On a court tucked in the back at St. Clair Tennis Club in O’Fallon last Sunday, Jimmy Connors peppered 20-year-old Gabi Papachrisanthou with instruction, even as he peppered her with tennis balls from a large basket.
“Move your feet ... get more turn ... feel the ball ... c’mon, c’mon ...” he prodded.
Papachrisanthou, a junior tennis player and nursing student at Saint Louis University, quickly caught on. She sent a forehand hard across the net and scored a direct hit to the posterior of a player who had been ranked among the top 10 in the world for 16 straight years.
She apologized through gritted teeth.
“It’s OK,” he assured her. “You can’t hurt titanium.”
It was a moment straight out of Connors’ own upbringing.
Artificial hips and all, Connors and his brother, John, were teaching Papachristanthou and a few other select local tennis students what his mother and life-long tennis coach taught them.
Keep it simple. Be aggressive. Make no apologies.
It was Gloria Connors, after all, who was so famously quoted by Sports Illustrated in 1978: “I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat and he learned to do this because he found out that if I had the chance I would knock it down his. Yes, sir. And then I would say, ‘You see, Jimbo, you see what even your own mother will do to you on a tennis court?’”
This is where it all started, back here. To have learned to play tennis in this area? I talk to a lot of my friends and they say 'geez, you came out of East St. Louis, Illinois? How is that?
Jimmy Connors doesn’t visit his hometown very often — at least not as much as he did before his mom passed away 10 years ago.
But he was back in Belleville to be inducted into the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame along with the woman that first envisioned, then managed, his record-breaking career. He appears fit at age 64, and his affability contradicts the bad-boy reputation that once made him the "Brash Basher of Belleville."
As he revisited the unlikely chronology that took him from East St. Louis to eight Grand Slam championships, 109 singles titles and 268 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player, one point of emphasis came through with abundant clarity: It all happened because of Gloria Connors and her passion for tennis.
“Mom knew my game backwards and forwards because she gave it to me,” Connors said. “She gave me a woman’s game, taught by a woman to beat men. She was my coach, my mother and my best friend. What she did for us was unthinkable to be honest.”
‘It started here’
The Connors clan was a typical East St. Louis family. Decidedly blue-collar, by no means wealthy, but middle-class enough to help Jimmy and Johnny receive a good education at St. Phillips Catholic Grade School.
“Big Jim” Connors was the son of former East St. Louis Mayor John T. Connors and managed the toll booth on the Eads Bridge. Gloria Connors, who competed in the 1942 and 1943 U.S. Championships, managed the home and taught her sons the sport she loved.
In fact, she began laying out their tennis careers even before her youngest was born.
Still pregnant with Jimmy, Gloria borrowed a construction crew’s grader to clear space for a tennis court in the family’s back yard on North 68th Street in East St. Louis.
“Once that was done she went down and said, ‘Hey, I’ll take all the extra chat that you have from making the concrete.’ So we had a chat tennis court with a makeshift wooden backboard,” Connors recalled with a laugh. “We used it as a bicycle track and as a go-cart track, but if we messed it up, we were back out smoothing it over so we could play tennis.
“Mom would put dinner aside for 20 minutes if we wanted to stay outside and play on that court instead.”
The older son, John, showed plenty of skill on the court, but didn’t have his kid brother’s competitive fire, or as Gloria Connors called it, Jimmy’s “tiger juice.”
A career takes off
The family moved to the west end of Belleville in about 1963. Connors went to Assumption High School his freshman year and to Althoff Catholic the next two.
But his tennis training moved to St. Louis, where his skill would be challenged by better players on the courts of Forest Park, Tower Grove Park and Washington University.
I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat and he learned to do this because he found out that if I had the chance I would knock it down his. Yes, sir.
Gloria Connors, as quoted in Sports Illustrated in 1978
He had that trademark two-handed backhand by the time he was 6. Gloria Connors had sawed off part of the handle of a wooden tennis racket to take some weight off and taught her son to use both hands on his stroke.
It was unconventional then, but Connors and former fiance Chris Evert made it the new standard.
“That was the beginning of it. Chrissy and myself started in the early ’70s with the two-handed backhand and it’s still taking the world by storm,” Connors said. “ Look at the guys who are left with one-handed backhands. Who is that? (Roger) Federer ... (Stan) Wawrinka. Everybody else has a two-handed backhand.
“Go out and figure out who gets the credit. It’s amazing.”
It was on the slick hardwood floors of the Old St. Louis Armory where Connors says he honed the rest of his unconventional style.
“The varnished wood there is so fast and the ball would bounce so low — it sort of skipped. If you played behind the baseline, you were too far (back) and out of luck,” he said. “Mom told me I’d eventually learn to move up and take the ball on more aggressively.
