Tennis champion and metro-east native Jimmy Connors was back home recently to be inducted into the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame.
But he seized on the occasion to take a long weekend and train with a select few local players who are coached by his brother John, a teaching pro in the metro-east.
On a court tucked in the back of St. Clair Tennis Club in O’Fallon, the real-life sports legend swapped volleys, shared laughs with young players he says represent the future of tennis.
“It’s always good to hit with the future of the game,” said Connors, 64. “These kids today ... oh my God. It takes me back. I wish I was 14, 15, 16 again and have that kind of energy and excitement and love for the game.
“I still love the game — don’t get me wrong — but, boy, at that age it’s something special.”
Connors worked out with four of his brother’s students: Saint Louis University junior Gabi Papachrisanthou and her cousin Niko Papachrisanthou, a sophomore at O’Fallon High School, as well as O’Fallon sophomore Miley Brunner and Belleville East junior Isabel Burwitz.
That's why I like doing this with the kids. Maybe one of them will walk out of here and become the star U.S. Tennis needs.
The four earned the privilege of hitting with the Tennis Hall of Famer because of the passion they have for the game as much as for their physical talent.
“Every time my brother comes through town he’ll say ‘who are you working with that’s really passionate about the game?’ That’s the key to him,” John Connors said. “He loves doing this more than anything because he knows these kids are the future of tennis.
“They’ve worked hard and earned this opportunity to come out and hit with him, but I think he’s enjoying it more than they are.”
Connors, 64, would like to see more of that kind of passion for tennis in the United States. He says the American game could use more players the likes him, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.
“There are the Williams sisters, you have a host of international stars. I’d like to see more American stars to be honest with you. We’re building great stadiums at the U.S. Open and spending hundreds of millions putting roofs on them so we can showcase foreign talent.
“That’s why I like doing this with the kids. Maybe one of them will walk out of here and become the star U.S. Tennis needs.”
Connors coached 2003 U.S. Open Champion and three-time Wimbeldon finalist Andy Roddick. Would he take on another protege to jump-start the game domestically?
“If the right situation came along, I might be interested,” he said. “I’m not looking for a job and I’m (almost) 65 years old.”“
Niko Papachrisanthou, who plans to continue his player career in college, learned a lot about Connors from his 2013 autobiography “The Outsider.” Having all been born after his career ended, though, the other young players didn’t know much about their guest instructor, only that he was a legend.
“Not everybody gets to hit with a previous No. 1 in the world,” said Burwitz, who shares the No. 1 singles spot at East. “It’s a dream come true.
“He ran my butt off. It was nuts.”
Connors won eight grand slam titles, five U.S. Open championships, Wimbeldon titles in 1974 and ’82, and the Australian Open in 1974.
Not everybody gets to hit with a previous No. 1 in the world. It's a dream come true.
Isabel Burwitz, Belleville East junior
His 109 singles titles remain a record as were his 160 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1.
“It was amazing. There was so much I can’t even explain all of it,” said Brunner during a break. “It’s been a great experience. The way he talks is very inspirational and all he’s done, it really hits you.”
Gabi Papachrisanthou, whose career at SLU awaits eligibility clearance due to a transfer from Quincy University, has had the chance to hit with Connors once before.
Training with a legend, she says, is an experience that never goes stale.
“He was the best in the world so it’s awesome just to hear his advice and put it in my game,” she said.