Flat Boy Jim
I saw tennis as a game for pampered wimps, until the day I watched Jimmy Connors play, on a school trip to a local tennis tournament.
With a mile-high chip on his shoulder, and flat groundstrokes with which he bludgeoned the opposition, Jimbo left an indelible impression on my cocky, working class sensibilities and pretty much changed the direction of my life.
The most striking aspect of the Jimmy Connors ground stroke game was the height of the ball as it crossed the net. Almost every baseline ball that left Jimmy’s racket travelled within a few inches of the net cord, which was (and is) a risky way to play tennis.
But in some ways this weakness of the Jimmy Connors ground strokes was also an enduring strength.
Because Jimmy was applying the same hitting formula to each groundstroke, with little by way of variation or complication. This repetition of a simple stroke, hit at roughly the same height above the net on the majority of forehands and backhands, meant there was less to go wrong than for a more elaborate technical stroke like, say, Rafa’s forehand.
Much was made of the pace of the ball leaving Jimmy Connors’ racket on his groundstrokes. But this was owed to the direct route through contact (which the racket head was made to take) rather than some superior quirk of technique.
If we used a different yardstick and compared the speed of Jimmy’s racket head (rather than the speed of the ball that leaves it) to that of Nadal or Djokovic, there would be no comparison. Against these two players, the Connors groundstroke swings would appear tame, particularly on the forehand. But this too has positive influences: would Connors have played (relatively) injury-free into his forties if he’d used more violent, potentially joint-wearing power swings?
I doubt it.
Jimmy would pierce the defences of the vast majority of players with direct hitting and his hustler’s game plan.
However, problems arose when he came up against the likes of Lendl and Borg, who could match his aggression, cover the baseline like true athletes and, if necessary, wait for the one ball that would surely sail long or catch the top of the net. When Jimmy was on fire he could hit Borg with a bagel set, but this white heat is hard to sustain for an entire match and the consistency of topspun power was already in the ascendency.
When I was at the French Open one time, a serve from Jimmy’s opponent hit Connors plum in the nuts. Quick to garner the attentions of the crowd, Jimmy made good play out of the incident and as Jimbo was hamming it up, an American (in reference to his manhood) shouted from the back of Phillipe Chatrier Court.
‘Is it still there, Jimmy?’
Connors pulled open the top of his shorts and looked inside.
‘Yeah. It’s still there. But it’s kind of all messed up,‘ came his grinning reply.
Knowing how to play to the crowd and get them on his side was something Jimmy became a master at, although the way he won the affections of the crowd had subtle differences in each part of the world.
In France and mainland Europe, he was prone to sexual innuendo, whereas in England his play acting was more muted, and his aggression was given an amiable dressing to suit British politeness and the ruling all-whites club.
However, in America Jimbo’s aggression was allowed to come fully to the boil and the language that occasionally rose up from the court was not something courtside parents would want their kids repeating.
Perhaps the feature that defined the Connors’ game was superb court movement and rarely would you see Jimmy improvise or hit off balance… and if he was forced to lunge, particularly on his return of serve, he’d still manage a perfect contact.
I felt Connors got a bit of a bum deal in Agassi’s Autobiography ‘OPEN’ (a more perinent title for which might’ve been ‘Control’) by labelling him an egomaniac, mainly because many (most?) of those playing at the highest level of individual sports are borderline egomaniacs – it’s par for the course – and Jimmy’s real crime was shamelessly incorporating it into his aura of invincibility.
Also, when you get to the top of the sporting money tree, you’re pretty much surrounded by fawning people, who rarely challenge, question or contradict – certainly not while they’re on the payroll, or there’s money to be made from being associated with ‘the talent’ – which is not a good enviroment for the forming of wholesome personalities.
Owing to his part in what could be described as tennis’ Golden Age, Jimmy Connors’ Autobiography – The Outsider – had massive potential.
Sadly it turned out to be a disappointment and I didn’t even finish it.
And although there’s a good story to be got from every sporting life, the trick is getting the right tone – hitting the right key for the subject matter – and for me, Jimmy’s book was way off pitch in both tone and substance.
There were also jaw-dropping generalisations:
I’m not denying the greatness of guys like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, but some of the other players have reached exceptional levels of expertise that they wouldn’t have attained without technology unavailable to my generation. … Today players are given every opportunity to advance in the game without having to know the basic fundamentals and technique, like using your imagination, working the whole court to your advantage, and shot-making skills. The players today are all taught to play the same way, with power being the main objective. The new equipment allows them the luxury of playing one way, and getting by with that.
This statement is just plain wrong. For those with eyes to see, it serves best as an(other) illustration of why the best players often make the worst communicators and coaches, and the bright spark who first suggested him to be Andy Roddick’s coach in the noughties, couldn’t have made a less pertinent choice (in both personality and technique).
I ran into an old school friend recently. He too had been on those school trips to tennis tournaments, organised by our old maths teacher back in the day.
He tells the story of how, at a grass court tournament in Nottingham, Jimmy let all the kids from our school sit in his car and on the bonnet.
And on learning that a sulky Roscoe Tanner had refused to sign my friend’s autograph book (he’d just lost a match), Jimmy sent one of the court attendants to find him – ‘tell him I want him’ – and when Roscoe appeared, Connors instructed him to sign.
Needless to say that, had my friend grown up to face Jimmy across a net, the ego would kick in and a very different story would unfold.