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Monday, May 13, 2013
Jimmy Connors: 'The Outsider'

By Jimmy Connors

Chapter 7: Love Game

A week before the Queen's Club tournament in June 1972, I attended an official dinner to celebrate the US team's victory in the Wightman Cup. They had defeated the British 5-2 in a contest played that year at Wimbledon. One of the US team members was Wendy Overton, a friend of mine and a top-10 doubles player, who needed a date for the dinner and asked if I could go.

I probably wasn't very good company for Wendy that evening, though, because all through the meal I couldn't take my eyes off cute, young Chris Evert across the way. I knew who she was -- Mom and I had caught a ride to Coral Gables with Chris and her parents back in 1965 -- and I wanted to get to know her better. I would glance over at her table and see her smiling at me, or I would try and catch her eye when she was in mid-conversation with the Wightman Cup team coach, Bill Graves.

When dinner was finished, I walked over and introduced myself. It was a nice opening to take the conversation to another level. I was always told that you should always leave a party with the girl you came with, so at the end of the festivities, I made sure to take Wendy back to her hotel. It didn't take me long, though, to find out just what room Chrissie was staying in.

For the first time that year, the Queen's Club was also hosting the ladies' Rothmans grass-court championship, which was the warm-up tournament for Wimbledon, so it wasn't hard to make sure I ran into Chrissie again. The dining-room area of the club was small, and one day when Chrissie was sitting there before one of her matches, I pulled up a chair next to her at lunch and turned on the charm faucet! I wasn't looking for a steady girlfriend. But I thought we could have some fun together.

Later in the week, I called her at her hotel and asked her to dinner.

We went to the famous Rib Room, at the Carlton Tower Hotel. Then we moved on to what had become my favorite stop in London, the Playboy Club, a haven for every vice I ever had. It had great food, was full of beautiful women, and upstairs there were blackjack and craps tables. Does life get any better than that? Not for me, it doesn't. But that night I can honestly say I just wanted to be with Chrissie. We had a lot in common -- the same anxieties and pressures, the same expectations and hopes. Chrissie could be serious-minded and dedicated, but when she relaxed she was easy to be around, and I could make her laugh. That night we ran around London, acting like kids in high school -- which, by the way, she still was.

Some things stay private. Or as Two-Mom always told me, "Keep a little mystery about yourself." On the way back to our hotel, we kissed for the first time. I know this will take a lot of you by surprise, but I played the gentleman and said goodnight.

Chrissie and I both won at Queen's, taking my year's total to three victories -- and then it was on to Wimbledon, where the press caught on to us as a couple. They constantly snapped photographs as we walked around the grounds or when we hit the town after our matches. She was only 17, but Chrissie was already making a name for herself in tennis -- she had reached the semis of the US Open the previous year, losing to Billie Jean King -- and I wasn't fooling myself which one of us the papers were interested in. It really didn't bother me; I just thought the whole thing was fun, running away from photographers and ducking behind cars. We were just kids having a good time.

When the draw for Wimbledon was announced, it was clear that I wouldn't be able to ease my way into the tournament under the radar. Instead, I was scheduled to play the second match on Centre Court, on opening day, against seventh-seeded Bob Hewitt. Playing on Centre Court in my first match at my first Wimbledon was something I had dreamed about my whole life. What the hell. There was no more exciting place to launch a career.

I had heard many stories about the whole Wimbledon experience from some of the older American players, like Charlie Pasarell and Stan Smith, but nothing impressed me more than the Rolls-Royce, which I was told would pick you up and take you to the grounds. Wow! Nineteen years old, and I'm going to be riding in a Rolls? Yeah, I've arrived. So you can imagine my disappointment when I walked out of my hotel and saw that my ride was not a Rolls -- they had cut that out the year before -- but instead just a regular old taxi.

And just when I thought I was hot s---.

As it was my first Wimbledon, Bill Riordan, Pancho, and Mom were all there. Mom always watched my matches; we never thought anything about it, and I don't think too many people really paid much attention to her. Not until that Monday afternoon of my opening match on Centre Court, that is. There, as I faced Hewitt, the myth of Gloria Connors, the pushy stage mom who never let her son out of her sight, was born.

