“You know what I would like to see as a tennis fan? To me, all the guys are really great tennis players. It’s a one-way game now, a power game. But what would it hurt to look up at those fans, to bring them down onto the court with you, to be part of it—to get to know you as an individual, not just a guy running around playing tennis.”—Jimmy Connors, to Justin Gimelstob in a televised interview.
Okay, we know that Connors was a showman, a bombastic, self-promoting, frequently crass and endlessly self-justifying competitor. He was the first Open era player to declare that he wanted to take tennis to the next level, to that place in our sporting consciousness where typical New York taxi drivers who can recite the starting line-up of the Yankees would also get juiced up about the U.S. Open semifinal—and know the names of the players involved in them.
That was an enormous leap forward, because however classy and sporting that first wave of Australian champions was, the chief goal of the early pro era was significantly more modest—to enable tennis pros to earn a decent wage. It was the U.S. players, in particular Connors and Billie Jean King, who first banged away at the populist drums.
Connors’ ambition was met with some success—does any New York cabbie these days now know who Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer are? And to give him his due, Connors played an enormous role in making bringing about this change—although he himself might be dumbfounded, or simply disgusted, by the fact that the growth of tennis in Europe and South America seems to have outstripped the popularization rate here in the U.S. The state of tennis raises the question, has tennis once again become too “tame” for the great unwashed?
Connors’ quote shines an interesting light on the question, and bespeaks a certain degree of idealism—a virtue not frequently assigned to Jimbo, who was famous for his sometimes remarkably vulgar gestures and outbursts. And if you think about it, he makes an excellent point. How often do you see today’s elite stars engage and really connect with the paying public? My own answer, I must admit, is “not very often.”
As Connors points out, our top players these days have remarkable skills, but in some ways they’re as distant from us as the real stars. The most memorable interaction between player and spectator in recent years was Roger Federer muttering for Novak Djokovic’s parents to “be quiet” during a match in Monte Carlo. I’m not sure that should count.
I don’t know how you force or teach or inspire players to reach out in a way that doesn’t seem rehearsed or self-serving. But I believe Connors is substantially correct. There’s a kind of grim purpose to today’s game, glorious as it is. To me the key phrase in his quote is, “to look up at those fans. . .”
So, while the camaraderie between players has never been better, the connection between the pros and the fans has never been more tenuous. Once the first ball is hit these days, the players pull the proverbial cap low over their eyes and blank out the rest of the world. I’m not sure it has to be that way, and I’m looking forward to the day when some player(s) realize that the fans can, as Connors put it, be brought down and onto the court again.