Red, white and blue Liberty Bell dishware being all the rage, it was terribly fitting that when Jimmy Connors, that Yankee Doodle Dandy, finally won a tennis tournament the other day, he chose to do so in Philadelphia. It took place at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships and was Connors' first important victory in what seems like, oh, maybe 200 years. Bicentennial madness strikes again.
When Connors got through demolishing what may have been the strongest field anybody will see until Wimbledon, it was clear that reports of his demise in a Las Vegas baccarat den were exaggerated. Look out, Arthur, Newk, Guillermo and Jack Ford. As Jimbo himself likes to put it, "The kid is back."
Of course, this is not the old Jimmy Connors who is back. Not the old screaming, pouting, gesturing Connors who was last seen losing in the finals of five major tournaments, including Wimbledon and Forest Hills; losing the deciding match in the Davis Cup meeting with Mexico; losing to the likes of people named Adriano Panatta. No. This is the new Connors. Polite, kind, respectful, chipper, able to leap tall questions in a single bound ("Is it tough playing against lefthanders, Jimmy?" "Yeah, it's like playing me. I'd hate to play me"). He seems much more relaxed and finally at peace with himself as well as with the world. The funny thing is, this new Connors looks like the real thing.
After he defeated the infant Swede, Bjorn Borg, in the finals, dashing from 2-5 and two breaks behind to win a tiebreaker first set 7-6, then running out the match over his discouraged opponent 6-4, 6-0, Connors said, "It's like the Christians and the lions down there, but I'm saying to myself, 'Be nice, be nice.' I'm changing my image. To what? How about from awful to fair?"
February 9, 1976
Throughout the days of his impressive victories over Dennis Ralston, Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Dick Stockton on the way to the finals, Connors managed to mix with the players, mingle with the media, cooperate with the officials, amuse the galleries and absolutely stun everbody with some estimable behavior that actually smacked of grace. If a baby had toddled forth, he would have kissed it, if a yarmulke had appeared, he would have worn it. Connors insisted, however, that he was staying out of the early primaries.
The champion's explanation for the apparent change was a rather succinct "I don't have anything to prove anymore." But others read more into it.
"We all grow up," said Ralston, who has had experience with that as well as with some volatile differences with Jimbo. "Connors always had the wrong advice. He's on his own now, getting back with the real players. He's learning it's easier to be liked than hated."
"It's brutal being alone out here," said Erik van Dillen. "Jimmy found out the wins are more fun when you can share them."
Connors has split with his former manager, Bill Riordan, and has toned down his unholy alliance with the vampire prince, Ilie Nastase. As one result, Jimmy was the picture of stability in Philadelphia.
"I'm serious from now on," he said early in the week. "What kind of an ass stays out till 3 a.m. the night before the Wimbledon finals? I did that all over Europe. Hanging around with Nastase, chasing, messing up. I was still making it to finals that way. But I want more. This is a new commitment. I play and then go home. Nothing but tennis."
Certainly Connors' prize performances on the court verified this attitude. His work always has conjured up images of the fight game, with Connors as a bob-haired Marciano, the opponent a helpless punching bag. And so it was last week. There was Jimbo's relentless body-punching, occasional swipes at the head—his whacking, pounding, thudding blows. You can hear Jimmy Connors winning a tennis match.
After his come-from-behind 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Smith, Connors said, "I've been working hard. I'm confident I can hit anything." After his clean, notably passionless 6-3, 6-4 dismantling of Laver, he said, "I came out charging. I expect to play like that, 100%, every time. But then, I'm not normal." After the tournament he scoffed at any motivational problems. "Did I look like I didn't want it?" he said. "When I lose the desire, you'll know it. I'll get out."
Under the auspices of the tournament promoters, Ed and Marilyn Fernberger, Philadelphia has become the very best event on the indoor circuit on the strength of its field alone. It's not exactly that the players love the place. In fact, many of them hate it—the weather, the early-year time slot, the cramped conditions (play is simultaneous on side-by-side courts up to the semifinals) adding to the general urban awfulness. As the beauteous Lailee van Dillen said, "There's nothing to do in Philadelphia but look at the Bell and get attacked."
What happens is WCT makes all its players show up (well, almost all), and that, in turn, makes for the toughest draw this side of Wimbledon. Some say even tougher because there are no first-round patsies. Only John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Manuel Orantes and Guillermo Vilas among the top-ranked racket heavies failed to appear in Philly.
The balance of the draw was revealed early when Roscoe Tanner, the sixth seed, lost right away to Stockton, who is good enough to get to most semifinals, which he then proceeded to do. Mexico's Raul Ramirez also went out in the first round, but then the Davis Cup hero always seems puzzled any time he gets out of shouting distance of an enchilada stand.
The old hacker, Fred Stolle, even got into the act by almost taking the head off Arthur Ashe. The world's No. 1 finally prevailed in three sets, but conceded that his continent-trotting schedule had at last gotten the best of him. "I'll catch up on sleep by Sunday," Ashe said, "but then I might not be in the tournament by Sunday."
