If imitation, however coincidental, is the sincerest form of flattery, then Jimmy Connors' greatest admirer must be Billy Martin, the youngest and newest gypsy on the professional tennis tour. Martin has yet to jilt Chris Evert, sue Arthur Ashe or offer himself as a human sacrifice to Bill Riordan, but should any of these events occur, he and Connors—also an Illinois-born, California-developed NCAA champion and UCLA freshman dropout—will seem all but indistinguishable. Their remarkable similarities extend beyond background to include temperament, playing style and mannerisms.
Both players are hypercompetitive, battling opponents, linesmen and themselves with equal passion. Both depend on a stinging two-handed backhand, a strong overhead and an automatic service return. Both bounce the ball interminably before serving and nervously blow into their racket hands—Connors' left, Martin's right—when play stops. And because one has achieved what the other still dreams of, Martin could not have been more pleased when Glenn Bassett, who coached them both in their single seasons at UCLA, recently called Billy the superior college player. "It's nice to know that I'm on the right track," says Martin.
Despite his blond hair, blue eyes and almost angelic appearance, Martin has always been something of a tennis bully, picking on kids who weren't his size. But invariably his victims have been bigger, older and more experienced. At 11 he was defeating the country's best 12-year-olds. At 12 and 13 he was whipping the 14-year-olds. At 14 the 16-year-olds, and at 16 the 18-year-olds. Now, a few months younger than the other Wunderkinder of tennis, Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova, he has signed a contract with Mark McCormack's organization and departed the chaperoned circuit forever—taking with him two Junior Wimbledon titles (1973-74), another pair of Junior Forest Hills championships (1973-74) and an 18-1 intercollegiate record.
Martin made his professional debut two weeks ago in Birmingham, Ala. and lost in the quarterfinals. But last February, while still an amateur, he won the Arkansas International in Little Rock (coincidentally after Connors had dropped out with an injury).
Billy shrugs when asked about the decision to turn pro at 18 and says, "It's no big deal." Dominating age-group tennis, competing at Forest Hills at the unprecedented age of 15, winning the NCAA title, becoming a pro five days later—these were all measured steps in a carefully paced career. "I like records. They give me something to strive for," he says, "but I'm not going to be the best player out there the first year. Mainly I want to gain experience and improve my game without worrying whether I win every match." Even so, Martin expects to win often enough to improve his national ranking from an outdated 22nd to "between 10 and 15 next year."
Martin's tennis career began taking shape 10 years ago, about the time his parents let his older sister Carol use the family court privilege at a club in River Forest, Ill. and suggested that 8-year-old Billy find another interest. "This denial turned him toward tennis," says his father Bill. That, despite the handicap of Midwestern winters when Billy had to shovel snow off the court. In a few years father and son were practicing before Dad went to work, and on Saturdays Billy was up before dawn to participate in a junior development program in Chicago.
In 1971, the family moved to Palos Verdes, Calif., where the blend of good weather, facilities, coaches and competition enhanced the chances of a young tennis player who wants to be No. 1 in the world within "three or four years."
"Borg has already proven that a player as young as I am can be one of the best," Martin says. "Sometimes, when I get tired, I think about how much he's accomplished."
"Martin drives himself harder than anyone I've ever seen," says Coach Bassett. "He makes like every point is match point at Wimbledon. At times he can be so intense and so excited it's a liability." It is this same determination, however, that has prevented him from ever losing after a match-point advantage.
"Everybody wants to win," Martin says. "It's the guys who don't want to lose who are the most successful. Those are the ones who work the hardest. My forehand and backhand volleys aren't as good as some players', or as good as they will be. Wanting to do well makes up for a lot. Unless you're in over your head, 80% to 90% of your matches are won in practice. You have to make it hurt. When I work hard, I play a lot better. It makes me feel like I'm catching up, that I'm coming in through the back door while everybody else is asleep."
Martin is confident he can succeed on his own, that his resourcefulness will see him through, if outside forces, particularly linesmen, do not interfere. "Tennis is my life," he says. "I've put enough into it that I don't want to be cheated out of anything by a bad call. That's also why I don't like team sports. Losing because someone else blew it would tee me off."
Bassett sees two weaknesses in Martin's game, his serve and his temperament. Billy himself admits, "I've had matches where my temper hurt me. I can be horrible to be around after a loss."
Martin chooses not to contemplate the possibility of failure. "When I think that I might not achieve a goal I've set," he says, "I throw the idea out of my mind. I don't even think about it. If it turns out that I'm just another player, I don't know how I'll take it."
After a pause he adds, "If I don't make it, at least I'll know I put everything I had into it."
In that respect, too, Billy Martin is much like Jimmy Connors.