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June 27, 2013

Men's tennis today isn't all `peaches and cream'

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Tennis fans today are treated to the exceptional talents of players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. It’s hard to believe that there could ever be players with more ability.   

When these men play each other in a grand slam tournament it is likely to be a slugfest. All four are the consummate competitors and sportsmen, respectful of opponents, umpires and linesmen alike. Who could ask for more?

Unfortunately, the state of men’s tennis today isn’t all peaches and cream. One of the problems is that the game lacks variety. Due chiefly to technology, most players just stand back at the baseline and pound away at the ball. Coming to the net and volleying has become a lost art. Thirty to 40 years ago when wood racquets and early metal composites were in vogue, successful players had to have an all-around game. Tennis was the ultimate chess match and it was fascinating to watch.

The game also had “personalities” back then. The “bad boys” of tennis like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase were constantly berating umpires and linesmen, and sometimes mixing it up with opponents and fans as well. Love them or hate them they always put on a show. They also helped put professional tennis on the map.

It’s not surprising that the 1970s and ‘80s were known as the “golden age” of tennis. It was the era that transformed the sport from its stuffy country club status to the mainstream, highly popular status that it holds today. The volatile personalities and intense rivalries had a lot to do with the explosion in prize money and widespread television coverage. Most of the players were still true gentlemen, but the “bad boys” added some spite to the product.

The most fascinating “bad boy” of all was Jimmy Connors. Of all the controversial figures in the sport he had the longest career and the most ups and downs. In 1974, at the age of 21, he won three grand slam titles and probably would have captured the fourth (the French Open) if the sport’s hierarchy hadn’t conspired to keep him out. At the time, it was hard to believe anyone could unseat him as the king of tennis.

McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and others eventually caught up to Connors and he became just a part of a talented group of top players. He won four more U.S. Open titles and captured a second Wimbledon title eight years after his first. Despite an injury-plagued decade in the 1980s he made a stirring run to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open in 1991 just as he turned 39.

But winning and being No. 1 were just part of Connors’ legacy. He also had more “incidents” on court than any player in history. He once called an umpire an “abortion.” He once raced to the other side of the court to erase the mark of a ball that was called good but might have been out. He loved to trash talk with opponents, especially McEnroe, and, by his own estimation, was hated by about 99 percent of the media.

On the plus side, you could not find a better competitor. He simply never gave up. In that memorable 1991 U.S. Open he came back from two-sets, 3-0 down to beat a player 14 years his junior (Patrick McEnroe) in five sets in the opening round.

Connors is the only player I ever saw who had the ability to break concentration between points. He could banter with the crowd and then be locked in once the next ball was in play. Most players are steel-faced and tortured while playing. Connors thoroughly enjoyed himself on the court. He didn’t care if you rooted for or against him just so long as you were there.

Connors has just written his memoir not surprisingly called “The Outsider.” It is an honest and straightforward autobiography, exactly what you would expect from him. If you thought he was an obnoxious jerk before reading the book you’ll still think he’s an obnoxious jerk after finishing it. The only difference is that you will realize he wears the moniker as a badge of honor. He is who he is.

Connors covers everything about his career and how he came to be the “outsider.” It’s easy to understand after you read about his upbringing in East St. Louis, Ill. He comes from the exact opposite of the country club set that tennis has always been associated with. There’s little wonder why Connors carried a chip on his shoulder throughout his career.

He also talks about his off-the-court antics and romances. He was once engaged to tennis great Chris Evert but both soon realized their personalities didn’t mesh. Not surprising for a superstar athlete he married a Playmate of the Year, Patti McGuire, but atypical to most celebrity marriages this one worked. They’re still together after 33 years.

Connors doesn’t shy away from his gambling problems or the many family issues he faced. He talks about the pain of overcoming his many injuries and the difficulty of facing life once he retired from the tour. If he has a soft side it’s with the many dogs he has owned over the years. They provided great therapy for him when he was really down.

You may or may not like Connors, but his memoir is an absolute delight. You not only get an insight into his life and how the sport evolved, but why he became and enjoyed being a rebel. He may have been obnoxious, but he was also entertaining. Tennis wouldn’t be where it is today without him.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at