If you have not lost your taste for barracks-room gestures and raunchy humor, and all those marvelous—if not consistently droll—mimes and monkey-shines, then Jimmy Connors was again your man last week in Dallas. He also produced another demonstration of the kind of gutsy tennis that has made him almost certainly the best Big Event player in the game, losing the first set in the finals against Dick Stockton, then winning the match 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. But for the sheer pleasure of watching one player's stature emerging in events that led to the crowning of Connors as the "champion of the World Championship of Tennis championship tournament" (one must be careful where one places one's adjectives and capitals in tennis these busy days to assure proper respect for still another Big Event), then you would have to go with Richard LaClede Stockton. And, without taking anything away from Connors, you may have to go with Stockton a lot more often in days to come.
His quiet intelligence will probably get on your nerves, you will be aghast at his failure to blue the air over unfavorable line calls, and you will certainly find him stationary by today's swinging standards (he and his wife prefer quiet days at the shore and are expecting a baby in September), but Stockton appears to have become something other than just another pretty foil in the affairs of Connors and Ilie Nastase. He may, in fact, be awfully close to accomplishing a real breakthrough.
At a time when tennis is awash—not to say drowning—in Grand Slams. Grand Prix, Heavyweight Championships, Las Vegas Showdowns and highly suspect Winner-Take-All television specials, the WCT series offered a degree of logic in the orderly ascent to a "major" championship and was a perfect place for an emergence. The eight qualifiers got to Dallas on points awarded over 12 farflung tournaments—Mexico City, Rotterdam, Birmingham, Ala., etc.—beginning in January. Once in Dallas, the exalted eight were treated with the now customary reverence—they drove Cadillac Sevilles with their names on the doors and lunched at Lamar Hunt's estate—but generally and relatively speaking, they earned it.
And no one earned it more than Stockton. He won more WCT tournaments (three). He won the most prestigious (the U.S. Pro in Philadelphia). He scored the most points (520), taking an astounding 15 of 19 matches. He said he felt beforehand that he would be "lucky to win two or three." He was the only player to hold the edge over Connors (two victories in two WCT finals before last Sunday) and Nastase (one in one).
May 22, 1977
In short, Stockton did what many tennis people thought he could do years ago when he came out of the juniors with a record 20 championships, and out of Trinity College (by way of New York City) with the NCAA singles title. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Stockton was an all-round athlete, and though he beat Connors whenever they played in age-group matches, he was a long time putting away his bats and balls. He did not become a full-time tennis prodigy until well into high school. Painfully modest, Stockton does not like to be drawn into talk about his early triumphs over Connors, though he admits that once "in St. Louis, Mrs. Connors asked if I'd please enter the 14-and-under so Jimmy could win the 12s." Stockton is 1½ years Connors' senior. He did not oblige.
Past puberty, however, a funny thing happened to Dick Stockton. He woke up one morning and all his pants were too short. He was suddenly six feet tall—and growing. Athletes who elongate early—their bones racing ahead of other parts—become prone in the late teens and early 20s to muscle pulls and tendon traumas and the related discomforts of a misspent development. Stockton's heavily muscled legs have been in the shop often since he turned pro at 21. He has had chronic back problems, with spasms. In repair, he has worn rubber corsets, spent time in traction and submitted to acupuncture (which "cured the spasms"). He has also been open to suggestion.
The only good part of such a problem is that maturity—the muscles and tendons catching up—often solves it. albeit late. Stockton, at 26, appears to have reached that point. Though still not free of occasional back pains, he says he never felt better than he has this year. Of Philadelphia, where he beat Connors in a grueling five-set final by winning 12 of the last 15 games, he says, "I never played better, either."
Being healthier, not to mention more confident after what has already been his best year, Stockton said before the final in Dallas, "I'm prepared to stay out there all night to win if I have to." In earlier matches, he almost had to. He took four sets and was close to a midnight supper before beating Cliff Drysdale, and five more (and past midnight) in beating Vitas Gerulaitis in the semifinals. Against Gerulaitis, he conceded a point, refusing to accept a bad call by a demurring line judge, and then refused a point forfeiture when the 30-second clock caught Gerulaitis "talking" with another judge. His magnanimity won over the crowd, which cheered his comeback from 1-2 in sets but could not help him get to bed before 3:30 a.m. "Nevertheless," he said. "I actually felt stronger as the match progressed." Looked stronger, too.
