The metamorphosis of tennis now is complete -- at least in the United States. Our best players are Jimmy Connors and John Patrick McEnroe. What they sell (their talent and often bizarre behavior) would not have been accepted by the tennis community 20 years ago.
Five years ago, however, tournament promoters discovered that Ilie Nastaste's theatrics and tantrums, combined with his considerable talent, filled arenas.
Say what you wish, Nastaste packed 'em in; and the effect was not lost on Connors and McEnroe.
Many players and promoters have tried, and with success, to change the image of tennis as a country club sport. Connors and McEnroe, by their brash actions, enhance the game's appeal, although at times their behavior calls for a "PG" rating.
Connors is competitive, coming from the streets of Belleville, Ill. He is a loner, well off financially. And, yes, he is a sore loser who curses on the court.
But he is the best player in the world.
Connors fights for what he believes is right. His comment two weeks ago during the Grand Prix Masters, "No one tells me where or when to play," is quintessential Connors. It doesn't surprise his fellow pros. Least of all me. For by his reckoning, he is a free agent, an independent contractor beholden to no one.
Of course, if anyone told him the consequences of 150 pro players saying or believing the same thing, he probably would say that that is not his problem. Still, his impact on the game has been more positive than negative. No one since Pancho Gonzales dominates the tennis court by his "presence" more than Connors.
The court itself becomes a stage, his opponent (no matter who) get second billing, the officials become stagehands, and the crowd has come to see the lion devour the Christian. Even if you don't like Connors, you must respect him as a player.
Jimmy's acolyte is John McEnroe. He doesn't aspire to "be" Connors; he only wants to supplant him. Left-handedness and brashness aside, they are not much alike. McEnroe's father is a successful Wall Street lawyer. McEnroe is smart, but without Connors' street-fighter instincts. He breezed through a year at Stanford with Bs while studying between matches.
He is more talented than Connors. He can do more with the ball than anyone since Nastase in his prime. He is very quick, has a better serve than Connors, and can hit the ball on the rise exceedingly well. Possibly because he played soccer as a youngster he seems to be able to move equally well to the right or left. And that is important, as a top player will exploit the weak side through the strong side. Consequently we are learning that McEnroe's weak "side" is down the middle. His greatest weakness though is not middle. His greatest weakness though is not one of stroke production. It is simply his lack of a coach.
Last summer in Boston he was about to play Harold Solomon on clay. Just before he went on I asked him out of curiosity what his game plan was. He replied, "I don't have one. I'll just see how it goes."
I looked him straight in the eye and said, "As talented as you are, you'll be very confused after about seven games." "We'll see," he said.
Solomon chewed him up.
It may sound strange but McEnroe is too good not to have a coach. At 19 years of age, one doesn't have the self-discipline to practice and train properly. Nor does one have the experience to analyze the top players and come up with a game plan for each opponent. Talent is not enough. He has done well. The question is: Could he have done better?
It is disconcerting to me to admit that, although McEnroe has been on the tour only since June, I feel I know him better than Connors. I've had more conversations with him since June than I have with Connors in six years. He likes to talk. He is gregarious, enjoys telling jokes and is inquisitive.
I like him and have always felt his behavior would improve but for the right reason. It is one thing to try to change your behavior because the rules force you to. It is another thing to alter your behavior so you can play better tennis. He sees that controlling his behavior will help his tennis.
Connors and McEnroe will continue to be enormous influences in pro tennis for years. With tennis becoming more professionalized every day they can both hilp or hurt the game.
Because he's been around longer, Connors may have a tougher time adjusting to recent innovations to maintain a worldwide circuit. McEnroe, however, is more likely to plan for the long haul. He wants to be No. 1 and I believe he will be.
When I reminded him of that Shakespearan line, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," he said, "No sweat." Somehow I believe him; he never wears sweatbands.