Need pro tennis stars? Mrs. Connors: 'Just whistle'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One of the newest -- and most unlikely -- entrepreneurs in professional sports is Gloria Connors, mother of tennis's tempestuous star, Jimmy. She recently launched her own career as a tournament management consultant.

For many years, it was Gloria and Jimmy against the tennis establishment. As she puts it, "Jimbo and I stood alone for a long time." Jimmy was among a handful of players who rejected membership in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the players' union. He was adamant about going it alone. "I'm the best," professed Connors, parroting Muhammad Ali.

Bjorn Borg has assumed that spot in recent years, of course, and John McEnroe is up there challenging for top honors, too, but Jimmy does still hold the No. 2 spot in the ATP rankings for 1979 and remains a big drawing card for any tournament that can get him.

Recommended: Jimmy Connors: 12 things I learned from Connors memoir 'The Outsider'

Getting "name" players has become the key problem these days for tournament directors, many of whom are finding it more and more difficult to entice local sponsors because of the unpredictability of the top-ranked competitors. Except for traditional events such as Wimbledon and the US Open, they play, for the most part, when it's convenient for them. As a result, many tournaments have found that they have too few of the top 10 players. And tennis fans, like sports fans everywhere, want to see the best.

Enter the former Gloria Thompson of East St. Louis, Ill., who, with her large framed glasses and high-pitched voice, resembles actress Eve Arden of "Our Miss Brooks" fame. As president of Tennis Management Inc., of St. Louis, Mrs. Connors has begun saying, in effect, to tournament directors, "If you'll let me help manage your tournament, I'll guarantee that you'll have a few of the top 10 players at your event."

Her first customer is the Longwood Cricket Club, situated a few miles west of Boston in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Longwood, the second oldest tennis club in America, will again host the US Pro Tennis Championship July 14-20.

Longwood came to Mrs. Connors because of its difficulty in attracting big-name players the last two years. The 1979 event -- won by Spain's Jose Higueras -- was a financial setback for the club, which hasn't revealed publicly how much money it lost.

Mrs. Connors promised a financial recovery by announcing, at a recent press conference, that she had signed both her son and 10th-ranked Eddie Dibbs to compete in the tournament. "I'm going to the French Open to try to sign up more players," she added.

She also said, humorously, that had she been retained earlier she might have been able to persuade Borg -- a three-time US Pro titlist -- to postpone his wedding, scheduled for the week of July 14. For, as she says, "I always like to get my two cents in."

Yes, she does. She ran her first tournament at age 12, became the national 18-and-under champion at 17, married, started teaching Jimmy when he was three, and took him from Illinois to California to be tutored by the two Panchos, Gonzales and Segura. After Jimmy had a falling-out with promoter Bill Riordan, who had been operating as his adviser, Mrs. Connors took her son under her wing again.

Her firm, which she runs with her other son, Johnny, was founded in 1977 to promote Jimmy. Asked whether she sees any possible conflict of interest in her new work, she replied, "Jimmy Connors doesn't have anything to do with running Tennis Management. He's just a client. He tells us what he wants and, since he's a man, I listen. He doesn't do everything I tell him to do."

Mrs. Connors will manage other tournaments this year, but mum's the word right now. "I'm not at liberty to tell you," she said. Silence is as uncharacteristic of her, however, as it is of Jimmy. "I get so excited about tennis," Mrs. Connors explained, "that Jimmy has to tell me to 'cool it' sometimes."

As she prepared to leave pristine Longwood, she turned to the chairman of the US Pro, Charles Keller, and said, "As I tell my boys, if you want me, just whistle."

It remains to be seen how many other tournament chairmen, dreaming of box office successes, will soon be whistling Mrs. Connors's tune.

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