To a man in the first row who had paid $500 for four box seats, Jimmy Connors said, "Come on out here." By that, The Lovable One seemed to mean he'd duke it out with the guy.
"Play, willya, you get paid enough," someone must have said because The Lovable One snapped back, "Nobody gets paid enough to take this."
Only the IRS knows for certain, but we can guess at Connors' 1978 income as $2 million. For winning two matches in the $300,000 big-deal-for-TV tournament here, he can earn another $150,000. And he's saying nobody gets paid enough to take abuse from a paying customer in the front row.
He had won the first set, 6-3, over John McEnroe and the second was even, at 4-all, when Connors fell into debate with the customer. At first thought, it seemed just another bit of punk-work by Connors, a certified crudity of the court.
But no. This is truly strange, and a psychiatrist would probably pay Connors for the privilege of inspecting so strange a mind, but Connors has a legtitimate reason for his crudity.
It makes him win.
Ilie Nastase creates rages for no reason. McEnroe is barely out of diapers and, at 19, is passing through a phase of spoiledbrat behavior. Dennis Ralston, once the maddest netter, lusted for victory so much that impending defeat short-circuited his brainwaves.
Connors is obnoxious with a plan.
"When the other guy gets pumped up," he said, trying to explain what turns him on to those stretches of brilliant, overpowering tennis, "then I'm the one who really gets pumped up because now I'm afraid he's going to get pumped up."
"Then when his confidence goes down, I'm still pumped," Connors said. To get pumped, as Connors would say, he depends on the paying customers.
He wants them to hate him.Failing that, he wants to hate them.
Not that he would admit it. He phrases it more genteely "I'm glad that the crowd gets involved," he said today when someone asked what he thought of the $500 customer in the front row.
"It makes everything flow," Connors said. "The people can't wait to get involved. They're tired of just watching those tennis balls go back and forth."
To get the customers "involved," Connors uses a full repertoire of hand signals. His favorite signal is accomplished with one finger. After the dialogue with the front-row man, Connors went out and won an important point in the match. As he returned to the service line, he signaled to his interlocutor.
It was not his first signal of the day. When McEnroe made three wonderful shots in succession to win a point, Connors turned his back on him and erected a signal. In case anyone missed that signal, Connors gave another in the form of his hand clutching his genitals as he walked the 40 feet to his baseline.
Connors is Billy Carter without the belly. We celebrate an Arthur Ashe, who combines talent with class, but Connors is bearable only if we limit our perceptions of him to those moments when he is striking a tennis ball. Then he is magnificent, for no matter how he gets pumped -- and, in the end, it does not matter, really -- he is a wonder of nature at work.
With a racket in hand, Connors is worth the $2 million he made. His gift is rare. The 10,000 customers at a spiffy resort today paid maybe $300,000 to see him and, incidentally, McEnroe. A giant corporation, Pepsi-Cola, and CBS-TV are spending millions on the production of a four-man tennis tournament. Connors makes it worth their while.
He flies off his feet in attacks on the ball. He retrieves shots thought impossibly out of reach. If Nastase thrills us with his grace, Connors terrifies us with his relentless pounding. Who among us could stand up to it?
From Connors' eyes, on court, comes hate. The kid, McEnroe, said it was nice to be in this tournament and he didn't really mind losing to Connors because he would learn from it. So someone asked Connors if he, at 19, minded losing.
Connors broke into an unbelieving smile.
"No, I hated to lose," he said. "I learned more from winning than I ever did losing." He pressed his lips into a thin line.