Once upon a time, the stage was all that mattered to James Scott Connors. The tennis fans, particularly those teeming, raucous New York crowds at the U.S. Open, transformed him, carried him and fueled his passion for winning. So many times, we lived vicariously through him, and he through us.
Today, two months shy of his 49th birthday, Connors seems to have had enough of the game that brought him so much glory. He won a record 109 professional singles titles, including eight Grand Slams, and was ranked No. 1 in the world for five consecutive seasons from 1974-78.
Professional athletes, who can sometimes develop an almost narcotic dependency on the applause, usually leave the arena only grudgingly. But while John McEnroe, his great American rival, is virtually everywhere on or around the court and even the reticent Swede, Bjorn Borg, turns up regularly in senior events, since retiring in 1992 Connors is ... well, where is he, exactly?
You can find him most days playing golf -- pretty well, according to accounts -- in Santa Barbara, Calif., near his ranch in Santa Ynez. When he visits his mother in Belleville, Ill., where he still maintains a residence, he plays at the Belleville Country Club.
"He likes to play golf, that's for sure," Bill Lelly, Connors' longtime manager, said earlier this month. "That much is true."
But what else is true, or isn't? It's hard to know because Connors doesn't talk a lot these days. Through Lelly, he declined an interview with ESPN.com.
Connors spends a lot of time with his wife, Patti, the former Playboy playmate, 22-year-old son Brett, a junior tennis player at Arizona State, and 16-year-old daughter Aubree. He makes a number of appearances each year, but his involvement in tennis has waned significantly.
"It's time for me to get back to living life," Connors told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a rare interview in April, "so I'm doing a lot of the things I couldn't do when I was playing all the time."
The charismatic Connors is the subject of a "SportsCentury" profile for ESPN Classic that will air on June 29 at 8 p.m. More than 50 people were interviewed. The piece is remarkably insightful, considering that the still-aloof Connors ultimately declined to sit for a definitive interview.
He is not scheduled to play this year on the men's senior tour he helped create eight years ago. Some speculate that Connors' accumulated injuries and his unending search for perfection cannot happily co-exist. His most recent appearance was last August in Palo Alto, Calif., when he defeated Jose-Luis Clerc. He withdrew before a match with Mansour Bahrami.
There is the unmistakable strain of bitterness in his recent discussions of tennis. In 1999, he consented to an interview with ESPN Classic in anticipation of its Emmy Award-winning "Top 50 Athletes" series.
"Eight, nine years ago, I found out what was important to me ... tennis wasn't," Connors said at the time. "Because, really, it's only 'What can you do for me now?' I made a lot of people an awful lot of money; in turn so did I. But the end result is, that doesn't mean anything compared to what's really important."
Tennis analyst Mary Carillo has seen Connors gradually pull away from the game.
"I think he's really lost a lot of passion for the game," she said. "It seems to me that the guy is fed up in a lot of ways, for reasons I don't know. But he doesn't seem to want to be out there. I think he's gone back to his lone wolf days. He's just off by himself a lot of the time, playing golf and wanting to be around his kids. And if that's how he wants to play it out, I think that's what he should be doing."
A breed apart
The 100th Wimbledon in 1976 was a spectacular celebration. The living past champions -- Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Arthur Ashe and Chris Evert, among them -- gathered on Centre Court and waved to the appreciative fans. Except one. Connors, the 1974 champion, was on one of the outside courts, practicing for his next match.
"He was the Frank Sinatra of tennis," said Stan Smith, who already had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open when Connors began to make an impression. "He had his own way of doing things. He didn't want to be involved in a group in any way."
After winning the NCAA singles title as a freshman at UCLA, Connors bolted for the professional game in 1971. He declined to join an attempt to start a players union. In 1973, he ignored an Arthur Ashe-led boycott of Wimbledon by many leading players. Soon, he left the ATP and played in a rival indoor circuit organized by his manager Bill Riordan. Later, he sued the ATP, claiming it had barred him from playing in the 1974 French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he failed to win that year. After losing the 1975 Wimbledon final to Ashe, Connors quietly dropped the suit.