“I played up close to the baseline, caught the ball before the top of the bounce and learned to be very aggressive. It worked sometimes and sometimes it didn’t, but it was an exciting way to play.”
Connors knew he had finally arrived when he was 16. It was the day he beat his mother, whom he still considers to be the toughest competitor and staunchest opponent he ever faced on a tennis court.
“I didn’t think that would ever happen,” he said. “I remember going up to her and saying, ‘Mom, I’m sorry.’ She looked back at me — I remember it like it was yesterday — and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this day.’
“I think she thought at the time that she had given me all that she could and that it was time to go find my own way with someone who could take me to another level.”
So Connors moved with his mother and grandmother — also an avid tennis player — to California where he trained with Ecuadorian Pancho Segura, a three-time U.S. Pro Champion in the 1950s.
So we had a chat tennis court with a make-shift wooden back board. We used it as a bicycle track and as a go-cart track, but if we messed it up we were back out smoothing it over so we couple play tennis.
For all intents and purposes, Connors has been a Californian since. He graduated from high school there, was an NCAA singles champion and All-American as a freshman at UCLA in 1970 and turned professional in 1972.
What’s followed is a steady stream of records and championships accumulated over an unusually long career. Connors won eight Grand Slam championships, five U.S. Opens, four French Opens and two Wimbledon titles.
The original ‘Brat’
Connors also became the poster boy for the so-called “Brat Pack” that turned the staid country-club sport of tennis into a rock-and-roll show.
Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Bjorn Borg and, a little bit later, John McEnroe pumped life into tennis, Connors said, by making their attitudes as much a part of their games as their serve.
“Guys today are all the same, but there were so many great guys in my era,” Connors said. “We’re all individuals off the court but had our own style of tennis and own style of attitude. It was such a great time.
“Would I like to be playing today for that kind of money? Yeah, of course I would. On the other hand, the guys I played with and the era I came through was unbelievable. Nobody told us about any rules then. We were the rules. I say that with no disrespect to anything, but tennis was kind of finding its way.”
Connors himself was the original brat, known to contest a line judge’s ruling with his middle finger and for berating his opponents. And he was polarizing — adored in Flushing Meadows, New York, booed at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London.
He and his contemporaries were just what tennis needed, he said, further suggesting that their antics were calculated.
“I didn’t want to play in front of 2,000 people and $1,500 to the winner,” he said. “My era just happened to have a bunch of guys at the right time who were not afraid to step up and say things and do things. Did we cross the line and do a few bad things? Yes, we did, and boy, was it fun.
“To be honest, all of that didn’t happen by accident.”
Never far from home
Connors had an unusually long career, challenging for his sixth U.S. Open championship when he was 39 years old only to fall to Jim Courier in the semifinals. He’s often referred to that feat as “the greatest 11 days of my life.”
He was ranked in the top 10 worldwide for 16 consecutive years and competed on the ATP Tour until he was 46, though he has never officially retired. Connors was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1998.
Through it all, Connors never forgot about his metro-east upbringing. His 2013 autobiography, “The Outsider,” was so named in part because the hometown and coaches that produced him were so unconventional on the international tennis stage.
My era just happened to have a bunch of guys at the right time who were not afraid to step up and say things and do things. Did we cross the line and do a few bad things? Yes we did and boy was it fun.
“This is where it all started, back here,” he said. “To have learned to play tennis in this area? I talk to a lot of my friends and they say, ‘Geez, you came out of East St. Louis, Illinois? How is that?’”
Though the two met in Los Angeles, his wife of 38 years, 1977 Playboy Playmate of the Year Patty McGuire, grew up just a couple hours away in Dexter, Mo. They have two children — son Brett, 37, is a producer for the Tennis Channel; daughter Aubree, 32, works in marketing and promotions for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The family was often in the metro-east, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. Brett Connors even attended Blessed Sacrament Grade School in Belleville for two years, staying with his grandmother in her Oak Hill home.
Connors could be spotted on the fairways of St. Clair Country Club or working out at his brother’s Kings Point Sports Club.
“Even when I was at my best, I would come back home whenever I had a week off just to train in the heat and humidity,” Connors said. “I never lost a match because I was tired. Never. If you can play tennis here, you can play in just about any condition.”
Gloria Connors traveled extensively to follow her son’s career, but remained dedicated to Belleville, living in the Oak Hill neighborhood on the west end of the city and staying active in Blessed Sacrament Parish and the Poor Clares.
And she was her sons’ most reliable resource until she died in January 2007.
“Everything Mom has given me in my tennis life and life in general makes being back here special,” Jimmy Connors said. “She was a big part of tennis in the area and imparted a lot of kids with her love of the game.”