Sometimes you have to wonder about tennis. I mean, is it really a sport or a tantrum? The United States Lawn Tantrum Assn.?
Do you really need a backhand or just a rotten disposition? Can't it be played by grown-up ladies and gentlemen? Does it lend itself only to mastery by the spoiled brats of our society?
Do you have to be bad-tempered to play it? Immature? A case of arrested emotional development?
Are the game's secrets unlockable only to bratty little types who will hold their breath if they don't get their own way? The kind of guys who will kick their governesses in the shins if they can't tie cans to their dogs' tails?
It sometimes seems to be less a game than a hair-pulling contest. Someone once called it the Balkans of sport because there's so much mean-spiritedness and spite and malice built into it. It can't be played by Frank Merriwell or Jack Armstrong or anyone with a sense of fair play or sportsmanship, it would seem.
Oh, you have to be a considerable athlete to be a tennis player. It calls for as much dexterity and skill as any sport played with a moving ball and an implement to hit it with. It calls for more stamina than almost all.
You need the speed of a sprinter, the eye of a .300 hitter and the killer instinct of the heavyweight fighter. You have to be a pretty good actor, too. You have to look one way and hit the ball another. It's no place for anyone fat, slow, dense, or short of breath.
Or, apparently, anyone with good manners. It's not a sport where you hold anything in. Your most successful tennists are guys who throw furniture, rackets, balls and sweaters, who yell at the spectators and threaten the officials, and in general behave like someone about to begin to chew the AstroTurf.
It wasn't all those set points that burned Bjorn Borg out. It was keeping that poker face for the world.
In spite of all this, and the fact that he was a card-carrying member of this new breed, I had always liked Jimmy Connors as an athlete.
Jimmy always struck me as the Dead End Kid of the game, not the poor little rich kid. Jimmy always seemed like the kind of guy God didn't make into a tennis player, He just gave him the bare essentials and told him to take it from there.
Jimmy always gutted it out. He was like the kid in the schoolyard. You knew if you picked a fight with him, it might go on all night.
Jimmy never hit a ball easy in his life. He grunted through life and through every shot he ever hit.
When he came up, he was the first big-time player I ever saw outside of the girls who had to put two hands on his backhand to get it over the net. But that was all right with Jimmy. He came to win, not look good. His return of service was so good it was said he could probably get a machine-gun bullet back to you--for a winner.
He came along at a time when foreigners were dominating the game, but nobody ever beat Jimmy without getting his hair mussed.
He outlasted all of them. He was aloof, mean, dogged--but as calculated as an adding machine. The surface didn't matter, the venue, the climate, the opponent. You got what you paid to see with James Scott Connors, five sets of dock-fight tennis. A brawl, not a tea.
So, I was more than a little dismayed the other day to see where Master James picked up his ball and went home to mother. He had struck his colors and marched off the court in a tournament semifinal against Ivan Lendl down in Florida, the newspaper story said.
The headlines made it look as if the bad boy had surfaced in the 33-year-old winner of five U.S. Opens and two Wimbledons and that he had quit rather than face certain defeat.
Connors was aghast when the subject was broached.
"Quit?" he exploded. "I quit? Never! I have been playing tournament tennis for 18 years and I never quit yet. I put everything I have into every game. I put everything I have into every shot! I am still playing this game hard, long after all the guys who came up with me are gone--the Stocktons, the Borgs. Does that sound like a guy who would quit?
"I was defaulted. We were in the fifth set and the score was 3-2 and I hit a ball that would have made it 30-15 and when I asked them how they could make a call like that I was penalized a point. Then I was penalized a game and pretty soon I was penalized again and it was 5-2 without a shot being hit.
"They told me to go on in and play. But, it was a changeover game (players change sides of the net) and the rules say I had 90 seconds to change sides but, after 54 seconds, they penalized me another game and, all of a sudden, it's all over and they said I defaulted!
"I never quit but just standing there I was losing game, set and match. I was told the match was over.
"I mean, you have to stick up for your rights even on the tennis court. When you're out there grinding it out for 3 1/2 hours in the hot sun and all of a sudden someone sitting down in a chair under an umbrella is beating you, you have to ask what is going on. No matter what the sport, you can't let people walk on you."
Maybe not. And maybe it's not just tennis. On the other hand, what can you expect of a sport where love means nothing?