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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

(continued from page 8)

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.


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