And as with style, so with intensity. Connors boasts, accurately, admirably, "I peak every time I play." He loved to hear Riordan, an old racetrack buff, tell stirring tales of Bill Hartack, the cantankerous jockey who was famous for two things: fighting the establishment and riding every race as though it were the Kentucky Derby. "My mom taught me she'd rather have me play correctly for 30 minutes, her way, than play messing around for two hours," Jimmy says. "Play 30 minutes right, then I could go ride my pony or mini-bike." Thus, even practice games are conducted as vendettas, with growling and curses. Every shot is for real. As ever, there is Gloria across the net. You see, Jimmy, you see what even your own mother will do to you on the court?
Just as Connors must give his all in every match, so does he exhibit uncommon physical courage. In 1977 he played all of Wimbledon with a broken left thumb. When an X-ray technician brought the news, he said, "Well, Mr. Connors, I guess you won't be playing tennis for a few weeks." Connors sneered, "Want to bet, sucker?" They put on a splint that dug in so hard that blood gushed down his arm. The Connorses came back for another splint; they never told a soul, there would be no excuses, and he went to 6-4 in the fifth set of the final, to that last step, when, as ever, it was not his thumb that kept him from winning.
And yet, in contrast, since 1974 Connors has defaulted from almost 20 tournaments, often with the most transparent excuses of ill health at the 11th hour. "Why should I let someone make a name off of me, beating me when I'm not right?" Connors snaps. Nobody uses Jimbo. What he does not say is what is apparent, that whereas he needs a physical excuse to get him off the hook, he is "not right" for psychological reasons. If there is not enough animosity on tap, not enough tiger juices flowing, then Connors does not dare to even venture into competition.
We should remember that 1974, his year, was swollen with vitriol and tension—and he was near unbeatable. And what of 1978? At the time Borg laid waste to him, it was hard to find a player who did not mention how Connors had mellowed, become friendlier. Bill Norris, a tennis trainer and an old friend, says, "Jimmy's found an inner peace. He's much more aware of other people's feelings."
"Jimmy was brought up to win on hate," says a top player, a contemporary. "How long could anyone keep winning on hate?" If Connors's game is locked into the past, if it remains exactly the same, it may, nonetheless, have diminished in one almost imperceptible way: hitting the ball on the rise. To the keenest eyes, Jimbo does not appear to be taking the ball quite so soon. He has either lost the confidence to perform this feat, or somewhere deep inside a little bit of the killer instinct has paled, and he is giving the poor guy on the other side a chance, an instant more of breathing room. And the balls are coming back.
Borg, though, so bland, unflappable, is a special problem. Connors tries to hate him. Give Jimbo that. For years he would snarl that Borg had "no guts," and he always chases after him. After Wimbledon, Jimbo vowed, "I'll chase the son of a bitch to the ends of the earth." And since then, that has been embellished: "I'll dog him everywhere.... Every time Borg looks around he'll see my shadow."
But the problem is that it is not Bjorn Borg who is the target. It is his own man that the boy is chasing. Jimbo will be 26 next week, and the boy and his mother can only go so far. There must be the man to accept the harsh truths, so that once again he can win finals, win other people. If ever Jimmy Connors would stop trying to be something else, if only Jimmy Connors would again take the ball on the rise, the way he once did, crushing it, crashing forward, taking no prisoners, what a dreadnought he would be. Why, that would make 'em forget '74—and serve 'em right!
But no one knows if he is capable of the necessary changes. What we do know is that only one mother has made a men's champion, but that no mother has ever kept a man a champion.
"As well as I know Jimmy," Chris Evert says, "a lot of times I don't know what goes on in his head. But if he still has me baffled, I know that he's still got himself baffled too. Jimmy might know himself better if he would ever spend some time soul-searching. But he won't. He's always had to hate the men players to be at his best. But they don't hate him anymore. A lot of them have even come to like him. So he's got to find a new motivation, and that's going to be very hard for Jimmy."
It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.