Connors played with a fire that was completely at odds with the genteel etiquette of tennis. The left-hander was driven and boorish to a (double) fault. He questioned lines calls and intimidated opponents without prejudice. Like McEnroe, who was six years his junior, Connors seemed to thrive on the chaos that he created on the court.
No place framed his in-your-face personality like the U.S. Open. Playing first at the West Side tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., and later in Flushing, Connors reached the semifinals 14 times -- on three different surfaces -- and the final seven times. He won five championships, but his most prized possession is the memory of the 1991 U.S. Open.
At the age of 39, Connors reached down and found himself one last time. He had missed the 1990 season after undergoing reconstructive wrist surgery and, in his own mind at least, he had a lot to prove. At the time, he was ranked No. 174 on the ATP computer. Down two sets to Patrick McEnroe, Connors rallied to win his first-round match. Down 2-5 in the fifth set to Aaron Krickstein, Connors survived and advanced.
"This is what they paid for," Connors said at one point, almost as a theatrical aside. "This is what they want."
When Connors defeated Paul Haarhuis in the fifth round, his shot-making brought the crowd constantly to its feet. Suddenly, he was back in the semifinals for the first time since 1987. A straight-sets loss to Jim Courier ended his last, great run.
"That was the most thrilling 11 days of my whole career," Connors said later, "because that brought out what I had been trying to bring out of the people in the stands my whole life. If I would have never touched a racket the rest of my life after that, it would have been just fine."
A happy ending?
In a curious way, that's almost how it has played out.
Connors invested his own money in the 35-and-over tour and then invested his considerable energy. He worked the clinics, hyped the matches and played them, too. Then in 1998, he sold his interest in the senior circuit and pulled away from tennis.
Where did the bitterness come from?
People in tennis say that Connors could have occupied the place in the game that McEnroe has created for himself. Toward the end of his playing days, television was interested in putting his over-the-top point of view on the air. Connors, some say, priced himself out of the market. Seeing McEnroe become the irreverent but definitive voice of men's tennis cannot sit well with Connors. When the decision was made to dedicate the new stadium at Flushing after Ashe, Connors was said to be livid. It can be argued, correctly, that Connors did more for the game.
Any discussion of today's listless, vanilla sport -- strictly from a personality standpoint, Pete Sampras, the all-time Grand Slam singles champion, suffers more in comparison to Connors than Andre Agassi -- invariably invokes the name of James Scott Connors. Nobody understands this better than Connors himself.
"We gave you tennis, we gave you attitude, we gave you glamour," Connors told ESPN Classic in 1999. "We gave you everything you wanted and you criticized us for it. Now, you're longing for it, you know, why?"
Said Barry McKay, the tennis commentator: "I do get the sense he's saying, 'Listen, I have given everything I can ... I helped get this senior tour started. I want to enjoy myself a little more, spend more time with my family.' I do get the sense that he feels he's done an awful lot and maybe he wants to slow down a little bit."
Connors still finds his way to the stage for an occasional flourish. After a layoff of three years, he returns to World Team Tennis for his seventh season with four matches this July with the Philadelphia Freedom. He is scheduled to play in Schenectady, N.Y., on July 24, Philadelphia on July 26, Hartford, Conn., on July 27 and Long Island, N.Y. (July 28).
Peter Bodo, the respected writer for "Tennis Magazine," asked Connors during his 1991 run at the U.S. Open what he would miss most about the game.
"He just looked and made a little gesture of very gently clapping, indicating the applause of the crowd," Bodo said. "That's Jimmy to a T. That's what he wanted."
And that's what he got, in abundance. Connors, along with Borg, McEnroe, Evert and Navratilova helped elevate the game to a position it has never equaled. In retrospect, considering the quality of those great personalities and their mad talent, is it any wonder? And is it so surprising, really, that Connors' love for the game has cooled now that the applause has largely stopped?
"We were fighting for a very tough dollar," Connors said. "There were so many other things out there for people to do, and now why would they want to come to a tennis match? You know, to see guys running around in a little pair of white shorts, swinging a tennis [racket]-- no, that's not why they came.
"They came because they had guys out there that were willing to break their back and give them everything they had ... and I was one of them. And I loved it."
Greg Garber is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com