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STILL BURNING : Despite the Years, Connors, Now 35, Hasn't Lost That Old Fire

September 06, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | Washington Post

NEW YORK — He had his legs stretched out in front of him, afraid that if he bent them or crossed them, he might cramp up. The heat was oppressive, but he didn't want to go inside where it was air-conditioned. Again, cramps.

"I've done a lot of things in my career," Jimmy Connors said, rubbing a leg. "But I've never quite figured out how to stop the aging process."

Looking at him, one might be tempted to argue. There are whispers on the tennis tour that Connors lightens his brown hair to keep it from showing any gray, but it isn't the mop-top cut that makes you forget he is 35. It isn't even the body, still rock-solid.

With Connors, it's the eyes. Bright brown, they flash with anger when he makes a mistake on the court. And, they light with delight when he talks about his life as Peter Pan.

"I'll tell you why I still play tennis," he said, his voice soft, but the eyes sparkling. "About five years ago, during Wimbledon I was staying in the same hotel as Dean Martin in London. He was over there doing his show.

"I knew his son pretty well back then and one night I saw him walking through the lobby on his way to perform. I went over and said, 'Mr. Martin, hi, I'm Jimmy Connors, how are you?'

"We stood and talked for a couple minutes and then I asked him where he was heading. He just looked at me and said, 'Son, I'm going out there and fool 'em again.' I think about that every time I go on court now. All I want to do is just go out there and fool 'em again."

And now, because he knows that even he can't stop the aging process, Jimmy Connors would love to fool 'em--really fool 'em--one last, sweet time. He is seeded sixth in the U.S. Open, a dark horse at best, for a sixth Open title. But now he is, at least, clearly the sentimental favorite.

James Scott Connors plays tennis like a street kid and has the image of a gunslinging street fighter. In the country club world of tennis, he is the guy from East St. Louis, Ill., a tough-sounding town for a tough-talking guy.

But Jimmy Connors didn't grow up in the streets any more than he grew up at a country club. He is actually from Belleville, Ill. His grandfathers were the mayor of nearby East St. Louis and the police chief. His father, Jim, managed the toll bridge across the Illinois River that linked East St. Louis with St. Louis. It was a political appointment, a prestigious one at that.

He learned to play tennis, as the world knows, from his mother, Gloria Thompson Connors, whose father, in addition to being police chief, was a boxer. She was the daughter of a fighter and a fighter herself, on and off a tennis court, and she taught both her sons, John (two years older than Jimmy) and Jimmy the game she loved.

John, bigger and stronger than Jimmy, might have had more physical potential, but he never had the desire to play, according to friends, that Jimmy had.

Gloria Connors had a tennis court built in her backyard and there she taught Jimmy not only how to play, but how to compete. Every day at lunch time Jimmy would race home to practice with his mother.

By the time Jimmy Connors was a high-school senior, his mother knew what she had. He was only 5 feet 9 and weighed barely 150 pounds, but he could whale the ball, especially with his two-fisted backhand and service returns. But he needed more than she could give him. So, she packed him up, took him to California and put him under the tutelage of Pancho Segura.

It was under Segura that Connors emerged as a star, first at UCLA, then on the pro tour. In 1972, at age 18, he won his first pro tournament. By the end of 1973, he was ranked No. 3 in the world and, in 1974, he was No. 1, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He stayed there for four years and in the top four through 1985 before dropping to eighth a year ago.

It is a record of consistency matched in tennis only by Chris Evert, the woman he almost married in 1974 when he was 21, she was 19.

"It's interesting that our careers have been so similar," said Connors. "We've both been on top, drifted down a little and come back. We've both stayed around a long time. We're alike in a lot of ways, which is probably why we've stayed friends."

They are alike in more ways than most people would imagine. When they were engaged, their images could not have been more different. He was the brash, often rude, sometimes crude, dirt dancer. He was the guy who would as soon roll in the mud as hit a white tennis ball. She was the Florida Princess, the teen-age sweetheart, the girl next door.

But even though he shouted and screamed and made obscene gestures on the court and she never did anything more violent than purse her lips, they were--on a tennis court--the same person. Don Candy, Pam Shriver's longtime coach, once said of Evert, "all she ever wants on the court is every bloody point. Every one."

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