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Connors conquered with intensity

Thursday, June 14
Updated: April 4, 9:53 AM ET
Nobody's Favorite
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sep. 25, 1974.

He wears a Prince Valiant haircut and has a baby-soap complexion -- Little Boy Blue on center court.

But underneath is a street kid's face, alert, eyes darting, ever on the lookout for the cops, a crap game or a hubcap.

And he's the best tennis player in the whole-cotton picking universe.

There are those who would equate this with the news that Paris was burning or the dam at Johnstown was beginning to crack. James Scott Connors is about as popular in the world of tennis as a double fault. As one promoter said, "Nobody is neutral about Jimmy Connors. You either dislike him -- or you hate him."

He dispatches opponents with a kind of impersonal contempt that is kind of obscene in a 22-year-old who looks as if he should still be collecting autographs. What 's worse, he seems to win on sheer cussedness. His serve isn't big. He has a girlish two-handed backhand. He's not overpowering, just relentless. He's great for the same reasons Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson were great. He's getting even with the world.

For what is not clear. He was born with a silver racket in his mouth. Mother was a champion of sorts. He's going to marry another champion. He never had to play with an old beat-up set of balls or an unstrung racket. He had the best teachers, the best equipment.

He has never let anything interfere with tennis. College didn't take. His hobbies include beating 39-year-old Aussies and betting on the horses. He treats newspapermen as if they were 10th-seeded human beings. You might describe him -- euphemistically -- as "cocky."

He seems to flourish in an aura of antipathy. The more hostile a crowd gets, the better he plays. the redder he makes the umpire's neck, the steadier his own game becomes.

No one jumps the net to congratulate him. There are some people who can beat you and make you smile. Connors, somehow, seems to rub it in.

You take the other night at the Pacific Southwest, where he was winning this third major tournament and 20th straight match. His opponent was a ball-boy sized player named Harold Solomon. Solomon is like a Labrador. He retrieves shots, he doesn't make them. His game is supposed to be 40-volley points. He just keeps hitting the ball back at your feet till you get bored.

Connors probably could have -- and should have -- mercifully and quickly killed him off by rushing the net. He preferred to do it like pulling the wings out of a canary. He played Solomon's game. Only when he tired of the sport did he move in for the kill. He teased the crowd into hoping for a miracle, then dashed their hopes.

At Wimbledon, the British treated him as if he had asked the queen to hold his coat. With Connors, it is not even necessary to have proximity. He can raise the hackles on your neck at 100 paces. You half-expect people walking by on the street to start shaking their fists at him. I was perched on the rim of the Los Angeles Tennis Club the other night, determinedly neutral, in fact, secretly admiring someone who was good and was damned if he was going to be modest about it.

By the third game, my teeth were as on edge as everyone else's, and my face was flushed. I began to mutter, "Damned left-handers! How can any normal man be expected to play them? They should have tournaments of their own."

A moment later, he put one of his two-handed backhanders down the line for a point. I took it personally. I was insulted. "Two-handers!?" I screamed. "Don't they have wrists anymore? Bill Tilden would cover his eyes! That's like skating on double runners !"

On the court, Connors scowled at the umpire. I was livid. "Call that a scowl?" I raged. "As a scowl, I don't make that one-two with Pancho Gonzales. Now, THERE was a scowl! This kid is just learning!"

It didn't do any good. As usual. Connors won sweetly, and almost without touching the income of his talent. He beat Solomon after giving Solomon his best shot. Almost like sticking his chin out and saying, "Hit it, I dare you!"

In the locker room afterward, I was surprised to see the horns didn't show. Connors was not affable, but just a 22-year-old who plays his sport better than anyone else.

Did he consciously cultivate this aura of hostility? he was asked. Connors shrugged. "They're gonna have to cheer for me sooner or later." Is it an act then? Another shrug. "Everyone who plays tennis is an actor."

The thing is, not everyone picks a part for Lon Chaney.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.