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Raised by Women To Conquer Men
Frank Deford
August 22, 1994
In this 1978 SI Classic, Jimmy Connors struggles to regain the confidence he learned as a pampered child
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August 22, 1994

Raised By Women To Conquer Men

In this 1978 SI Classic, Jimmy Connors struggles to regain the confidence he learned as a pampered child

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Incredibly, Connors rose to this majesty despite a secret leg injury—something called an interior compartment syndrome—which he had suffered in his opening match. After beating Tanner, Connors went to Chelsea Hospital, and as he lay on the examination table the doctors called Riordan aside and told him that the damage to the leg was growing dangerous, and the final could be played only at the risk of crippling Connors, perhaps of ending his career. Riordan broke the news to Connors, who replied that it was the final of Wimbledon, and he had to play. Riordan then turned to leave, and Connors called plaintively to him. "Bill," he said, "don't tell Mom."

Connors and his mother shared a hotel room (they are as frugal as they are close). She knew he was going for treatments, but not that he was putting his playing life—the one she had created for him—on the line.

Ashe beat him badly. There was no evidence that Connors was at a physical disadvantage, but he played as if in a daze. Ashe changed his style for the match, but Connors could not, or would not, adjust. There were no alibis afterward. There never are. Although often crude and ill-mannered upon the court, Connors is almost always a gracious sportsman once the game is done. But Ashe had belled the cat. The conqueror that the mother and the grandmother had carefully fashioned was exposed. Riordan, who did not tell Mom, was banished by the end of the summer; Chrissie and Segura were already gone. And also departing soon enough was that unshakable confidence, the mystical armor his mother had spent a childhood dressing him in.

Two months after the Ashe defeat, Connors lost another final, to Manolo Orantes at Forest Hills. By now he was indulging himself with groupies and food, taking both to excess. Under tension, Connors gorges himself. At tournaments, in training, he will devour four or five large meals a day. At that time, in '75, lost and depressed, he gained 30 pounds. One day in Acapulco he saw himself in the mirror—"a spare tire, fat face; I only had slits for eyes." He reached for the phone. "After I called my mom, I lost 18 pounds in the next two weeks," he says.

And so he started back; but something was never recovered from that night at Chelsea Hospital and the next afternoon on Centre Court. By this summer of 1978, even before he fell to Borg, other players had begun to see in Connors a pathetic parody of his old self. "Jimmy's always exuded such confidence," Ashe says, "and real or not, it seemed all the more intimidating because it was cocooned in that aura of bravado and brashness. But now even that seems specious. He's scared about something. I don't know what's happened, but he's not the same."

"The kid is psyched," says Riordan. At Wimbledon, Riordan took Borg at 7 to 1 to win in straight sets and cashed in big against his Jimbo.

Gloria Thompson Connors proudly points out that she and her mother are the only women ever to have developed a men's champion. Whatever more Jimmy achieves, theirs was an amazing accomplishment, and no one should be surprised at the obvious—at how much the mother lives for the son and how much he depends on her. Naturally, if this were not so, it never could have worked.

Of the other major influences upon Jimbo, Segura was merely brought in as a retainer, a male totem, to help Connors "think like a man" on the court, while Riordan was tapped as something of a necessary evil in the shattered times after the grandmother, Bertha Thompson, died in 1972. Bertha was known as Two Mom, a name bestowed on her by Johnny, the older of the two Connors children. Johnny had originally been cast as the future champion, but, as Gloria has noted many times, he lacked the requisite "guts." The second boy, the lefthander, did not. Eerily, it was Jimmy whom Gloria was carrying when she personally cut and cleared the land behind their house to build the tennis court that would give meaning to her life.

This sporting monument at 632 North 68th Street, East St. Louis, Ill., is now grown over, in disrepair. But then, so is the whole town run down, forgotten by the whites who abandoned it. But while East St. Louis was never fashionable, while it was always the other side, when Gloria Thompson was growing up there, it was a well-kept blue-collar borough, the municipal manor of Mayor John T. Connors.

That was Jimmy's grandfather. Mayor Connors had one son, Big Jim, a good-looking, well-liked fellow of no particular abilities. He was sent off to Notre Dame and, back home, was provided with the sinecure of running the toll bridge that spanned the Mississippi into St. Louis at the other end of 68th Street.

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