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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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Jimmy was so at home with Riordan because he obviously could see much of his father in him. Like Big Jim, hanging around the Stop Light Restaurant back home, telling stories, having some Scotches, laughing with the gang—"My husband enjoyed being around people in the evenings," says Gloria—Riordan is a social animal, in search of any crowd to which he can distribute his blarney and sly jests out of the corner of his mouth. He really fit in: a conservative Catholic, devoted to tennis, with a strong wife and tight family ties. "Bill was a father image for Jimmy," Chris Evert says. "Jimmy put a lot on the line for this guy. I don't mean just his reputation. Jimmy put his emotions up for Riordan."

Playing, competing, with a racket in his left hand, Jimbo is more a Thompson than a Connors—in a sense, he is Jimmy Thompson. Has any player ever been more natural? But then, in an instant, he wiggles his tail, waves a finger, tries to joke or be smart, tries too hard—for he is not facile in this way, and his routines are forced and embarrassing, and that is why the crowds dislike him. He is Jimmy Thompson no more. He is trying so hard to be Jimmy Connors, raised by women to conquer men, but unable to be a man, to be Big Jim or Bill Riordan. He is unable to be one of the boys.

Connors says he "holds no grudges" against Riordan, but there is no question but that the older man took something valuable of Jimmy's when he was sent packing. "So much of it goes back to Jimmy's growing up, to the way people back home treated him," Evert says. "This was all inside him, and then he confided in Riordan, put his emotions on the line for him, and now he feels betrayed. So now his attitude is: You see, it is true. It is. I can't trust anybody."

Then, Riordan gone, body and soul, Connors's real father died of cancer on Jan. 30, 1977. Jimmy was holding Big Jim's hand at the end. At the time, Connors's traveling companion was Marjie Wallace, a former Miss World, but she faded from Jimmy's life shortly after his father died, and there has been no serious new romantic interest since then.

Last year Connors was sometimes convoyed about by a hard-nosed phalanx of Gilbert and Sullivan bodyguards, but they have been superseded, mercifully, by Lornie Kuhle, an affable 34-year-old Las Vegas teaching pro. Kuhle is a favorite practice partner and a devoted friend ("You know what Jimmy is? He's just a good American kid"), but obviously he cannot harvest the emotional ground that lovers and fathers have turned and planted.

So Gloria's universe expands. Now she is everything to Jimmy: mother (he calls her "Mom" in that capacity), coach ("Coach"), best friend and business manager ("Glo"). So totally involved are Gloria and Jimmy with each other that, since it was knocked down to a two-person operation, the mother and son have engaged in some dreadful arguments—shouting matches in hotel rooms, Jimmy using some four-letter names that tennis people have been embarrassed to overhear. Both mother and son dismiss these episodes as healthy outbursts. "Look, I can cut it for you," Connors says. "First, she's my mom—you know, the one who creates you. She's my mom first and always will be. But she's my coach and my friend, too, and if we scream at each other sometimes, that just clears the air. That's good among friends."

Only Evert appears to be in a position to exert a major influence on Connors. She fills all the necessary criteria. She is female, which he prefers—"I'd rather be friends with a woman than a man any day"—and she is enduring. All of the Connors family intimates must stand the test of time. Besides, it is obvious by now that Chrissie and Jimmy can't get each other out of their systems. That doesn't necessarily mean they will marry someday. It just means they can't get each other out of their systems.

In fact, what has emerged from a teenage infatuation is a tender, understanding adult affection. "We fell in love when we were so young," says Chris, "before we were friends. Jimmy has always worked harder on the court than anyone, but he's always been completely pampered off. His mom thinks he deserved it that way. So you must be very attentive to Jimmy. And I don't want to sound harsh, please, because much of this also applies to me, to athletes in general. So when we were together, each of us was thinking about ourselves. It's very tough for Jimmy to give on those occasions, because he gives so much on the court, and you come to expect it off. And then, of course, most of the time you do get it off the court. Imagine us, two kids, so young, in love for the first time, each expecting the other to give." She shakes her head.

With Chris, with any woman, Connors feels more relaxed "because I'm never in competition with them." Besides, as he was schooled to be a tiger on the court, so was he taught to be a gentleman off, and nowhere is this more evident than in his relationships with women. He believes in ladies, old-fashioned manners and modesty. The well-publicized itinerant liaison with Marjie Wallace was really something of a baffling interlude, because the family background, as Mrs. Connors volunteers, was very puritanical. She herself had a "girls' academy" upbringing. Jimmy spent several years in parochial schools, and, indeed, the ostensible reason for Two Mom being drafted as an extra escort was that the family considered it scandalous that a married woman would journey about alone, with only a child. In private conversation, Jimmy can go literally for hours without so much as a "damn" escaping his lips, and in the men's locker room he is known for his obsessive modesty, never appearing without a towel held primly about his waist.

So here, perhaps, is the greatest contradiction of all between the public figure and the private man: a genuine personal prudery contrasted with the grotesque machismo and vulgarity he flaunts upon his stage. Connors's court pantomimes are invariably sexual, his imprecations obscene, his attempts at comedy and his belligerent statements sexual or scatological. He and Nastase used to drift into a mincing "queer" act. Jimbo was going to show the world that he is not some sissy or mama's boy, but that he can be as coarse and crude as any father's son.

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