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Between The Lines
May 12, 1997 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
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Just What Is The Nuveen Tour?

Jimmy Connors is tennis' Frank Sinatra. He is the Chairman of the Board, the embodiment of "My Way" who has made it big in New York and spent his life waking up in a world where the tennis never sleeps. Like Sinatra, he has gone from brash young kid to wise old man. What was once a bawdy punk has become a familiar institution.

Watching him stride into Riviera Country Club last month for the Coopers & Lybrands Championship, his Nuveen Tour's Los Angeles stop, I saw first-hand dozens of familiar scenes witnessed by thousands of tennis fans around the world. And yet because it is Connors those events remain compelling.

Here comes Jimbo, on his way to practice. A circle of fans hovers around him. Always it's the ladies who come by, the older, doting, zesty ones who admire Connors less for his sex appeal and more for his spunk.

"Jimmy, I saw you in Boston in '73, when you beat Stan Smith," says one. "Boy, that's when I could move," he responds.

"Jimmy, loved your match with Krickstein at the Open. I was there."

"Wasn't that something?"

"Jimmy, how's your mom?"

"She's fine. Now how's every little thing with you?"

He's milling, he's gripping, he's grinning. Pose for a photo? No problem. Autograph the racket cover of a T-2000? You got it, pal. Greetings from a mutual friend? How the heck is Dr. Smith? Give him my best, would you please?

In 1977, Connors stormed out of Forest Hills after losing a U.S. Open final. Today, he has become a committed entertainer, a guy who gets a thrill out of making somebody's day. Cameras click. More autograph seekers. "So nice to see you ladies," he says. In this corner, tennis' once and future king. No one in tennis history has so evoked Ali, Elvis, Vegas, the entourage, the private jet, the quick getaway -- all the while never leaving the building of tennis.

It's continually intoxicating to watch Jimmy Connors hit tennis balls. Whether in practice or during a match, he remains exemplary in his footwork, body movement and ability to drive the ball with spectacular pace, depth and repetition. No one in the sport's history has been able to squeeze more out of 30 minutes on a court than Jimmy Connors. "On the tour I used to practice with Boris Becker and he'd take 20 minutes just to get started," says John Lloyd, "You hit with Jimmy, and in about two minutes you're moving -- or else."

"A few up," Connors says to Andres Gomez. As the two start playing points, and the sound crew checks the P.A. system by softly playing "Just My Imagination" and "The Girl From Ipanema," the feeling is sublime. I suppose this is how it feels for baseball fans during spring training.

The Nuveen Tour is built on a cozy blend of nostalgia, corporate entertainment and friendly competition. Connors is the marquee player, a reality which highlights just how dominant he was in his prime. While Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe have participated in numerous tour events, neither was present in Los Angeles. Moreover, the introverted persona of both the Swede and the tempestuous southpaw have made it difficult for either to become fully integrated into the Nuveen Tour sensibility. No enthused admirers hover around McEnroe. No queries about matches gone by. He signs autographs perfunctorily. At sponsor parties, he dresses up and works the crowd with all the awkwardness of an adolescent implored to chat with his grandparents.

His Pro-Am attendance is sporadic. Don't even think about seeing him give a clinic. He also admits that to compete successfully on what he calls the "Dinosaur Tour," that "I'd have to put in a lot more conditioning work."

Away from tennis, his time is spread quite thin between his family, art gallery and broadcasting work.

As for Borg, what can you say about tennis' Rip Van Winkle? Once upon a time he was the Teen Angel, the man with "ice in his stomach" who amazingly won five straight Wimbledons. And then, barely stopping to say goodbye, he vanished. Now, he is kind, and gently grateful for the chance to play. But there is also a ghostly quality to his presence, a subdued kind of fatalism that makes you wonder which rumor about what part of his life is true and when we'll see a tragic headline. Money problems? Girlfriends? Drugs? So much tennis, so much sadness and sorrow hovers over Borg that it's hard to imagine him being anything more than an intermittent part of this tour.

For sponsors and their clients, each Nuveen Tour event is a nice, long weekend of clinics, pro-ams and parties. In many cases, it's also possible for the general public to participate in these events. But in a peculiar way, the sponsor-dominated aura around the Nuveen Tour is a throwback to tennis' pre-Open era, when tournaments were held at intimate clubs for small, patrician audiences. It's hard to believe that more than 20 percent of the attendees in LA forked over their own money for their seats. After all, a Big Six public accounting firm like Coopers & Lybrand is justifiably more concerned with giving its clients and prospects a good time than selling tickets to masses tennis players. But for those members of a sponsor family, it's a wonderful time.

"That, my friend, is truly magnificent," says Yannick Noah to a club player who's just hit a winner during the Pro-Am.

"I can't believe you got away with that," laughs John Lloyd to a member of Team Lloyd.

"Move your butt," says Mel Purcell to a club player good enough to know that he should indeed heed Purcell's advice.

On another court, a club player is practicing against SAM, a $25,000 ball machine that can hit every shot known to man. SAM's a frequent part of Nuveen Tour events, and on this day, the player is getting a private lesson from Gene Mayer on his volleys.

"This tour is a mulligan," says Connors, a telling reference to the passion he shows for tennis' sporting rival, golf.

The competition has an erratic quality to it, a puzzling mix of entertainment and intensity. When Connors takes the court, high-quality tennis is guaranteed. In a quarterfinal versus Mansour Bahrami, the 44-year-old Jimbo proved what makes him so great. Bahrami, a talented shotmaker who's brought heavy doses of the Harlem Globetrotters to the tour, repeatedly dropshotted Connors. Time after time, Jimbo would scamper into the net, play great volleys and put away overheads. From the backcourt, Connors yanked Bahrami into one corner after another, grinding him into the dirt.

"I never left the tennis," says Connors. "I went right from the ATP Tour to this tour, so I was able to stay at a high quality level."

But there's something else brewing it up: Connors' intense desire to relentlessly prove himself to people. Unlike McEnroe, who comes from a relatively affluent background and has never really sought to prove himself to anyone, the upwardly mobile Connors has spent his whole career mugging for the camera and wagging his finger. Tennis has been his way of making up for social slights. By continuing to play to appreciative crowds long past the time when people thought he could still compete, Connors is basically admonishing anyone who doubts him.

And yet even Jimbo lets down his guard on this tour. With Bahrami serving at 3-5 in the second set, Connors hit six overheads on one point. Bahrami continued lobbing, and on the seventh point, Connors merely caught the ball to hand over the point. Other times, Connors imitated John McEnroe's service motion, did "my Pete Sampras imitation" (pretending to vomit) and carried on a running banter with the crowd. On a changeover, he leaned into the seats and chatted with his friend, actor Lloyd Bridges. While we've come to expect lots of this from Connors, and none of the results are fixed, the impact is one of a highly-choreographed presentation. Naturally, Connors beat Bahrami, and went on to win the tournament two nights later versus Johan Kriek.

It's those moments when Connors is not on the court that make me wonder about the tour's long-term viability. In many cases, the tennis is quite good. John Lloyd, Mel Purcell and Andres Gomez are just a few of the Nuveen Tour players who've cranked up their level of intensity to show Jimbo they have what it takes not just to amuse, but to win. Kriek still has that rollercoaster ability to hit a shot like Rod Laver on one point, and Mrs. Laver on the next one. Tim Wilkison remains the poor man's Jimbo, a tenacious grinder who'll willingly fling himself into the dirt. Gomez has been exceptionally motivated, repeatedly beating McEnroe and emerging as the leading threat to Connors' reign.

But other players, bless their kind and friendly souls, are clearly in this tour for a few extra bucks, a chance to cozy up to corporate types and the entertainment value. Peter Fleming looked woefully out of shape in his loss to Wilkison. Yannick Noah, a wonderful human but never the best stroker of the ball, may give a great show but is clearly not concerned with his results.

What all this adds up to is a tour filled with entertainment, but missing the brand of intensity and desire which makes athletic competition truly compelling. In other words, there is little on the line in these events -- and that, as all of these world-class athletes knows, is precisely what drove them to perform their best during their careers. No matter how much the Nuveen Tour means to his pride, no match Connors plays will have as much at stake for him as his U.S. Open finals against Borg or his Wimbledon finals versus McEnroe. "I'm going to follow that son of a bitch to the ends of the earth," Jimbo said after losing the '78 Wimbledon final to Borg. Watch a tape of his successful payback effort at that year's Open and you'll see he was't joking. But now, as Borg puts it, "It's not the end of the world when you lose." The same holds true for all Nuveen Tour players. Those prior days were the real resume-builders. As good as it to see Borg smile, or God knows, McEnroe chat with fans, one knows they can emotionally afford to do so because no Nuveen Tour match will affect their legacy a single iota.

Perhaps more would be on the line if there were qualifying events for 35-and-over players. The tour has done this on a limited basis in doubles, but my feeling is that if the tour truly wants a competitive event it should expand the draw from 12 to 16 and stage a feed-in singles qualifying in each city that would give four players a chance to play.

Tour officials contend that the box office appeal of a local contender is minimal. But since most of the seats are already funneled through sponsors, what's the point of that anyway? And are you telling me that a Kriek-Wilkison matchup will really fuel ticket sales? Why not try the "Rocky Balboa, local contender" angle? This is exactly what's made senior golf so compelling.

For now, the Nuveen Tour is trying it both ways -- Harlem Globetrotters and the NBA. So long as Connors, the Chairman of the Board, can provide a ring-a-ding time, they might well pull it off. And who knows if he'll ever stop? F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that there are no second acts in American lives. Connors would probably tell Fitzgerald exactly where he could shove that remark. Connors has been living one encore after another for more than two decades. However much people want to tell him the end is near, as long as he can please his people and run down a few balls, he'll continue doing it his way. Perhaps the end will never come, and the Rat Pack he's created will continue digging new holes.

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1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2002 | 2003 - 2007

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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.

Joel's background includes 25 years as a player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado, Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San Diego Reader.


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