Jimmy Connors burst through the glittering party crowd, with his lollipop cheeks leading the way, his Raggedy Andy hair flopping behind. Up the stairs of the large hall, he hurried toward the lectern. Connors was late, and the audience of Junior League women and their moneyed men had nearly finished off the bar while waiting. Maybe 300 of them, waiting for Jimmy. At the sight of the guest they clapped, a warm, resounding applause that grew and grew; they even cheered, and one woman broke from the mass and rushed Connors, embracing him in a smothering of affection.
The interruption over, Connors began talking. He was sorry to be late, he said. There had been some snow and airplane delays, but anyway the weather here was beautiful as usual and so were the people. He was happy to be back, Connors said, where he had so many friends and had been successful in the past. The tournament would run smoothly. The matches would be terrific. He hoped he would do well again, he said. Then, glancing to the side where the rest of the players stood assembled more like lackeys than adversaries, Connors caught himself. Suddenly he realized that something had been left out, some feelings twinged. Even as good speakers do in recovery, he had to stagger to the end. "Uh, all the players are here," he said. (Glance sideways, look front.) "...Uh, yes. You don't have to root for me. You can root for anybody. Yes...I don't care."
Abruptly he stepped down and was gone, escaping the incongruity of the moment. He accepted keys to the city from the mayor, hugged all the hostesses and walked off to the radio and TV interviews. Then Jimmy Connors went out and won another tennis tournament.
The parties are bigger than the tournaments these days for James Scott (Jimbo) Connors of Belleville, Ill., Beverly Hills and the jingle jangle world of tennis intrigue. His appearances on court—like his speeches—are both polished and awkward, the result of a curious odyssey Connors is taking through railroad towns, cow pasture capitals and assorted laid-back locales on the quaint indoor circuit of the USLTA. He is the indisputable king of this road. But it is hardly a major thoroughfare any longer, more like a detour that circles endlessly and winds up only on the outskirts of big-time tennis.
Sometimes it appears that Connors, who has chosen this course instead of Lamar Hunt's WCT circuit where most of the best tennis players are, is himself embarrassed at the shell game. He is alternately self-conscious, defensive, wry and cynical about the value of his palooka tour. If it is not entirely accurate to call the undertaking a bum-of-the-night series, it is close enough. Deep inside, Connors has got to know this. Where is the true test of his mettle? Why this misuse of undeniable talent?
True, all the right people are out there, all the proper money and the local connections; even in the bushes, tennis is as overly charged with high society as it ever was. But somehow Jimmy Connors playing Roanoke, Omaha and Paramus conjures up Brando making another Bedtime Story, Mailer hustling another Marilyn. Connors is exposing only so much of himself; he is hiding the rest.
Already a master craftsman, Connors is, above all, mentally tough, an artist who has thoroughly studied tennis and knows full well what he can do and how far he can go. More important, because he knows what he will do—"I will be the best," he says—his way of going about it is what remains so bizarre.
This is a young man who, in the space of but a few years, has pulled himself up from strong Midwestern roots and changed not only his life-style but his life. He has dropped out of college and traveled the globe. He has been called nothing less than "a pawn in an international power struggle" and nothing more than "...a small-time, cocky punk." He has won the hand of America's Darling yet refused to raise a racket for his country.
With the face of a Campbell's soup kid, puckish charm and a promise rarely paralleled in sport, Connors should have the universe at his call. Yet admirers among his own coterie are nonlegion. Tom Okker says that if a man is looking for a dinner partner, "the kid," as Connors is known, isn't exactly the first one who comes to mind. "A child," Okker calls him. Arthur Ashe declares that when someone is immature he cannot handle success. Rod Laver says Connors "probably thinks he's the next best thing to 7-Up." A Dutchman, an American, an Aussie; dislike of Jimbo knows no geographical bounds.
On his private tour Connors portrays the role of loner in grand style. He stays in different hotels from the others. He doesn't eat with them. He seldom sits with them. He doesn't even play doubles.