Sure enough, by the end of 1975 the player fellow pros had feared would remain unbeatable for the rest of the decade began to wobble. Relieved of the pressure to win his first major, Connors says, "I could just be freewheeling and hold on for the ride." Slackness crept into his regimen, and his weight ballooned. With Chrissie no longer in his life, he let Nastase show him a good time. He became even cruder, repeating "F you!" at the Las Vegas crowd moments before his match with Laver, and even though he had settled or dropped all his lawsuits by the end of 1976, he picked up a reputation as a defaulter and a gouger who held up promoters for guarantees. Eventually he cut Riordan loose; in 1977 The New York Times revealed that those "heavyweight" matches, billed as "winner take all," had in fact been "winner take most."
But 1974 would stand alone. Connors won 15 tournaments and 95 of 99 matches that year, all of them in the same pair of white shorts, which he washed out in the sinks of hotel bathrooms. If any male pro has since played a better calendar year of tennis--and McEnroe's 1984 season (15 tournaments, 82--3 match record) is comparable--no one has combined such competitive dominance with so large an impact. McEnroe may have shared Connors's knack for the tantrum, but his game was all artiste. Connors, ever the tradesman, would string together the longest run in the top 10 in the game's history: 16 straight years. And it was that prolonged dedication to his craft that, by the end of his career, won for him the public adoration that once seemed so unlikely. Henderson would be his cornerman at virtually every U.S. Open after 1974, including '91 when, at age 39, Connors reached the semifinals as the people's choice. Bud Collins did live so long.
Late in Connors's signal victory at that Open, in which he came back from 2--5 in the fifth set to defeat Aaron Krickstein in the round of 16, Peter Bodo found himself standing in the press box next to Ashe, Connors's old nemesis. Bodo turned to Ashe and asked whether, in the final analysis, he thought Connors was really just an a. Ashe waited a beat and replied, famously, "Yes. But he's my favorite a."
" Jimmy Connors was the tennis boom," Lupica says. "He made people pay attention. It doesn't mean he was one of nature's noblemen, just that it was never the same. He made money for everybody who came after him, like Arnold Palmer did in golf."
And if Connors didn't solely account for the crowds besieging public courts, he surely helped explain why people sometimes came to blows over who got to use them. "Somehow he made tennis a contact sport," says commentator Mary Carillo, a former pro. "He changed what a match could look like and feel like and sound like. He demanded that the fans give a rip. He was like a gospel preacher. If you were in his church, you were going to sing."
Connors often refers to tennis as "the tennis," a phrase that has a way of placing the game within the larger arena he was determined to influence. That conflation dominates the conversation over a three-hour lunch on the terrace of the Montecito Country Club, a few minutes from his house in Santa Barbara, Calif. For much of it he squints into the glint of the sun reflecting off the Pacific, looking like a man ready to take a serve on the rise.
"A lot was happening in the tennis at the time," says Connors, who will turn 52 on Sept. 2. "It wasn't just me. In '74 the atmosphere was becoming electric. There was Nasty, and Vitas at Studio 54, and Borg sneaking out the backdoor because 10,000 blondes were looking for him. A fan didn't know which court to go to. But you had the characters who could handle it, who weren't afraid to talk about everything. And people liked that. So there was all that, and the winning too. It all fit a niche at the perfect time.
"It was never conscious entertainment. I just understood from a very young age that, out there on a stage, you've got to perform. And my grandma told me, 'You can get by with almost anything as long as you're winning.' Talking to people, yelling and screaming, released a lot of tension. Some guys weren't good at that. Nasty had a lot of trouble with it. But I could float around and come back and play better."
He puts his entertainer's chops on display at lunch, sustaining a kind of story line, complete with interjections and callbacks. At one point he muses on an alternative occupation: "Did I want to be a lawyer? Yes. Would I have been good at it? I don't know.... " His graying eyebrows pop suddenly as he says, "Contempt of court!"
An hour later he's explaining how he stuck a few strips of lead tape to one edge of his T-2000. The extra weight caused the top of his racket to turn over ever so slightly, allowing him to add a garnish of topspin to each shot without having to roll his arm. "An engineer," he says in mid-explanation. "Actually, I wanted to be an engineer."