"Come on, Jimmy," Mom called out, midway through the second set.

That's all she said. She called out three words of encouragement to her son at a crucial stage in the match. Jeez, given the press reaction the next day, you would have thought she had run onto the court like a streaker and incited a riot. Overnight, she became the loud-mouthed American woman who didn't understand, or didn't care, about the sacred traditions of the All-England Club. Come on, what's that all about? I guess they didn't like it that the new generation, the one I represented, was pushing out the old. Mom was an easy target. We found the whole thing pretty funny, especially when a tabloid cartoon showed me holding hands with a giant gorilla as I walked onto Centre Court and stood looking up at the referee. The caption read, "Sorry, everyone, Mom couldn't make it today." Those British hacks: Oh, what a sense of humor they have. I caused a major upset by defeating Hewitt, who had arrived on the back of wins at two prestigious tournaments staged in England in those days, the Bristol Open and the British Hard Court Championships, in Bournemouth.

When I walked off Centre Court, I discovered that my clothes had been moved from the junior locker room, or Locker Room 2, into Locker Room 1 with the rest of the big boys. I had arrived, and it didn't take long.

I beat my good friend and lifelong rival, the great Adriano Panatta, of Italy, in the third round before losing in the quarters to Nasty, the second seed, in straight sets. It wasn't bad for my first visit to Wimbledon, and Chrissie, on her debut, made it through to the semis, where she lost to Evonne Goolagong, the young Australian champion, in a much-anticipated match.

I may not have won the tournament, but I did leave London with a girlfriend.

I gave a less than dazzling display on the grass of the 1972 US Open, losing in the first round to Tom Gorman in five sets (Nasty went on to win his first Slam, beating Ashe in the finals), but that major disappointment was offset by three more tournament victories, in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Albany, taking my career total to six by the end of the year. They were pretty decent results and more than justified my decision to turn pro. If only Two-Mom had been there to see it.

The new year then brought a string of wins on the Riordan circuit, which I was determined to use as a springboard for my second trip to Europe. Unfortunately, things didn't work out the way I wanted, especially not in Paris. If it hadn't been for the doubles, I'd have been on a boat back across the English Channel straight after my first-round loss to the unseeded Mexican Raúl Ramírez, a defeat I marked by hurling a couple of racquets across my hotel room in disgust. I'd given a lousy performance. In one respect I was lucky: My aim hadn't improved from earlier in the day. If it had, I'd have been adding the cost of a new lamp to my hotel bill. Nasty and I made it through to the doubles finals, where we lost to Tom Okker and John Newcombe in a tight five-set match. Given that Nasty also had the singles final to play (he defeated Niki Pilic, of Yugoslavia, in straight sets), it was no great surprise that we ran out of steam. In fact, Nasty didn't drop a set the entire tournament, except when he was playing with me. I'm not reading anything into that. Well, not much.

The contractual dispute between the WCT and the ILTF had resulted in several players being barred from taking their place at Wimbledon the previous year, and in 1973, matters deteriorated further still. At the center of the controversy this time was Nasty's opponent in the French finals, Pilic. It wasn't clear whether he had refused to play in a Davis Cup tie or wasn't allowed to play, but the consequences were that his national authority suspended him. The ITLF backed the decision, and Pilic was dropped from the Wimbledon draw. In protest, most of the ATP members withdrew from the tournament, leaving just a few top players like Nasty, Jan Kodes, and Roger Taylor, of England. This watered-down field played a part in my promotion to sixth seed, and my target was a place in the semis, if not the finals.

I coasted through the first four rounds, dropping only one set, on the way to a meeting with Alex Metreveli, of the Soviet Union, in the quarterfinals. There, I ran smack into an Iron Curtain. Bang! I was gone, but at least Nasty and I were alive in the doubles. Nasty, the number one seed, had gotten dumped from the singles in the fourth round by American Sandy Mayer, and afterward he called me at my hotel.

"Jimmy, Nikki wants to leave. She's had enough." His wife, Dominique, didn't want to hang around for what she saw as the sideshow of the doubles.

