Article about Jimmy Connors:Passion still rages within a pure champion
June 22, 2006
Passion still rages within a pure champion
By Matthew Syed
Our correspondent manages to bring out a newfound mellowness in Jimmy Connors, but competitive juices continue to flow
“I ALWAYS left my blood out there on the court. Whether it was the first round at San Jose or the final of Wimbledon, I gave it everything. My attitude to any match was, ‘Let’s get it on. I don’t care if you have more talent, better shots, whatever. Let’s get the result out there, one on one.’ God, it was good.”
Amid the torrid psyche of one of sport’s greatest gladiators, one thing is eloquently clear: Jimmy Connors misses the thrill of competitive tennis. The two-times Wimbledon champion, talking in that husky high pitch, like a baritone trying to imitate contralto, lit up like a blowtorch as we discussed the battles that redefined the parameters of sporting courage.
“I can’t say that I was my happiest on court, but I felt completely free,” he said. “Free from family obligations, free from my own torment. In a real sense I was a different person. It was a place where I could not tolerate the idea of being beaten. I psyched myself up into a state where I felt something close to hatred towards my opponent, a state where I detested the idea of someone making his name at the expense of Jimmy Connors.”
In a world of cardboard cut-out champions, Connors is a revelation. His attitude towards tennis is not merely passionate but something approaching metaphysical. “I was in my element on court, measuring myself against someone else,” he said. “I was not competitive for show. It came from deep within.”
Just how deep would be revealed later in the interview, when he opened up about his troubled relationship with his late father.
Connors’s career is the stuff of red-blooded, blue-collared legend. Coached and guided by his formidable mother, he burst forth from East St Louis, Illinois, to win his first professional title in 1972. He went on to become world No 1 for five consecutive years, winning eight grand-slam titles. In 1991, at the age of 39, he strung together a miraculous sequence of victories to make it to the semi- finals of the US Open, bringing a smile to the face of a nation. His career record of 109 men’s singles titles has not been equalled.
But there was one adversary he could not beat. “I competed with three generations of players, from Laver and Rosewall, through Borg and McEnroe and finally against guys like Sampras and Agassi. I was afraid of no one,” he said. “But there was one opponent that I couldn’t contend with: age.
“That upset me more than anything. I knew that I was still capable of vying for titles, but my body was falling apart. If I played now against the new guys, they would win. But they would not be beating the real Jimmy Connors.”
Rage is a word that fails to do justice to the feelings Connors directs against the dying of the light. When, in 1999, he realised that his crumbling body was preventing him from competing effectively on the seniors tour, he disappeared like an apparition. For five years he refused to attend competitions and when Wimbledon came on television he would leave the house. “I could not bear these events being on and not being a part of them,” he said. “Age had got me and I struggled to deal with it. I wanted to be out there, battling.”
All of which poses an intriguing question: why? What drove Connors to give so much, so often? What was the “torment” from which he felt compelled to escape? Many have muttered about some deep and dark alchemy in his relationship with Gloria Thompson, his mother, coach and mentor. The man himself, however, paints a sympathetic picture of the woman who took him from toddler to temperamental champion.
“Despite the rumours, my mother was not overly pushy,” he said. “She understood me and was there for me whether I won or lost.” They are still very close. Connors visits her (she is 82 and still living in Illinois) every ten days.
His relationship with his father, however, is more suggestive. “He never came to competitions,” Connors said after considerable coaxing, his voice beginning to falter. “He was not a part of what I did in tennis. He was very proud man.”
Did he ever tell you that he loved you? “No he did not — and that taught me a lot about parenthood. If a week goes by when I do not tell my son [a 26-year-old graduate living in Los Angeles] that I love him, there is something very wrong.”
It is facile, perhaps, to surmise that Connors’s preternatural drive for success was all about gaining the acceptance of an unloving father, but it was unquestionably part of the story. I asked if they were ever reconciled.
“We discussed a lot of things when it was too late, when he was on his deathbed,” he said. “I was not looking for peace of mind and he was not looking to provide it, but I am glad that we had that conversation.”
Now 53, Connors lives in Montecito, an hour’s flight north of Los Angeles on the West Coast. He is married to Patti, a former Playboy Playmate, whom he met nearly 30 years ago at a party in the US. Although he said that he is at ease with his post-tennis existence — he talked about walking the dogs and “doing regular things” — one can hear the faint but distinctive echo of emptiness. This, perhaps, is the inevitable consequence of losing something to which one has given so much.
His turbulent relationship with tennis was like a love affair. When he commentates, as he will for the BBC for a second time at Wimbledon this summer, he sounds like someone ruminating on a former sweetheart who has turned her attentions to younger men. His observations are raw, sometimes melancholic, but always compelling. You know that Connors would do anything to ditch the microphone and get back on court with a racket in his hand and the tumult in his ears.
“Nothing replaces the thrill of competitive tennis,” he said. “But it is something you have to learn to live without because there is no getting it back.”
I asked if he finds any consolation in the pleasure he gave to so many during the glory days. He answered in the affirmative, but without conviction. Perhaps, for those who love too deeply, there is no lasting comfort.