Connors got to the final by whipping Adriano Panatta and Eddie Dibbs in straight sets. At a subsequent press conference he wore three delicate necklaces (jeweled crosses and pendants, "gifts from friends, hee-hee"), while bestowing prodigious winks and glowers and occasional soft burps on his audience, allowed that "tennis is fun for me now." This, he indicated, is because he no longer has to ask mom for money, and because he has all these other terrific diversions, like contracts for his autograph line of shoes and shirts, and can. at 24. afford to "do a lot of nothing. I'm not getting any younger," he reasoned. Well, it's not all that fun, he admitted. He has to be in court this week in New York to defend a lawsuit brought by ex-agent Bill Riordan. Riordan wants 15% of some of that money that is making tennis fun for Connors.
In any case, Connors said, "Dallas is exciting because it's something new." And, indeed, he was "not messing around—I'm taking it seriously. I'm taking care of business. If you'll notice. I came to town alone."
Connors did, in fact, play brilliantly in the preliminaries. Dibbs said, "Jimmy is attacking more than I've ever seen him." With Wimbledon and Forest Hills to come, Jimmy was also attacking his conditioning. After beating Dibbs, he didn't even stick around to scout Stockton, preferring to "go back to my room, get a massage, have a couple beers and watch television."
Connors vs. Stockton made a classic confrontation. Clown prince vs. stoic. Champion little man vs. challenging big man. At 6'2½", 180 pounds, Stockton was the biggest player in the tournament. Connors the slightest at 151 pounds. Connors does not beat anybody with his serve. He does it with tenacity, quickness and with stinging, deeply hit ground strokes, especially off his two-fisted backhand. He has always hit his forehand a little flat, and the tendency is to attack him there, make him run to it. So much for vulnerability. He actually makes fewer errors, on the average, with his forehand. And, of course, he is at his savage best when the chips are down.
As a quick knockout artist, Connors said he would prefer getting Stockton over with quickly. "The longer the match goes, the less I will like it," he said. "But I know what it is to play five sets." He accepted Stockton's recent triumphs ("It wouldn't be any fun if I won all the time"), but said he did not consider him a growing threat, "just another guy I play. A very serious, very intense opponent." He grinned. "But I think I can make him smile if I want to."
Connors got his smiles, but mostly he coaxed from Stockton the resolve that marked his earlier matches. There is no telling how much those marathons had taken from Stockton ("One night of sleep out of three isn't bad," he said), but whatever was left Connors slashed from him with a barrage of exquisite pressure shots that broke open what one British television commentator heralded as a "thundering he-man's match—tennis in boxing gloves."
Stockton won the tense 58-minute first set in a tie breaker, chasing Connors wide with aggressive first and second serves and boldly attacking Jimmy's service. But Connors got the match's first service break in the second game of the second set, and Stockton's play abruptly flagged. He began hitting one loose shot after another, spraying them around the court's perimeter, and Connors' superior quickness made Stockton look tired and weak. From then on it was all Connors.
The winner got $100,000 for his time, plus a redundant $1,000 wardrobe and a diamond pendant for his lady. The tournament drew record crowds—capacity of 9,000-plus at SMU's Moody Coliseum for the semifinals and finals—and was well handled. The WCT format still leaves a lot to be desired, however. Not all the best players participate in every one of the 12 preliminary tournaments, and some do not participate at all. Bjorn Borg pulled out in January, "breaking a promise," said Hunt. Connors himself had never played in it before. "But I've heard a lot about it," he said grandly. Hunt perked up Jimbo's ears by guaranteeing him $750,000 just for playing in the WCT series. Because Jimmy's WCT earnings after last weekend totaled $258,123 for the year, that meant only $491,877 would have to come out of Hunt's deep pocket.
The WCT's place in the overall confusion of professional tennis' strata and substrata is, nonetheless, hard to fix. Even the players don't seem to have it quite figured out, except when the nitty-gritty is applied. For example, Dibbs, when beaten by Connors in the semis, did not fancy having to stick around for the solitary third-place match on Saturday. He wanted to go home.
"What's the difference, anyway, between third and fourth place?" he asked.
"Eight thousand dollars," he was told.
"I think I'll stay," he said.
Eddie won the $8,000.
Tennis marches on.