. A back injury prevents former number one Ivan Lendl from playing tennis. Meanwhile, the Nuveen Tour is eagerly awaiting the day when such greats as Mats Wilander, 32; Stefan Edberg, 30; and Boris Becker, 29, can join. There's even been talk of lowering the eligibility age to 30. "That's the thing about tennis," says 45-year-old Dick Stockton, an occasional tour player. "Every year makes a difference, so you're only really appropriate for this tour until about 40. Jimmy's an unbelievable exception."
Marquee value has always been the name of the game in an individual sport like tennis. The sport simply does not command the sizable following necessary for supporting a financially lucrative circuit. While 20,000 fans will come to Yankee Stadium no matter who is playing, tennis needs its Connors and McEnroes to continually expand its audience beyond the tennis wonks who'd recognize John Lloyd at a restaurant. Once the spectators arrive, though, they're often surprised to see just how friendly and dazzling the likes of Lloyd, Kriek, Gomez and other Nuveen Tour players are. "I want people to come here, love the show we put on and then tell their friends about it," says Connors.
Yet the very selling point of the Nuveen Tour reveals a potential shortcoming. When you bank as much on nostalgia as senior tennis, you cut off one of the greatest attributes in all of sports: the capacity for surprise, for new plot lines that involve the audience. From business and politics to movies and TV, so much of our culture is prechewed and predictable. We like safely knowing the outcome of a business meeting before it begins. Surf your cable TV enough and you'll build a reasonably good record forecasting the results of everything from TV movies and sit-coms to political struggles and court-room theatrics.
But sports is different. Sports is real-life drama--compelling conflicts where something big (sort of) and clear is on the line. No matter how much the success of the Nuveen Tour matters to him athletically and economically, no match Connors plays will have as much at stake for him as his U.S. Open finals against Borg or his Wimbledon finals against McEnroe. "I'm going to follow that son of a bitch to the ends of the earth," Jimbo said after losing the '78 Wimbledon final to Borg. Watch a tape of his successful payback effort at that year's U.S. Open and you'll see that he wasn't joking. But now, as Borg puts it, "It's not the end of the world when you lose."
The same holds true for all the Nuveen Tour players. Those prior days were the real résumé-builders. As good as it is to see Borg smile, or, God knows, McEnroe chat with fans, one knows they can emotionally afford to do so because no Nuveen Tour match will affect their legacy a single iota. When there is no consequence, predictability--no matter how entertaining--minimizes dramatic impact.
Another facet of catering to nostalgia is an undercurrent of hostility towards the contemporary professional game. The 1996 Challenge event was aired on ABC the same weekend as the Wimbledon finals. According to a tour press release, "The weekend programming schedule also gives viewers the chance to compare the power-laden, short points tennis at Wimbledon with the more strategic game played by the older personalities." Asked this summer if they could name an ATP Tour player they enjoyed watching, Connors and McEnroe were stumped. Connors at last conceded that he respected the tenacity of Michael Chang.
The odd thing about this small-minded bashing is that tennis promoters are always willing to tell sponsors how incredibly affluent tennis fans are. One would think these affluent consumers can afford to partake in all of the sport's riches. Heck, baseball fans with less income attend 10 games a year. Surely, the tennis public has enough capacity to appreciate both Jimbo and Andre Agassi. Make no mistake, Jimbo is the Chairman of the Board. But if all anyone had done was cling to Sinatra's robe, discounting all subsequent acts, they would have had a hard time maintaining an open mind when those four lads from Liverpool surfaced. And lest we forget, in the early '70s it was Connors who was considered a power-game practitioner, a steel racket-wielding brat lacking the artistic guile of such champions as Rosewall and Laver.
That said, the Nuveen Tour is one of the most engaging entertainment values in tennis. Listening and singing along with tennis' favorite tunes from bygone days is a wonderful way to enjoy the sport. The quality of play is both entertaining and edifying.
In a Monterey airstrip, Jimmy Connors' private plane awaits, ready to whisk him away from the tournament. Billy Lelly and Jimbo's son, Brett, now 17, are motioning Jimbo's way, urging him that it's time to walk away from it all. Right now that journey is far from Connors' mind. He's still into "the tennis," signing more autographs, chatting up a few kids, clarifying logistics with Benton for the next gig. "You're the best," he says to one of the tour officials who always has a walkie-talkie on her hip. "Stay out of trouble," he advises a friend.
"Jimmy, Jimmy, we've got a golf cart," says Lelly. The faster get-away appeals to Connors. He's still signing as he makes his way towards the cart. Twenty fans hover as he moves into the passenger seat. Brett and Billy hop on the back like Secret Service agents. Just before the cart takes off, a little girl runs to Connors with a poster. He signs it. "Good-bye everyone," he shouts, waving his right arm. And then Jimbo is gone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that there are no second acts in American lives. Jimmy Connors would probably tell Fitzgerald exactly where he could shove that remark. For decades, Connors has been living one second act after another. Fitzgerald died at 44, the same age Connors turned in 1996. However much people may tell Jimbo that the end is near, as long as he can please his people, he'll continue doing it his way. Perhaps the end will never come. Now that Jimbo's created a friendly arena in which to coexist with his rivals, why should it?
Oakland, California-based Joel Drucker writes frequently about tennis and other sports for such publications as Tennis.
You must be logged in to post a comment.