Thank You, Jimmy Connors

I was first introduced to the game of tennis when I was four years old. The racket was nearly as tall as I was. My father’s brother had been a Chicago city champ as a teenager so that is where the idea came from to develop me into something of a tennis phenom. Fortunately, the game enthralled me from the outset. No parental pressure was necessary to keep me motivated. I practiced every chance I got even if that meant simply hitting against a backboard hour after hour. At the age of eight I was entering local tournaments. All four years I played on the varsity high school team. Upon graduating from high school I had been at the game for fourteen years and had become an exceptionally mediocre player. My real talent lay in breaking rackets. I was very good at that. When my father refused to buy me any more rackets I quit playing. He suggested I take up handball.

“You’ve only got two hands, son. Break both of them if you like but I’m not buying you any more,” he said.

Still, I remained a fan of tennis and followed the prowess of the professional players throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Jimmy Connors was, is and always will be my favorite. Round about the age of eleven Connors became a student of a highly respected coach at the time named Poncho Segura. Segura didn’t take on many students. He was very selective. Years later he recalled his first impressions of Connors saying something along the lines of the following…

“The young boy had talent, of course. But he was not as talented as many of my other students. What impressed me the most about him, however, was that he never gave up on a shot. He refused to concede a point. He would dive for balls with total disregard for his own well-being. He never quit and that’s what I admired most about him.”

In 1982 I stopped working, sold what possessions I could and set off to travel around the world. I wasn’t nearly as concerned with finding myself as I was with losing myself. Recent history had recorded the demise of my marriage and my father. The thrill of doing improv comedy in the night clubs around Chicago had begun to wane and my dreams of becoming an accomplished writer were steadily evaporating.

The cheapest flight I could book landed me in Brussels. From there I headed straight to Paris, checked into a transient hotel near the Latin Quarter and walked around that glorious museum of a city fifteen hours a day for two weeks. I’d have stayed longer if it hadn’t been so damn cold. So, I moved south through Italy and onto Greece where I eventually washed ashore on an island called Patmos not far from west coast of Turkey. I met an interesting elderly American writer named Robert Lax. We soon developed an affinity for one another that was to continue for the next seventeen years. I also developed an affinity of a different nature with an enchanting young French girl that lasted…well, it lasted less than seventeen years but it lasted long enough to instill memories that were well cherished.

From Athens I flew to Bombay arriving at 3 AM. The next thirty-six hours were a kaleidoscope of the most bizarre, yet fascinating, images I had ever seen in my life. There just ain’t any place on the planet like India! I had planned to travel around there for three months but after six weeks the joint had beaten me up bad. I lost fifteen pounds and was beginning to waste away muscle mass. Two young German men had talked glowingly about a small island in the Gulf of Siam called Koh Samui. So, next stop…Bangkok. Good food, gracious people, lovely young women and all very affordable. There wasn’t much not to like about Bangkok in those days.

A week later I was ensconced in a wooden, palm-thatched bungalow upon the glorious pristine shores of Koh Samui. My neighbors were a young Swiss couple named Roland and Claire. Samui was little known then other than by back-packers. It was a veritable paradise. The Swiss couple and I became good friends. We smoked lots of ganja, ate magic mushroom omelets and banana pancakes, spent hours drifting on the gentle swell of the bay in large inner tubes as colorful little fish frolicked around us and enjoyed many good laughs together. For two months I rarely spent more than five dollars a day. I actually thought about spending the rest of my life there. Then one morning the bungalow restaurant television aired a replay of the Wimbledon men’s championship between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. By that time McEnroe was the number one ranked men’s tennis player in the world. I don’t know where Connors was ranked and I don’t think he did either. All he knew was that he wasn’t ranked #1. He had once remarked that being ranked #2 was of little difference to him than being ranked #200. He only wanted to be the best and for many years he was. Being second or third best was of no consequence to him.

In 1982 McEnroe was the reigning Wimbledon champion having finally ended Bjorn Borg’s dominance of that tournament the year before. He was heavily favored to retain the title by defeating Connors. In the early stages of the match it looked as if he was going to do just that. Connors was down and appeared out-classed…out-classed in terms of his tennis skills, that is. He was never out-classed with regard to his fighting spirit. As I lounged in a bamboo chair nursing a pineapple milkshake and toking on a Thai stick Connors began to stage one of the most remarkable displays of human resilience I had ever seen in an athletic event. I watched in awe as he dove for shots, chased every ball and poured out so much energy that one felt there was nothing left in reserve. But, Connors always had more even if he had to generate it as he went along. Towards the end it seemed as if McEnroe was in awe of Connors…as if he couldn’t believe Connors was still there. When Connors finally triumphed I snuffed out the Thai stick and returned to my Spartan bungalow where I sat gazing out upon the gently undulating bay. A gently undulating bay that was far more placid than the thoughts aroused by Mr. Connors performance. Following a particularly challenging match years earlier Connors was in a trainer’s room receiving a therapeutic massage. His bad-boy buddy from Romania, Ilie Nastase, paid him a visit. Nastase was an excellent tennis player blessed with more natural talent than Connors. Their brief exchange went something like this: