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:
"Get me Laver."
Now Riordan's father was once a fight manager and Riordan himself once owned part of a fighter, so such anecdotes might normally be consigned to the fiction shelf, but Riordan swears that that is what Connors said.
Riordan called Laver in California, but Laver had laryngitis (or something stuck in his own craw) and could not communicate too well. George Liddy, a Florida tennis promoter, also talked with Laver, trying to set up an October meeting in Madison Square Garden.
"You could almost feel the hostility coming through the phone," said Liddy. "Laver said, 'There's no way I'm going to play without going into training.' "
So the Garden was out and eventually Caesars Palace and CBS were in, with Liddy the promoter and Laver having plenty of time to get his 36-year-old body into shape, which he obviously did because he won the first event on the 1975 World Championship Tennis circuit, a taped-for-television affair in Puerto Rico. He was beaten in his first match at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championship in Philadelphia and was able to get to Las Vegas early, along with his coach, Roy Emerson, and his left-handed sparring partner, Mark Cox, who tried to play the role of Connors in workouts.
Connors chose to go from a tournament victory in Birmingham to the La Costa resort in California, where he trained under the direction of his coach, old pro Pancho Segura. He didn't show up in Las Vegas until Wednesday night, despite frequent bulletins that his arrival was imminent. And he never did bed down at Caesars Palace. That caused the first brouhaha, the first of many.
The Connors camp felt that the number of rooms and complimentary tickets offered it by the hotel were "completely unacceptable," so Connors and his mother Gloria stayed in the sumptuous Eldorado suite at the Tropicana, courtesy of one of its owners, Ash Resnick. Caesars was putting up all those chips and the Tropicana was horning in on the publicity for a small ante.
The daily workouts at the new Caesars Palace Tennis Pavilion, advertised as costing $500,000, were open to the public, and what with the oohing, aahing and chattering spectators and the workmen putting the finishing touches on the 4,000-seat corrugated-steel building, there was a high noise level. Reporters took to calling it Caesars Garage.
It was like a fight camp, except that instead of going three rounds with his sparring partner Ian Crookenden, Connors stayed a good distance from him and flailed away with his Wilson T-2000, a racket strung so tight that any normal player using it would find himself playing jai alai against the far wall. T-2000s are available to the public, but they aren't quite the same. The company makes up Connors' specially for him.
Laver also looked impressive in the workouts and seemed fit enough to easily go four or five tough sets.
"It won't be as tiring as having to play several days in a tournament and my experience should mean a great deal against Connors' youth," said Laver. "I am very happy with my form. I've been going four or five hours on a daily program because I feel my game needs that kind of work. My adrenalin is pumping hard."
There was an undercurrent of hostility between the two lefthanders that was no gimmick. It was as obvious as a 200-watt light bulb covered by a flimsy curtain. When Connors was late for the Friday press conference, Laver was annoyed and needled him about not playing for the Davis Cup. When they left the Pavilion to go around to the front of the hotel to pose for photographs, they went in separate cars. When Connors overheard someone say, "Those bastards won the coin flip," he glared at the man and said, "Mister Bastard to you."
There were not many friendly moments, but one was provided by Vin Scully, the broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was making his first foray into tennis announcing. He was at courtside every day carefully doing his homework, digging for background and tidbits, just as he does in baseball.
"CBS went to a lot of time and expense to get me—for one reason," he said. "I'm left-handed."
The hassles followed in rapid succession, coming and going faster than the silver dollars in the casino—The Great Ball Dispute, The Great Can Opening Dispute, The Great Pipe Dispute and The Great Referee Dispute. All so earthshaking that they took the minds of public and press off the really vital news on the Strip—singer Paul Anka catching the flu, a bill being introduced in the State Assembly to outlaw silicone injections.
Connors found out that Laver was working out with Wilson heavy-duty balls when he had understood that Dun-lop balls would be used. Wilson won out, but no matter.
"Jimmy's grown up on Wilson balls," said Riordan, "and I'm sure he can use them for the match."
Then Laver wanted the cans of balls to be opened two days before the match, so that they would not be so lively in Las Vegas' high altitude. Connors said he had never heard of such a thing and that the cans of balls should be opened just before consumption, like beer or black cherry soda. There was a coin flip to decide, and Emerson, deputized to call for Laver, called it right. The pressure on the balls, at least, would be off two days early. Then there was the crucial matter of the pipe which divided the court in half directly under the net. Would a ball dribbling over the net and bouncing off this pipe be in play? Yes, under certain conditions, said Laver. Under no conditions, said Connors, whose opinion prevailed.
"Laver wants everything his way," said Connors." He's like a big baby."
When Pancho Gonzales, the tennis director at Caesars, was named as referee, Connors and Riordan protested and made noises about calling off the match, which no one believed. Naturally, Laver leaned in the opposite direction.
"I'm happy with Gonzales," he said.
A few heated discussions and many news stories later, a compromise was announced. Gonzales remained as referee, but Connors' two men were named umpire and deputy referee. Just who would have final say in case of an argument during the match was not clear. Calling the lines were a cluster of past greats, including Don Budge, Billy Talbert, Dick Savitt and Ted Schroeder. Nobody demanded they take eye tests.
Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder made Connors an 8-to-5 favorite early in the week but had him up to 11-to-5 by Saturday. Most of the tennis crowd hanging around Caesars during the week agreed.
The seats, priced at $25, $50 and $100, were not all sold (about 3,800 people paid $175,000), but there was a stageful of celebrities at courtside, including Johnny Carson, Alan King, Andy Williams, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston, into whose lap Connors almost landed after chasing one of Laver's shots. Riordan and Gloria Connors were there, as always, and the dark Ecuadorian, Segura, sat on the court like a boxer's corner man. Ordinarily, Pancho Segura is as entertaining a companion as one could want at a tennis match, calling shots and criticizing strategy. But any match that includes his boy "Jeemy" turns him into a dish of chocolate Jell-O.
When Laver came onto the court Sunday morning for the showdown, Connors was jumping up and down like a boxer warming up for a bout while Riordan gave him a pep talk and pummeled him lightly in the stomach. All the time he was jumping, Connors was looking toward Laver and muttering something, psyching himself up. One could imagine Riordan saying, "He can't hurt us, Champ. He won't lay a glove on us." Laver appeared relaxed, as if he were about to begin a stroll through a peaceful garden on a fine spring day.
Connors won the first two sets without having his serve broken, and it seemed obvious that the money, the car and the revenge were his. He was going to prove in short order that he was better than 7-Up, more like a vintage champagne worth revering. Suddenly Laver's serve, which had been pretty good all along, got much better and the fans, almost unanimously on his side, screamed and whistled at every ace, at every crisp volley, every time he held serve, every time he wiped his brow. The Aussie won the third set 6-3.
The fourth set brought, in addition to Laver's defeat, a game that some of the audience thought was the most thrilling they had ever seen. Connors was leading 5-4, Laver was serving. Laver's fifth ace made it 40-30, but Connors hit a forehand screecher down the line to make it deuce, and from there on they played 16 more points before Laver finally won the game. The score went to deuce eight times and Connors had match point five times. Twice Laver served aces with match point against him. And for just the kind of spice that was not needed, Connors responded to Comedienne Totie Fields' heckling with a tasteless gesture.
Perhaps that game took too much out of Laver. When he next served, trailing 5-6, Connors broke him easily, at love, finally making good on his sixth match point.
Now Connors may say, "Get me Newcombe" or "Get me Borg" or "While you're up, get me a Vilas," but what would Laver do if a rematch were offered?
"I'd give it some thought," he said, "but I'd like to be maybe a year younger."