Ashe had been unbeaten this year while winning more than $50,000 from Columbus to Hawaii during January and looking as if he would never lose again. But when he came up against his old pal Tom Gorman in the third round, he was meeting a player as hot as he was—and considerably less weary.
Gorman explained the phenomenon of Ashe's streak at the same time that he sounded confident of stopping it. "Every guy out here has played really well at one time or another and nobody really can pinpoint why they start or stop," he said. "It's just that Arthur is continuing to play brilliantly. Maybe it's the way he's reacting to it. Winning becomes a habit. All I know is I'm going good. I think I can get him."
While he spent many weeks losing, Gorman achieved some notoriety by endorsing a jockstrap and rating the popcorn at different tour sites. (Philadelphia's, he says, is "dead last—soggy, old, mushy.") But against Ashe he had his mind on the king rather than the kernels.
Gorman won the first set 6-3 with Ashe appearing to be hardly interested. But then they started slugging and Ashe took the second set by an identical score. The key point came in the third set with Gorman up a break at 4-2 and Ashe threatening to break back at 15-40. Tentative now, Gorman chipped short, but Ashe's backhand down the line was out by a hair. Ashe blew two other break points then lost the game and the match 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
"I'm taking this off," Ashe said later, removing a numbered bauble that hung on a gold chain around his neck. "I'm no longer No. 1."
"I don't mean to sound heavy," said Gorman, "but at this crossroads of my life, this was a terrific 'opportunity' match."
Gorman failed to take advantage of the opportunity when he lost to Stockton in the quarters, but everybody agreed it was nice to see the Irishman's game not soggy, old and mushy anymore.
The top half of the draw featured Borg and the always-lovable Nastase, who is acting more and more like a man without a cage. Fresh from Baltimore, where he allegedly uttered some anti-Semitic remarks, Nastase refused to talk to the press after his first match, saying, "You going in ground, I going in ground, we all going in ground. What it matters?" Then Nastase took part in a hilarious match with the young hot dog, Billy Martin that should have been staged in a looney bin, or by members of it.
Aware of the way in which Nasty terrorizes linesmen, Martin tried some intimidation of his own. First, the Rumanian would stall, stare and storm at the officials, then Martin would rage over line calls. Oh, it was great fun until Nastase drop-kicked his racket into the adjoining court where Laver was in the process of defeating Ross Case.
"It wasn't the racket that was so bad," Laver said later in a rare burst of anger. "It was his language. He should get some kind of suspension or expulsion. Whatever he gets won't be enough."
What Nastase got was the flu. He humiliated Martin in the press room by snapping at him, "You not sitting in here with me. You win Forest Hills, you can act like me." Then Nastase quit the tournament, claiming he was "sick with fire."
Nobody rushed to call a doctor.
Following Nastase's default, everybody checked his neck for teeth marks and Borg was left to breeze into the finals against Connors. Bjorn whipped through Ismail El Shafei, Mark Cox, Jan Kodes and Tom Okker in straight sets, accompanied by that marvelous topspin forehand and that wonderfully insouciant philosophy.
"I just like to smash the ball and watch it fly over the net," Borg said.
Meanwhile, the anticipation of Connors dueling Laver for the third time stirred up considerably more excitement than the match would deliver. The combatants came on in the middle of the Friday night session as Stockton was beating Gorman on the next court. And they finished while Okker was disposing of Fast Eddie Dibbs in the same place.
"Sure it was distracting," said Stockton. "Thirteen thousand people tore down the house when Rocket and Jimmy came out. I think my wife even watched them instead of me."
In truth, Laver was in the match only briefly. He had been beaten by Connors on the fast stuff at Caesars Palace and on the slow clay of Conway, N. H., and this time he was beaten on a Supreme Court surface, the speed of which is somewhere in between. After losing the first set 6-3, Laver was serving with a lead of 4-2, 15-love in the second when the two played a point that signified the direction in which their careers are going.
Poised for an overhead smash, the 37-year-old Laver pounded the ball deep into Connors' backhand corner, bouncing it high toward the spectator seats in the general direction of Independence Square. But Connors took off on the run. He kept running and running until, right before he crashed into the barrier, he got his racket on the ball enough to send a spectacular lob all the way back to Laver's base line. The Rocket smashed the ball deep, but out. Connors went on to win the next four games and the match.
"I thought I had the ball in the stands. It was a great get," Laver said afterward. "I have to put Jimmy right in there with the greatest."
"Maybe I wish Rod was 25 again," Connors responded. "It probably isn't fair, him having to get up every morning to play another match. God knows, it's tough on me and I'm only 23. I only hope when I'm his age the crowd will treat me like they treat Rod Laver."
It is hard to imagine those words coming from the old Connors we used to know and hate. An even better indication of the new model occurred a night earlier, after Connors had lost the first set of his match with Stan Smith.
As he came to the sideline, Jimbo clenched his fist and muttered, "If you're gonna lose, lose like a man, dammit. Lose like a man." But he has always lost like a man. As everybody found out in Philadelphia, Jimmy Connors finally has learned to win like a man, too.