"I get it, Nasty, don't worry. If you don't want to play, no big deal. It's not worth it."

Maybe he didn't want to let me down -- after all, it was only my second Wimbledon -- or maybe he didn't want anyone to think he was giving in to Dominique too easily, I don't know, but Nasty decided to stick around.

We laughed and joked our way to the finals, where we faced the Australians, John Cooper and Neale Fraser. We decided that every chance we got, whenever Cooper and Fraser got anywhere near the net, we'd hit lobs, over and over again, and no one played like that on grass. They were quality players who probably didn't think this was nearly as funny as Nasty and I did, and they fought hard, taking us all the way to the fifth set before we eventually won. It was my first Grand Slam title, and although it was only in doubles, I couldn't wait for the formal presentation in front of the Centre Court crowd. But by the time the officials were ready to present, it was no longer us, only me. Dominique had eventually had her way and told Nasty he couldn't hang out after our victory. The crowd applauded when I walked, alone, out onto the sacred grass, with an awkward grin on my face, and as I held up the twin trophies, I imagined Nasty laughing as he sipped his first drink on the flight home to Romania.

Not long after, Spencer Segura and I went to Romania ourselves, for an exhibition match in Bucharest. I've never seen anything like it in my life. Remember, Romania during this time was behind the Iron Curtain, yet when we arrived, even as two young Americans, we didn't have to clear customs. We were treated as VIPs because we were with Mr. Nastase, and normal rules did not apply. Driving from the airport to the hotel meant passing through numerous military checkpoints. Normally, this would have meant having our papers scrutinized, or maybe even a search of the car, but not for us. Each time we approached one of those security posts, the officers in charge would recognize Nasty's car and immediately raise the barrier and move off to one side, standing stiff and proper in their huge gray coats, saluting as we passed. All Nasty could do was smile.

We weren't kidding ourselves that we were seeing the real country, however. This was Romania for the 1 percent, and Nasty was their superstar. He took his responsibilities to his countrymen seriously. He didn't hide himself away. He walked the streets, waving to the crowds and talking to anyone who approached him. The only glimpse Spencer and I ever had of the real Romania was at the airport, when we were leaving. Waiting at the gate to board our flight back to London, we were surrounded by a group of locals, pleading for help.

"You are American, you help us get on the plane, please?" "Here, take this piece of paper. It has my name and address. Please, when you are back at home, arrange a visa for me to leave here."

"Can you buy me an American passport? Please, I must have one."

It upset me that we couldn't do anything to help. Once we were on board, I looked out of the window across the runway, where a dozen men were clearing the snow off the tarmac with brooms. By one of the hangars I could see airport workers huddled around the flames of a fire they had lit in an old oil drum. Away from the glamour of Nasty's Bucharest, Romania reminded me of those old black-and-white newsreels of the Great Depression, where people lost everything and yet still kept going.

Nasty had the language and the temper of the devil but a face that plenty of women loved. At the same time, he recognized the important position he held, representing Romanian culture and promoting his country as best as he could. He was charming, funny, and caring. He loved to party and stay out late, but drinking and gambling were not his thing, and I never saw him take drugs. As I said, for Nasty, it was all about the women, scores of them, each more beautiful than the next. Nasty claimed in his autobiography that he'd slept with over 2,500 women. I couldn't tell you if he was exaggerating, since I was only around for 1,500 of them. His strength and stamina both on and off the court were impressive, to say the least.

Once, when Spencer and I were in London, Nasty wanted to go out with us. You know this is only going to lead to trouble. As always, Nasty attracted a gorgeous woman, and he couldn't keep his hands to himself. So back to the hotel we went, where Nasty stashed his handful in my room, which was right next door to the room he was sharing with his wife, Nikki. Spencer and I played checkers in the corner (two out of three of us were losers), and now all of a sudden Nasty's trying to be quiet since he remembered that his, um … wife was next door. He opens the door to walk out into the hallway, tells us goodnight, turns, and is face to face with Nikki. How he got himself out of that I'll never know. Oh, and I forgot about that one. Make it 1,501.

I wasn't a bad doubles player, but playing with Nasty helped show me where I needed to improve. The quick-fire rallies sharpened my volleys, and each set was like a master class in the art of the topspin lob.

I didn't have his natural topspin, but that didn't keep me from trying to figure out a way to incorporate some of it into my game. Topspinners use a Western-style grip, with their palm under the handle, allowing them to roll the racquet easier. My hand fits more comfortably toward the side of the handle, which is great for hitting the ball flat. If I tried to copy Nasty's stroke, I would have blown out my wrist in a second, but studying his technique did give me another weapon in my arsenal.

Nasty and I continued to play doubles together through 1975, when we won the US Open. After that I was pretty much done. I was playing in too many singles matches by then, and I didn't want to hang around stadiums all day long waiting for the late-night doubles. Other players took an opposite view; John McEnroe, for instance, viewed doubles as good practice, and his partnership with Peter Fleming brought him countless Grand Slam doubles titles, but I didn't need that. I was wary of burning myself out with too much tennis. I thrived on staying hungry.

I was young and impressionable, and a lot of what I saw from Nasty rubbed off on me. The good the bad and the truly ugly. On the court he could be completely out of control, like the time in 1976 when he called the German player Hans-Jürgen Pohmann "Hitler."

That was one of the more controversial matches in US Open history. Sometimes I'd watch him swearing at umpires, throwing his racquet, giving the finger to a line judge, or threatening to smash photographers' cameras and I would cringe. Then two tournaments later, I'd be doing exactly the same thing. But I would also watch the way Nasty moved, gliding across the court in anticipation of the next shot. The way he played tennis made him the best show in town, and whatever else you got was just an added bonus. That's why every time he played, the stadium was packed -- you never knew what you were going to get.

I matched my Wimbledon performance by reaching the quarterfinals of the US Open in September 1973, with a significant win against Tom Okker in the fourth round. Tom had been in the world's top 10 for years and was lightning-fast around the court. As always, Pancho had been analyzing my opponents and devised a strategy for me to follow.

"He can volley, Jimmy, and he rushes the net very fast. Hit the ball flat and keep it low, and when you see him coming to the net, make sure you mix up your passing shots. Don't forget the lob; that will catch even Okker off guard."

The lessons I learned on the doubles courts with Nasty came in handy in that match, especially my improved lob. I had Tom confused, reluctant to commit himself to the net but unable to contend with my groundstrokes when it came to battling it out from the baseline. It took him out of his comfort zone, and a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory set up my first meeting with the great John Newcombe in the quarters. Although I was beaten in straight sets, it was tight. I lost tiebreakers in the second and the third, and while I was disappointed, I knew the distance between me and the man who was to become that year's champion was getting increasingly closer. I respected him, but I didn't fear him.

My big breakthrough as a singles player came in the fall of 1973, at the US Pro Championships, at the Longwood Cricket Club, in Boston. Longwood was full of talented players. This is my opportunity to move to the next stage, I thought. Bring it on.

Be careful what you wish for.

In the first round, I was drawn against world number one and top seed Stan Smith. I attacked him with my groundstrokes -- I don't think he knew what hit him -- and won in straight sets. I then beat Ray Moore, Dick Stockton, and Cliff Richey to reach the finals, where number two seed Arthur Ashe stood in my way. Pancho knew Ashe well -- they were friends from his days at Beverly Hills -- and he had plenty to say to me just before the match.

"Jimbo, he's good, but you are better. He plays quiet, confident, so rattle him. Attack his serve from the start by returning hard and deep down the middle. Cut off his angles and be aggressive." I followed Pancho's advice, jumping on Arthur's serve at every opportunity. I had to, because the match would hinge on the ability of one of us to come up with something out of the ordinary. I kept at it, never letting him settle into a rhythm, and it paid off. We battled for three hours before I won, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

That first big win not only felt overdue but good -- really good.

Before that triumph, I had heard whispers from certain members of the press that I was just Chris Evert's boyfriend. It seemed that our relationship was getting more attention than the tournaments I was winning. What the hell? It was just another distraction I had to deal with. I was the US Pro champion now. Screw 'em. I was starting to make my own name now.

Chrissie and I tried to see as much of each other as possible, but it was hard with our separate tour commitments. When we were together, everything was good, but long-distance relationships are tough. When you're 5,000 miles apart, doubt enters your mind, and things can be taken out of context. We'd disagree about the little stuff that didn't really matter and we'd end up blowing it out of proportion. When that happens, there's only one place for the conversation to go, and that's downhill. We'd end up arguing and then all kinds of accusations would fly, and I would think, "Really? Is that good for a relationship?" Better to hang up before things get out of hand.

I know I strayed, several times, over the two years we were together, both at home in California and on tour. I was young, hanging out with buddies like Nasty, Spencer, Dino Martin, David Schneider, and Vitas Gerulaitis. What do you think happened? After every match, we'd be surrounded by women, Chrissie would be in a different state or country, and the two of us might have had another fight on the phone. It happened. I'm not proud of it, but that's what I did. Attitudes toward sex had changed. It was after the pill (and before AIDS), and women were enjoying their sexual freedom. If they wanted to chase you, they would, and sometimes I didn't run very fast. One-night stands were common on tour, and I had my fair share. That shy, laid-back approach worked pretty well for me. Chrissie might not want to admit it, but America's Sweetheart was no angel, either. It's hard to keep secrets in the tennis world. I wanted to make it work between us, and I'm sure she did too, but I guess we both saw our relationship as a temporary thing, two kids sowing their wild oats before settling down. Last I checked, that wasn't a crime.

The reality was that if I wanted to see Chrissie, I had to get on a plane, so I'd call Bill Riordan and ask him to arrange a flight to wherever she was that week. I was doing all of the running around, and it began to have a detrimental effect on my game.

To remedy the situation, we decided to play some mixed doubles. We'd competed at the US Open in 1972 and had done pretty well, reaching the quarterfinals. Over the next two years in New York, we went one better each time, getting to the semis in 1973 and the finals in 1974. We also paired up at Wimbledon, where we reached the quarterfinals in 1973 and the third round in 1974, before withdrawing because of our singles commitments.

It wasn't a bad record, but that really wasn't the point as far as I was concerned. Although for me mixed doubles was about having some fun with Chrissie, she took it very seriously, finding it almost impossible to rein in her competitive spirit. I certainly understood, but there's a point where you have to let go. Mixed doubles just didn't matter enough in my world, and I didn't think it should have in Chrissie's, not compared with her success in singles. Still, who was I to make that decision? Chrissie saw things differently. It was as though she felt that losing was a sign of weakness, which could give her rivals on the tour an advantage in future tournaments. Our different attitudes would clash on the court. In mixed doubles, no matter what tournament it is, who I'm playing against, or what round it is, I've always refused to blast the ball at my female opponent, even if the other guy is aiming at my partner. When that happened, I'd give the guy some s---, but I would never take my anger out on his teammate. Chrissie wasn't particularly happy about that and said she thought I should go ahead and bury the other woman. I would just shrug and get on with the game, and that made her even madder.

Everyone has his or her insecurities; I had mine and Chrissie had hers. In the often claustrophobic, intense world of tennis, you can feel as though everything revolves around you, and her need to be the center of attention at all times became too much. Believe it or not, there were moments when the spotlight didn't belong to either one of us, and I relished those. Remember how much I loved Westerns as a kid? Well, having a chance to meet and spend time with John Wayne was an opportunity I just couldn't let pass.

Lornie Kuhle is one of my oldest friends, going back to when we were just youngsters playing tournaments in Illinois. When we hooked up again, after I moved to Beverly Hills, Lornie was married to John Wayne's daughter Aissa, and Chrissie and I went to Mr. Wayne's house on a number of occasions.

The Duke enjoyed his tennis, and we'd play at one of his local clubs in Newport Beach. In the evening, after dinner, there was usually some betting action on the backgammon board, and he talked just like he did in the movies. Whenever he took a pip off the board, he would say in that slow drawl, "Let's get that guy on outta here." I loved that! John F---in' Wayne! Are you kidding me? Backgammon with John Wayne! But Chrissie always wanted to go home early, no matter how much fun I was having, and she usually got her way. All the Duke could do was wink at me and say, "Well, good luck, pilgrim."

