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What's more, he played a kind of tennis that, on television, could yank hackers out of their Barcaloungers and send them to the courts. No weekend player had a chance of duplicating Roscoe Tanner's 140mph serve or Nastase's sublime brushstrokes. But Connors's long rallies and lapidary shot making fired imaginations, in fans and even in opponents. "He wasn't making adjustments, playing it safe, adding spin or babying the ball because he was down match point," says former pro Dick Stockton, "and that affected the other players."
But just when his tennis began to seem bloodless, there'd be the pumped fist or obscene gesture, the aside to a ball boy or fan, the colloquy with the chair umpire or a linesman. He might bow after striking a winner or, if displeased, show his rear end to the source of his displeasure. "He introduced vulgarity to tennis," says Gianni Clerici, the veteran tennis writer for Italy's Corriere della Sera. Yet Connors didn't care what people thought of him. He cared only that they thought something.
"Some people came out to see me win," he says. "Some came out to see me lose. And some came out to see me have a hard time but not lose, because they wanted to come back the next day and see me again."
-- WINTER --
Connors began 1974 by winning the first Grand Slam tournament of his career, beating Phil Dent in the Australian Open final on New Year's Day 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Dent, an Aussie power player, thought he was handcuffing Connors with serves into the body. "Sometimes you feel like you've got a guy, and I really thought I had him frustrated," Dent remembers. "And about 10 minutes later I'd lost six games straight." It was a reversal of fortune many more opponents would come to know over the year. "You'd get to 30--15 on your serve and suddenly be looking at break point," says Segura's son, Spencer, who played briefly with Connors at UCLA and did cameos with the entourage.
Most pros spent the months between the Australian and French Opens playing Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis, a circuit much like the one Robert Culp and Bill Cosby plied on TV's I Spy: Johannesburg, Munich, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Toronto. WCT had the money, glamour and top competition. Connors contented himself with the International Players Association tour, the vehicle Riordan had created for him. The IPA was an archipelago of Palookaville events in college gyms and bush league auditoriums in Omaha and Roanoke and Paramus, where, Connors recalls, "The crowd was in your lap. Why not involve them?"
Only a handful of top players joined him on the Riordan circuit: Sandy Mayer and his brother, Gene; Vitas Gerulaitis; and most notably Nastase, the lone rival with whom Connors would forge a close friendship. But therein lay the boxing-promoter genius of the IPA. Connors could husband his energies and burnish his mystique for the title fights, Wimbledon and Forest Hills. "Tennis was taking off, and everybody was trying to grab something--the agents, the players, the tournaments, the union," says Spencer Segura. " Riordan's pitch to Jimmy was, 'I don't have anybody else. I'm just here for you. And you're the next big guy.'"
Riordan was a reformed drinker who worked out of a dress shop he owned in Salisbury, Md. During the U.S. Open he might be found at the piano in the players' lounge, fingering out some standard or arranging to have bottles of champagne sent to the press room after his client's victory. He trafficked in Runyonesque epigrams ("Life is 6 to 5 against") and Bunyanesque hyperbole ("When this chapter of tennis is written, Jimmy will be beatified"). It didn't really matter whether Riordan had actually sent that telegram to Donald Dell, agent, broadcaster, all-around operator and poster boy for the tennis establishment--the one that purportedly read, "Dear Donald: F--- you. Stronger message to follow." It was quite enough that everyone believed that he had, and thus the dandruff encrusted for years on the navy-blue blazer of the game began to fall away. "Bill was a big thinker," says Waltke, who played the Riordan circuit. "You'd ask him, 'Are you gonna do X?' and he'd reply, 'Yes, but we also need to do Y.' At the time tennis didn't know it needed any of that. But it turns out we did."
Meanwhile Connors's romance with Evert sent the sport tumbling into the lifestyle pages and into conversations in offices and taverns and beauty parlors. Together they had picked out her engagement ring the previous November at a diamond mine near Johannesburg, where both had won the South Africa Open. Now they arranged to see each other roughly 10 days a month, staggering their tournament commitments so each would play two weeks, then take a week off to drop in on the other's event. They played mixed doubles at the few tournaments that offered the event. Connors would keep Evert's second service ball in his pocket.
"Jimmy back then was the greatest first love a girl could have had," Evert says. "He was a gentleman, kind and respectful. And there was no [gender] role-playing. My tennis was as important to him as his tennis was important to me, and that meant a lot to me. The women in his life--not only me, but [Connors's wife] Patti and all the others--they've seen a side to him that the public hasn't. He's that way with his mother too. There's that old saying: Before you marry a man, look at how he treats his mother."