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Jimmy Connors was sauntering through the casino of the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas one night last week when he saw an elderly woman, boozed up to her eyeballs, put a silver dollar into a slot machine, yank the handle and walk unsteadily away. Jackpot! Down cascaded 100 silver dollars, but the woman, oblivious, kept walking. Connors chased after her and brought her back.
"Oh, they're too heavy," she mumbled, as Connors helped her fill her purse with coins.
"I'm afraid to walk up to my room alone," she said, so Connors graciously accompanied her.
At the door she turned around and offered him a dollar tip, which he refused.
"Here, take it, honey," she said as she pressed the coin into his hand. "It might be the start of your fortune."
Jimmy Connors, America's most extraordinary tennis player, was already nicely on his way to a fortune, having won $285,490 on various courts in 1974. And last Sunday in a nationally televised challenge match at Caesars Palace, advertised as "$100,000 winner take all," he met Australia's Rod Laver for the first time ever and beat him 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. He won it in his usual manner: fighting with the crowd, flipping obscene gestures, strutting, posing and hitting wickedly hard ground strokes from opening serve to match point.
Ironically, his victory came at about the same time the United States Davis Cup team was beaten by Mexico in Palm Springs and thus, for the second straight year, was embarrassingly out of cup competition before it had really begun.
Connors has repeatedly refused to play Davis Cup matches for the present U.S. coach and administration, but it has not hurt him financially. With his $100,000 check, a new Buick Riviera (the third car he has won in the last eight months) and TV appearance money, he left Las Vegas richer by close to $150,000. Laver did not do so badly for a loser in a "winner-take-all" match; insiders said he went home with about $60,000.
Ballyhoo for the match so resembled the hammy, theatrical buildup for a big fight that reporters at the Friday afternoon press conference in the Bacchanal Dining Room half expected the combatants to weigh in, exchange insults and maybe even menace each other with rackets. Caesars Palace (which, by the way, never uses an apostrophe, perhaps in an effort to reduce its printing and neon-sign bills) promoted the match as "the heavyweight championship of tennis," although neither Laver nor Connors would qualify as heavyweights unless they first strapped on their money belts.
The whole thing started with a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story on Connors (SI, March 4, 1974), in which Laver said Jimmy "probably thinks he's the next best thing to 7-Up." On the insult meter that ranks just above "Why, you old sonofagun," but apparently it stuck in Connors' craw. After he had annihilated Ken Rosewall in the Forest Hills final last summer, he walked off the court, handed his rackets to his manager, Bill Riordan, and uttered these immortal words: