Opinion

Jimmy Connors, One Mother’s Love, and the American Spirit

connorsMothers, and the spirit they imbue, are a life force. Jimmy Connors, the world’s former top tennis player, tweeted last week – about his mother. She died 12 years ago. He still misses her. By all accounts, she broke the mold. She is the one who imbued in him that love of tennis, outsize skills (she was a player), his “tiger” fight, can-do, and never-quit attitude. Her love was undying, loyalty unbroken, and resolve uncommon. No wonder he misses her.

In 1982, I was in college. A bad tennis player myself, I recall Connors’ tenacity. He won Wimbledon in 1974 – but seemed old by 1982. Nearly 30, his peak was 1974 to 1978. He reached the US Open finals five times, won 3. He got to Wimbledon finals four times, won once. He was a legend – but in retreat.

Youngsters were rising, like Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl – all in ascendance. Connors was gutsy, but everyone knew: No one wins Wimbledon after an eight-year drought. Borg, four years younger, won Wimbledon 1976 to 1980. McEnroe, six years younger, won in 1981. Lendl never won. Pete Sampras, who later won, was ten. Roger Federer, future legend, was a year old. In 1982, Connors was the old man of tennis.

Never mind. He was taught “age is just a number” and “attitude is everything.” Tigers never shrink. Nor did Jimmy Connors that year. On grit, Catholic faith, and frothy fortitude – with his mother’s ceaseless coaching, Connors made Wimbledon finals in 1982, eight years after winning. In the history of Wimbledon, that was a first.

His foe was the future “bad boy of tennis” John McEnroe, who made Connors’ antics look tame. If Connors, working-class, tough kid from “across the tracks,” was a rough cut, got in the face of opponents, had a slashing two-arm backhand – taught by his mother – McEnroe was the ultimate, arrogant rival.

The match was epic. The dual between two Americans occurred on Independence Day, July 4th. They met on British soil, putting America’s never-die-spirit on display. Like the best Superbowl, World Series, or 1980 battle for US Olympic hockey gold, the day was memorable.

Here is why – and why one mother’s love can make all the difference. Connors was never told he could quit. He was never told quitting was an option, even down or facing elimination, past your prime and old for the game. Instead, he was told dig deep, dig deeper, find a way. That was his mother’s influence. Her name was Gloria.

The young McEnroe was cocky and merciless. Connors lost the first set, 6-3. He got the second 6-3 but then lost the third 7-6. Refusing to give up, he found himself down 3-4 in the fourth, struggling. If he lost the set, the match was over. He was done. The tension was palpable; I recall watching on television.

His mother taught him: Leave it all on the court – everything. A gentleman off-court, Connors was often irritable, intemperate, agitated, and animated on the court. He was a maverick – before tennis permitted mavericks. He could be a bulldog – and was that day.

Down in that fourth set, close to elimination – being beaten by the world’s Number One player, who was six years his junior, Connors turned on his crazy magic. He summoned America’s never-say-die spirit, the spirit his mother taught him. Age did not matter. Go for broke. Make it happen. I recall watching mesmerized.

Connors refused to quit. He concentrated, staving off disaster to put a fourth set in his column, 7-6. Then came the hard-bitten fifth set. Connors focused, rallied, refused to lose, struggled for the edge. Two Americans slammed the ball at each other, rifle shots back and forth, fractions off the net. Neither bent, neither broke, neither gave in, gave up, or flinched. The British crowd was entranced.

The power of the moment was akin to the last minutes of an Olympic marathon, final seconds of a nail-biter. No one had ever won Wimbledon after eight dry years. In tennis, that is a century.
In the hard-fought fifth, Connors struggled. He missed points, double-faulted serves, recovered, resumed pace, and eventually put McEnroe – the world’s top player – away, 6-4. The moment was electric because it was so unexpected.

Nor did that end Connors’ tennis career. Incredibly, an aging Connors went on – to win the US Open in 1982, again in 1983, falling to McEnroe at Wimbledon in finals 1984. Connors ended his career with eight “grand slam” victories, only retiring in 1996 at age 43.

So, perhaps – with love of family, old fashioned faith, a mother’s resolve to imbue the American spirit in her son, and an irrepressible will to confront challenges head-on – we can, on occasion, make age “just a number,” outdistance expectations, produce big things when few expect them.

To be clear, Connors’ lifelong coach was a legendary woman, the same he misses 12 years after her passing – his extraordinary mother. How lucky he was – and how lucky we all are, who have had such a parent. His mother made him an inveterate fighter, unwilling to give up, and the world champion he became. He would be the first to say so. Mothers, and the spirit they imbue, are a life force. That is what Connors’ recent tweet reminds us – be grateful, be determined, and never say never.

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