Deep Tennis: The Inner Game of Jimbo

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 /by

IgotNineteen-seventy-four was a big year for tennis. In England, the country of its birth, the sport turned 100 years old. In the U.S., the country of its growth, it was blowing up all over the place. The summer of ’74 marked the dizzying early summit of the tennis boom (or tennis epidemic, depending on your point of view). Fewer than 10 million Americans had played the game regularly in 1970; by ’74, that number had passed 30 million. It’s hard to imagine that another sport has ever grown so quickly in so short a time.

Between 1968, when it was professionalized for the first time, and ’74, when it went mainstream, tennis may have changed more than it had in its previous 94 years. The former “secret sport,” as Bud Collins dubbed it, went from old private clubs to newly constructed public courts; from all-white to multi-colored clothes; from wood racquets to metal; from staid to hip; from net to baseline; from one-handed backhand to two; from unpaid to very well paid; from silent to grunty. One of the original purposes of those all-whites had been to hide the sweat of the ladies and gentlemen who engaged in lawn tennis. Now sweat was the purpose. The sport was part of the new fad for fitness that had begun in the 70s.

Tennis’s ascendance was symbolized by two very different phenomena in 1974. One was the rise of Jimmy Connors to a position of dominance on the new pro tour. The other was the publication of a best-seller called The Inner Game of Tennis by a psychologist living in California named Timothy Gallwey. Talk about polar opposites: Connors was the blue-collar brat who saw tennis as war and had been raised by his mom to be Muhammad Ali in short shorts. The Inner Game was a product of the post-hippie West Coast New Age that told us that the secret to competing well was making the sport a cooperative activity with your partner. Jimbo’s motto was, “It’s a goddamn war out there.” The Inner Game’s was “let it happen.” If Gallwey never actually wrote the words, “be the ball”—that was Chevy Case in Caddyshack, right?—he did give tennis a patina of Zen. That the sport could produce such disparate figures as Connors and Gallwey at the same time showed how much it had grown and how far it had spread.

I knew that Jimbo and The Inner Game had both made their splashes around the same time, but I had never made any other connection between the two until last August. I spent a week in Toronto that month trying to do two things: Write about the ATP Masters event being played there, and researching the book that would become High Strung. I spent the mornings before the matches in my hotel room, reading two books: The Inner Game, and a cheap but surprisingly witty paperback fan bio of Jimbo from 1975 by Jim Burke called The World Of Jimmy Connors. It was perhaps the only attempt to make the Brash Basher of Belleville into a heartthrob. The cover showed the youthful Jimbo with a crooked grin behind the subtitle: “The Superstar of Tennis—His Life, His Loves, His Incredible Career.”

WojcIt was a jarring transition to move from one of these tomes to the other, but both were well done in their ways. Burke, who keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek even as he sings the young brat-star’s praises, tells this story about Jimmy’s extremely brief, and academically underwhelming, college career:

For some utterly inexplicable reason, Connors enrolled at UCLA. He cut most of his classes. But he had money to spend, and he paid a graduate student to turn out a term paper for him. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s critical faculties were undeveloped. The paper was too good to have come from him, but he handed in a mimeographed copy of it anyway. When he got to class, the instructor is said to have taken him by the shirtfront, thrown him against the wall, and ordered him to address the class on the meaning of the paper. His performance was unworthy of the hireling’s efforts.”

Burke also makes it clear from the start that the Jimbo phenomenon was something new for tennis. He opens with the 1975 “Winner Take All” Challenge Match that Connors played against Rod Laver at Caesar’s Palace. To accommodate a national CBS audience, the match was played at 10:15 A.M., but Jimmy apparently had had his coffee. While the 36-year-old legend and fan favorite Laver entered slowly and coolly as always, Connors the upstart villain bounced into the arena wearing a London Fog jacket and answered the crowd’s resounding boos with a bellowed stream of obscenities and insults. By the time Jimmy won a very well played four-setter (see the video here; I’ve posted it a few times in the past; while Connors wins, it’s Laver who is always the revelation) and pocketed $100,000 for a single victory, tennis had changed.

While other sports had gone professional decades earlier, it had taken tennis a long time to forget its Victorian amateur roots. Games, according to those amateur ideals, weren’t played for personal gain; victory wasn’t sought for its own sake. Ideally, it was the social values that sports taught—teamwork, sportsmanship, obedience, perseverance, effort, handling failure—that were paramount. They were part of a gentleman’s education. As the saying went, Britain’s military battles were won on the “playing fields of Eton.”

