Jimmy Connors juggling tennis career, family responsibilities

He has been called tennis champion, punk, maverick, and street fighter rolled into one. When he's up, he struts like a rooster and crows like a bullfinch. When he's down, he grunts and curses like a guttersnipe, wielding his racket switchblade-style toward the crowd. But since one of tennisdom's most notorious bad boys was first ranked No. 1 in the world at age 21 back in 1974, he has given the game more great moments than a dozen pros of lesser flash, fire, and faculty.

And whatever has been said about the man who has bagged more career singles championships (100) than any other, been ranked No. 1 on seven different occasions over a decade (at the moment No. 3 in the world), fans and detractors alike admit he has given his all to the game. And the game is richer -- much richer for his unflagging conviction.

Beyond that, the game has given much to Jimmy Connors, as he gave witness to here in Boston recently -- not the least of which is some mellowing garnered through years of perspective from the court. Speaking quietly with reporters before an exhibition match with Ivan Lendl, he heaped gratitude back on the sport itself, startling some with a politeness not often evident in his on-court incarnation.

He was questioned about how many years he has left in the game, the influence of new family responsiblities, and if he sees a role in tennis for himself beyond that of performer. His answers -- even on such controversial matters as his blowup over this year's U.S. Davis Cup loss in Sweden -- were gentle, accomodating, and articulate.

After 13 years of playing professionally, does he still set goals for himself?

``My days of setting goals and trying to reach for them and meet them and conquer them are probably over,'' he says, standing in jeans and suede jacket before a microphone, hands in his pockets. ``Most of the ones I've set in the past have either been or nearly been accomplished, which is quite good. Now I just go out and play and enjoy the game and the competition.''

Twice a father, and turning 33 next fall, he says his tennis career has a new kind of competition. ``I have three roles to play now -- (1) tennis full time, which I enjoy, (2) I work in the [tennis] business, which I try to get into more and more each day and each year, and (3) I have my family to take care of. So I don't just play the role of a single tennis player anymore. And the travel is a little bit wearying now.''

This three-pronged existence began with his marriage to Patti McGuire in 1979 and the birth of their first child, Brett, a year later. His daughter, Aubree Leigh, was born shortly after his return from this year's Davis Cup matches in G"oteborg, Sweden. Both marriage and family have been an adjustment.

``I enjoy spending time at home. But it was a difficult adjustment to separate my tennis from my family life and vice versa. When I was playing, I could forget about my family, which is a difficult job. And when I was with my family, I could forget about my tennis -- which is just as tough. But once I got organized, I had pretty good success maintaining my concentration on both.''

Although Jimmy's play has picked up somewhat since John McEnroe crushed him 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in last year's Wimbledon final, he has lost two recent matches in straight sets to Lendl -- the Peugeot Invitational in Boston on a fast court that suits Connors's game and at Sanibel Harbour Resort, Fla., in an event he started. Part of his self-diagnosis involves looking for a new racket.

He has had a long association with Wilson Sporting Goods, and for many years brandished the company's metal-framed T-2000 racket. Now however he's betwixt and between on his choice of weapons.

``We're trying to figure out what has to be done for me to get back on the track and win,'' he says. ``I played no tennis for a month and play-tested rackets from mid-sized rackets to the Pro Staff from Wilson and I've also been playing a little tennis with my old racket. Hopefully the right one will turn up as soon as possible.''

He says he is undecided whether, when the time comes, he will play in the age 35-and-over tournaments.

``Maybe occasionally, just to go and see some of the guys that I grew up with. But I always say that if I can't play with the big boys, then I don't want to play. If it gets to the point where the 35s at that time will be just as good as the main circuit, then I might be happy about that.''

At the moment, he and Vitas Gerulaitis are the only players over 30 ranked among the world's top 20.

Jimmy -- or Jimbo as he is affectionately called by some -- has not only been a hard-nosed player, but one who has held up well -- defaulting only twice in his career because of injuries (most recently in the finals of the Chicago Volvo Grand Prix, April 7). How many more years does he expect to play?

``If I played for another two years, play this year and one more year, with the commitment that I'm giving to it right now, it might be enough.''

What are Jimmy's coaching needs these days?

``I've always got a coach, just one coach and that's the one who taught me how to play -- my mom.'' Though he used Pancho Segura as a coach for a time, and once was managed by agent-confidante Bill Riordan before a falling off, he says he never takes a coach on the road.

``As much as they were good in one way, they're not so good in another,'' he says. ``It got to the point where one could can sit there and tell me what to do all day but he could never hit the balls for me. And if [a coach] isn't careful, he can confuse his student.''

There was no personal coach to help Jimmy out of a slump that contributed to Sweden's upset victory over the United States in last December's Davis Cup final.

``We lost. That's about it. While we were there I tried as hard as I could and it didn't work out. It's a bad time of year. I didn't really feel like being in Sweden at the time when my wife was expecting our little girl. I chose to play the year and I've fulfilled my commitment. So we lost and that happens. Nobody's perfect.''

One last question Connors was asked concerned the validity of invitational and exhibition matches, how they differ, if they are important.

``I enjoy playing exhibitions for a number of reasons,'' he says. ``One, the practice is good, if you look at it like that. I come and I play my match as if it's the finals for Wimbledon and the US Open, because it's the way that I'm going to play my matches.

``And also -- if you want to look at it from the other side -- it's a little bit lighter atmosphere. I think the people can come and they realize they can get involved a little more from the stands.

He says the world professional tennis circuit has room for both. ``The real tournaments are the mainstay of the game, and the exhibitions are those to which you come and get good tennis, enjoy it and want to come back again.''

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