A phrase I used to hear a lot -- not from Chrissie but from the people around her -- was "We've got to do what's right for Chris."

I got the point, but I had enough on my hands taking care of my own business. When you have two people in a relationship who both want to be number one, it's tough. The math doesn't work. You both expect to be treated in a certain way, and that's impossible, because someone has to concede. For most of our relationship, that person tended to be me.

In another attempt to see more of Chrissie (and because I was on the road all the time, anyway), I even moved to a hotel in Florida near her house. We would hit balls together whenever I was there, and I saw it as a positive move, but Mom disagreed, probably with good reason. Choosing Chrissie over, say, Spencer for practice sessions was a one-sided deal. Chrissie's game improved while mine didn't. Hitting with me was good for her -- the pace of my shots helped quicken her reactions -- but not me.

Before a tournament, I'd have to take a few extra days to practice with the guys and get used to the speed and power again. Mom found that hard to deal with and made little attempt to hide her feelings, causing yet more tension between Chrissie and me, which we really didn't need.

In November 1974, Chrissie and I both won the singles at the South African Open, in Johannesburg. This was during the apartheid regime, and because Arthur Ashe was the first black athlete to be given a visa to play in the country, the press interest in him was insane. They followed him everywhere, shoving microphones in his face and demanding a comment on every political issue. Arthur stayed cool throughout the whole tournament, but how he managed to concentrate on tennis I'll never know.

Understandably, Arthur was desperate to win in South Africa, maybe more so than in any other tournament. I later read that he had identified the weaknesses in my game that he intended to exploit.

They were as follows: My serve. (I'll give him that -- it was only as good as it needed to be.)

My forehand. (Only in comparison with my backhand, which was only the best in the game. Quiet -- this is my book.)

Shots with no pace. (People always said that, but I never saw it as a weakness.)

My overhead. (Just because I'm short? I resent that.)

Ashe's mistake was to underestimate my groundstrokes, just as he had in Boston, and I blew him away in three straight sets for my 17th tournament win. With so many weaknesses, I sure won a lot. That South African trip was important to me for another reason. There was no better place in the world to buy a diamond engagement ring. Of course, back then we didn't know anything about blood diamonds.

I'd been thinking about proposing to Chrissie for a few weeks. Yeah, I know, with both of us finding it hard to be in the same place for more than five minutes, and with our extracurricular activities, it hardly sounds like a good way to start a life together. But I honestly felt that once we were engaged, things would be different. I was so naïve.

There were obvious problems. As a married couple, we couldn't keep doing what we had been doing, letting tennis dominate our lives. And what if we started a family? Would Chrissie keep playing? How would I feel about that? Something or someone had to give. I am old-school now and I was old-school then, and in my eyes, I had to be the principal breadwinner in our household. But was that fair to Chrissie? I'm not quitting, I told myself, so why should she? I was trying to look out for both of our interests. One of us had to. But in South Africa, I managed to forget about all those issues. After all, despite everything, she was "The One." We would spend the rest of our lives together, and somehow we would work it out.

We kept our engagement a secret because I still had to ask Chrissie's father for permission to marry his daughter. I knew it was a done deal, but I was still nervous as hell when I went down to see him in Fort Lauderdale. Mr. Evert and I spoke for a few minutes behind the closed doors of the Holiday Park Tennis Center pro shop (I didn't want to wander too far from my comfort zone), and he was very cool about it. I don't know how happy he was, and I'm pretty sure he was thinking, "Well, this will never happen," but he gave us his blessing anyway. I was 21 and about to get married.

It's crazy when I think about it now. Why didn't we wait a while? Well, why would we? We were in love and we told ourselves that this was the right thing to do.

Throughout the fall of 1973, Pancho had been bombarded with requests -- there was even talk of possible inducements such as first-class airline tickets -- for me to enter the Australian Open, in December. Frank Sedgman, who played out of Melbourne and had been one of the world's greatest players in the late 1940s and early 1950s, even lobbied his old buddy Pancho to try to persuade me to go Down Under. With their crazy scheduling -- a tournament on the other side of the world over Christmas and New Year's -- the organizers struggled to attract top-class players and had identified me as a valuable draw.