This sporting tradition spread around the Anglo tennis globe and produced generations of classy competitors from Australia to South Africa to the United States. It was still true even of the American generation that came just before Jimmy Connors. Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, each of whom began their careers in the amateur era, were upstanding, ramrod-straight military men who competed with an old-fashioned gentlemen’s cool. Connors, a pro from the start, never had time for that tradition. He played winner-take-all tennis and grumbled after losses, “there’s no such thing as a moral victory.” He was from the American, Vince Lombardi school of sporting values; he never pretended that winning wasn’t the only thing that mattered. He never played it cool.

As entertaining as Burke’s Jimbo story was, it was The Inner Game that was the revelation to me in Toronto. We have a first edition of the book, complete with the white ball on the cover, in the library at Tennis Magazine, but I’d never pulled it down and read it. I can see now why it became the franchise that it did, why Gallwey would write a series of Inner Games about everything from golf to skiing to music to work, and why this one would now feature an introduction by NFL coach Pete Carroll, who has all of his players read it.

Gallwey did a stint as a teaching pro, but as the title suggests he doesn’t write about strokes or grips; he writes about the most effective attitude to take to a tennis court. He starts by pointing out how strange it is, when you think about it, that tennis players talk to themselves on court—anywhere else and we’d be called crazy. Who are we talking to? Gallwey says we have two Selves—Self 2 is the natural one, the doer; Self 1 is the evaluator, the scolder. His book is essentially an investigation, using himself and his students in the early 70s as examples, of how to get Self 1 out of the way and get Self 2 to “let it happen.”

That may sound all too hippie on the surface, but Gallwey understands the uses of anger, too. He describes asking a woman on a date, getting rejected, and using his fury at the rejection to crush an opponent on the tennis court. Anger was the Jimmy Connors way: As his then-fiancé Chris Evert said in 1975, “Jimmy needs to hate someone to beat him.” Whether it was an opponent or the chair umpire or some jerk in the stands, Jimbo fed on antagonism.

To Gallwey, it isn’t anger or aggression that’s the answer—it’s playing with a sense of purpose. In the end, he decides that the best, truest, and most successful approach to competing at tennis is to move away from anger and the selfish desire to come out on top. Gallwey watches surfers in the water and wonders why they wait for the biggest waves, rather than just taking the next one that comes along. After all, the act of surfing, of being “in the flow,” is the same, the way that hitting a tennis ball is pretty much the same each time. He eventually sees that the biggest wave is the one that will force the surfer to get the most out of himself, that will increase his knowledge of his own capabilities.

The basic meaning of winning became more clear to me. Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value of winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.

Once one recognizes the value of having difficult obstacles to overcome, it is a simple matter to see the true benefit that can be gained from competitive sports. In tennis, who is it that provides a person with the obstacles he needs in order to experience his highest limits? His opponent, of course! Then is your opponent a friend or an enemy? He is a friend to the extent that he does his best to make things difficult for you. Only by playing the role of your enemy does he become your true friend. Only by competing with you does he in fact cooperate. It’s the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.”

When I read those lines, I thought, other than the fact that they seemed highly profound, that I’d heard them before. And I had: They were, in a modern American way, an updated version of the old amateur sporting code: Real victory was found in the process rather than the result; you came together with an opponent to test yourself and learn about yourself rather than to crush someone else; you were, paradoxically, taught individual perseverance through teamwork.

One hundred years after tennis had been patented in England, its original Victorian values had been reformulated, perhaps unknowingly, by a Zen Californian. In the early 70s, Jimmy Connors had ripped that civilized, upper-crust veneer off of tennis and reveled in the psychological viciousness beneath it. That wasn’t an attitude that many of tennis’s new recreational players in the 70s could live with for long—we weren’t all as “rabid and foaming at the mouth” (Connors’ words for how he generally felt in those days) as Jimbo. It took Gallwey to re-civilize it for the masses.

While both phenomena—Jimbo and The Inner Game—were produced when tennis was at its trendiest, they shared a remarkable staying power. Seventeen years later, Connors was still foaming at the mouth and revving up fans at the U.S. Open. The Inner Game has never gone out of print. Tennis wouldn’t be the same without either. It's a war out there, but you won't win it until you let it happen.

*****

So who is the better role model on court, Brash Jim or Zen Tim? I’ll report back with my findings next week.

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