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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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A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of conqueror, the confidence of success which often induces real success.
—SIGMUND FREUD

Jimmy Connors was the indisputable favorite of his grandmother as well, and so, he is most abundantly infused with this magic milk. It surges through his veins, suppressing every doubt and every defeat. And why not? The two women had promised him the world, and, just so, he grasped it in 1974: only 21, but already champion of all he surveyed, Alexander astride Bucephalus astride the globe. He won the Wimbledon final with the loss of but six games, Forest Hills with the loss of but two. Wise men in tennis sat about and seriously contemplated whether he would win every major title for, say, the next decade.

Conqueror was what he was, too, because Connors did not merely win. He assaulted the opposition, laid waste to it, often mocked it, as well, simply by the force of his presence. The other players feared to go against him, because the most awesome legend that can surround any athlete sprang up about Connors: The better any mortal played against him, the better Connors became. So, he became invincible upon the court, because no man could beat him, and he was inviolate off the court, because his mother had told him so.

Two months ago, on July 8, Connors lost the 1978 Wimbledon final, winning only seven games against an ascendant Bjorn Borg. Since 1974 Connors has played in seven major finals and lost six.

What has happened is disillusioning for Connors and his mother. They speak of the latest wrack and ruin by Borg in hallucinatory terms, and Jimmy fitfully retreats to the glorious conquests of yore: "They'll be talking about '74 when I'm dead.... Don't forget what I did in '74.... Nobody can ever take '74 from me." On and on like that. And the greatest irony is that '74 will be devalued if he does not triumph over Borg in '78, because this year Borg can win the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup—and as extraordinary as '74 was, Connors did not achieve that. For history, then, what would '74 become but a real good year a kid had just before Borg became great?

And that was so long ago: 1974. Since then Connors's father has died, and his surrogate father—his manager. Bill Riordan—has become estranged from him. His only male instructor, Pancho Segura, has been discharged. His engagement to Chris Evert, the one sweet love of his life, was called off, nearly at the altar. Looking back, it all began to unravel then, the loss of dear ones and tournaments alike. A kind of incompleteness plagues Connors. In the big tournaments, the ones he shoots for, he virtually never loses until the finals. What is it there? What seizes him at the last step? There is a flaw somewhere, something that denies him consummation in his life.

"It happened so fast," Evert says. Oddly, she and Jimmy have matured more in the difficult ways of their love than they have as players in a simple game. "There was no emotional foundation, nothing to fall back on," Evert says. "You must never forget that he made No. 1 when he was 21, and now he's not No. 1. That makes him so defensive. You see, he's still a champion. He isn't No. 1, but he hasn't lost the qualities of a champion."

It is suddenly fashionable to blithely dismiss Connors as a mere cipher against Borg—as easy as it once was to consider Connors unbeatable. But no, there is too much of the sublime in Connors's game to suggest that anyone ever could own him. The technique is still all there, but the passion has been muted. So now, starting this week at the U.S. Open, we shall find out if the man is capable of what once the boy and mother accomplished. For that matter, we shall find out soon enough if there is a man to surmount the boy.

In retrospect, Arthur Ashe may have dismantled the invincible Jimbo by upsetting him in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Although he won Forest Hills in 1976, Connors has never really been the same since. In the months before the Ashe match, in the period after Jimmy and Chrissie broke up, Connors had already begun to self-destruct—ballooning in weight, running imperiously over good people and firm obligations. But by Wimbledon time he was primed, and all the more forbidding for the callousness he had displayed.

Now rampant upon the court, he did not lose a set in the early matches at Wimbledon. In the semifinals he came up against Roscoe Tanner, who has the best service in the game. Tanner was serving at his very best, yet Connors obliterated him 6-4, 6-1, 6-4. New York Times correspondent Fred Tupper, an able—and restrained—tennis authority for several decades, wrote in awe, "Did anybody ever see a ball hit so hard?...Connors's performance today staggers the imagination and confuses the memory."

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