Of course they had. I had 11 titles to my name for the year, I was one half of the most famous couple in tennis, and I was about to be named the number three player in the world, based on the new ATP computer-ranking system. When Pancho explained how much they wanted me there, I thought, why not? Especially since I knew Chrissie had already entered. Christmas in the sunshine with my new fiancée sounded like a good deal.

Australia in December is stupid hot and at times the weather matched my mood. The facilities were basic, to say the least -- the Kooyong Stadium had a tiny locker room with a single shower and one toilet cubicle -- but that didn't bother me. I'd been in worse places on the Riordan circuit. No, what pissed me off was the partisan crowd, screaming approval at every hometown player and abuse at every foreigner. Guess who was their main target?

I took the brunt of it; three of the five matches I played to reach my first Grand Slam final were against Aussies. Every time I beat a local hero, the fans roared their disapproval. Who was this upstart American brat hell-bent on ruining their party? Hearing the crowd booing was one thing, but what the hell was the deal with those flies? Where were they breeding those things anyway? They looked like B-52s coming down on me.

Spencer and Chrissie did their best to calm me down, and I know that without them I would have imploded and been on my way home long before I met another Australian, Phil Dent, in the finals. But even Chrissie was getting on my nerves. Nobody was safe. With the organizers usually scheduling me on the court after Chrissie, I would go along to support her, sometimes bringing a sandwich and Pepsi for my lunch. Chrissie didn't like that one little bit. If she noticed me eating and not paying attention during her match, she would throw me a look, which wasn't hard to read: "If you're not going to watch me play, then get out of here." That pissed me off even more than the hostile Australian fans, because it was embarrassing; everyone in the stadium could see what was going on. Run along, Jimmy, do what you're told.

We were not even married yet and the tension was already building. I was in Chrissie's corner, rooting for her, and she was treating me like some sort of, well, househusband. You know how it is, guys: You can't do anything right. I needed to eat before my matches and I wanted to see her play. What was I supposed to do? Stay back at the hotel and miss her match altogether? I'm sure that would have gone down really well.

Chrissie's mood swings could drive anyone crazy, but that didn't change the fact that I loved her. No one is perfect, I told myself. I was no prize, either; she had to put up with a lot, too. Did I just say that? The question was, could my patience, which was thin at the best of times, cope with so much drama? I convinced myself it could.

Phil Dent took the full force of the frustration and aggression that had been building in me from the first day of the tournament. Fortunately, I managed to channel it into my game. The super-dry, well-worn grass of Kooyong reminded me of the armory floorboards, and I adopted the approach Mom had taught me back in St. Louis, moving forward, taking the ball early, blasting it down the lines and across the court. Even with the crowd cheering their countryman on, he didn't stand a chance. I took the first two sets, and although he managed to rally in the third set, taking it 6-4 and putting on a show for his fans, it was just a momentary setback. I regrouped, ignored the lynch mob in the stands, and won the fourth, 6-3, to capture my first Grand Slam title.

I was ecstatic, even if, to be brutally honest, the Australian Open in the 1970s didn't draw the number of top players that it should have. The long flight and the unfortunate timing of the tournament limited the field. But it was still a Grand Slam and an important win in anybody's book.

If the scheduling had been like it is today, I would have gone to Australia more often. But I played the Australian Open only twice in my career, winning it in 1974 and losing to John Newcombe in the finals the following year, and I thought that was good enough. I don't regret any of the decisions I made, but who knows; if I had played the Australian a few more times, would I have won more majors? Your guess is as good as mine.

Between 1974 and 1979, I also didn't play in the French Open -- we'll come to that in a minute -- so there was a long period of time when I was competing only in Wimbledon and the US Open. So get this -- in my career I won eight Slams and was in the finals of seven others, basically playing only two majors a year. Take it for what it's worth.

Getting that first win in the Australian Open was huge. That victory did set me up perfectly for what was to become the most extraordinary single year of my career: I would win 15 tournaments and lose only four matches out of 103. I also saw it as a launchpad that would catapult me toward the French Open and Wimbledon. I was partially correct.