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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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Gloria's father, Al Thompson, was chief of the city parks police. Hers was a disciplined, rock-ribbed upbringing. As the Connorses were open and genial, so were the Thompsons tight and skeptical, even suspicious. Jimmy Connors got his athletic genes from the maternal side. Al Thompson had been a middleweight boxer and a lifeguard, and when he and Two Mom were courting, they shared their love this way: He taught her to swim, she taught him to play tennis. They had one child, and the happiest times of Gloria's life were spent at Jones Park, which she recalls as a nearly idyllic place where she would swim in a sand-bottomed pool and then skip past a beautiful lagoon to the tennis courts. "Believe me," she declares earnestly, "I never went to a country club as nice as Jones Park." The remark is not offhand. Tennis was a country-club activity, and the Thompsons, the cop's family, insular by nature, grew even more defensive as tennis brought them into contact with the swells across the river.

Says a St. Louisan who has known the family for many years, "Gloria was taught, 'They're all out to get us,' and that's what she taught Jimmy. His mother is the only person he trusts. They're really not comfortable with anybody else. They have such overpowering loyalty to each other that they're incapable of any lasting outside relationships. Their own relationship is spooky. I swear, it's always been like there was a tube going from her veins into his." One of the first things mother and son bring up (independently) is that she can correct his game over the telephone merely by sensing what has gone awry.

Gloria was a fine athlete in her youth, but there was no evidence then of the drive and single-mindedness that would consume her on behalf of her son. Pauline Betz Addie, a world tennis champion in the mid-'40s, says, "It's impossible for me to believe these accounts of Gloria today—hard and mean. Never. She was the sweetest, most ingenuous, lovely person." She was pretty, too, a good catch. Surely no one in the world photographs worse than Gloria Connors. In fact, she is a lovely woman, gossamer feminine, all grace and poise. The good-timing mayor's boy wooed her, married her, and they settled in the trim little redbrick house on 68th Street.

This marriage of opposites never worked. Big Jim died of cancer last year, and both Gloria and Jimmy stoutly uphold his memory, but from all objective accounts, theirs was a house divided by tennis. Big Jim learned of his son's engagement to Chrissie over the radio. When Jimmy won Wimbledon in '74, he couldn't be bothered to take his father's congratulatory phone call. Gloria explains it this way: "My husband enjoyed being around people in the evenings, and, of course, he had to take care of Johnny. We all had to sacrifice. You see, we more or less had to part ways if Jimmy was to play the tournaments he had to. Two Mom and I had a job to do."

Unlike Johnny, now a teaching pro in Atlanta, Jimmy had an interest in competitive tennis that never flagged. "I've been known as a pushy stage-door [sic] mother, but my biggest problem was to stop him from playing tennis," Gloria says. "He's always been the same. Why, he couldn't wait to kick the slats out of his playpen and get started in life. But always a homebody. Johnny would like to spend the night at other boys' houses. Not Jimmy. He was so happy just being in his own home. You know, he was so much like his grandmother especially. We were a team. We were three peas in a pod."

Soon everything was devoted to Jimmy's tennis potential. It was Gloria's pleasure to become, as she describes it, "a human backboard." No detail was overlooked. On the boys' circuit, free tournament housing would be declined, and the team would spend money it really couldn't afford to spend to stay in a motel, so that Jimbo would not get chummy with the children he had to beat. In St. Louis, Gloria would transport him about to clubs, soliciting good adult players to hit with the child. Those who lacked the zeal for this pastime were dismissed as snobs. At the same time, those pros who took an interest in the boy and sought to help his game were suspected of trying to "steal" him from his mother.

Two Mom told Gloria, "Don't bring anybody else into the picture. You made him, Glo. Don't ever hand him over to anybody." If there is one thread that weaves most prominently through the whole fabric of the relationship, it is this one. And yet, contrary to what is generally assumed, Mrs. Connors does not appear to be motivated by selfishness. No, she is simply and utterly devoted to this son, and she is convinced that no one else can serve him so well as she. "Yes, sir, we fought it," Gloria says. "But if no one would play with Jimmy, he had me. I played him every day—every good day—of the year, every year. And we played hard. We taught him to be a tiger. 'Get those tiger juices flowing!' I would call out, and I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat, and he learned to do this because he found out that if I had the chance, I would knock it down his. Yes, sir. And then I would say, 'You see, Jimbo, you see what even your own mother will do to you on a tennis court?' "

Ah, but off the court he was pampered: bikes and go-karts, a pony. More important, he was spoiled emotionally, always shielded from life's little adversities. This arrangement remains in force to this day. Connors is about as difficult to reach as any public figure in the country; he has been protected for so long that he will go to almost any lengths to avoid personal confrontation off the court; by his own admission, he finds it constitutionally impossible to say no. He avoids contention in real life as he seems to seek it on the court.

It is all bizarre and contradictory. Once Connors has been treed, he is not only wonderfully genial, but he also seems to enjoy himself. In paid personal appearances, he is charming, considerate of strangers and supplicants to a fault. He will never refuse an autograph. Children adore him, and he seems happiest of all in the haven of their innocent affection.

But now it seems the price of a lifetime of the Connors insularity must be paid upon the court. Connors seems incapable of making hard decisions—even to honestly assess, much less change, his game or strategy. Out there, on the concrete garden, only the tiger was formed—and his only response is to salivate more tiger juices. That very quality of his mother's that protected him, that let him gain the world championship, now appears to vitiate him. "Wouldn't you be different with your mother around all the time?" Ilie Nastase says. "I don't mean better or worse, I just mean very different."

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