It has been extraordinarily well documented that the 1970’s was a golden era for the game of tennis, in both the men’s and women’s games, on a variety of fronts, all over the globe. In that decade, Sweden’s imperturbable Bjorn Borg emerged, as did the rambunctious New Yorker John McEnroe. Chrissie Evert altered the landscape of women’s tennis irrevocably, while Billie Jean King and Margaret Smith Court celebrated some of their finest seasons. The mercurial Ilie Nastase took his two majors in that span, as did the towering American Stan Smith. Rod Laver—who secured his second Grand Slam in 1969—lingered prominently across the first half of the seventies, as did his elegant countryman Ken Rosewall; their epic five set clash in the final round of the 1972 WCT Finals at Dallas was a landmark moment for the sport on television.
And yet, a pair of Americans with sharply contrasting games, personalities and outlooks staged the most widely discussed and analyzed match of that era. When defending champion Jimmy Connors confronted the enormously popular Arthur Ashe on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in the 1975 final at the world’s most prestigious event, the world stood still in many ways. Ashe was a gentleman to his core, an African American steeped in dignity, grace and self-restraint, a man with a multi-layered mind who cared deeply about his place in tennis history, and someone who never stopped attending to the larger struggles in life that transcended the boundaries of his trade.
Ashe was nearly 32 when he moved into his first final at the All England Club. He was revered as a sportsman of the highest order, a leader in his field who served as President of the ATP, and a fundamentally unselfish individual who searched for ways to ennoble the playing field not only for himself but more so for those who would follow in his footsteps. Ashe was widely admired for the way he conducted himself on the court and off.
Connors—still only 22—was cut from a very different cloth. While Ashe had grown up in Virginia and was mentored by a father and tennis teachers who would not tolerate bad behavior on the court, Connors had another kind of upbringing. He was schooled by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, Bertha Thompson, better known at “Two-Mom”. Both were tournament players of note, and Gloria even played the U.S. National Championships a couple of times in the 1940’s. Connors grew up in a competitive environment that put a much greater emphasis on winning at all costs, on a more cutthroat notion of how to survive in the rough one on one battlefield of tennis. Connors grew up in East St. Louis and later moved to Bellville, Illinois. He was taught to fight furiously and uncompromisingly for his rights, to do whatever it took to succeed on the court.
American journalist Peter Bodo—a thoughtful and probing writer who has been around the game for four decades—has just released a compelling new book entitled Ashe VS Connors (“Wimbledon 1975: Tennis that went beyond Centre Court”). The book is a retrospective examination of the renowned Ashe upset triumph over Connors on July 5, 1975, and it is no accident that it has been released on the eve of the 40th Anniversary of a seminal sports moment. Bodo puts that match into perspective skillfully, illuminating readers on the significance of that occasion, writing with clarity and intelligence about the two protagonists and how they set up such a crucial and fascinating historical appointment in a theater unlike any other in tennis. It was indeed a battle fought out on more than one front, beyond the boundaries of the court; it was almost a cultural confrontation of sorts.
The author opens the book with a prologue on the drama surrounding the Ashe-Connors contest but then he segues to the way both men were raised, to the essential and influential people in their lives who guided them along their journey to the summit of the game. Readers discover that both players went to UCLA, many years apart. Both represented the United States in Davis Cup competition, although Connors was a much less committed and more reluctant participant in that team forum. Both men would be victorious at three of the four majors, failing to come through only at Roland Garros.
Connors, of course, was a much more dominant force, finishing five years in a row (1974-78) at No. 1 in the world on the ATP computer, collecting eight major championships over the course of his outstanding career. Ashe was universally regarded by most authorities as the world’s best player in 1975, although he never officially wore that label in the rankings. He took five less majors than the left-handed dynamo he faced in the 1975 Wimbledon title round duel.
But this book is not simply about numbers and achievements, statistics and career arcs. It is about how a pair of great players born almost a decade apart collided dramatically on the lawns of Wimbledon, with the younger man an overwhelming favorite to oust his adversary and retain his title. It is a thorough reflection on Connors and Ashe that transcends their tennis exploits and casts considerable light on both as human beings. Bodo is very adept at assessing the character of the two luminaries, looking closely at who they were and how they were perceived at different stages of their evolution.
For example, he points to a harrowing moment when Connors was only eight years old. He was practicing in East St. Louis with his brother Johnny when some thugs approached their mother and grandfather and beat them— reprehensibly, savagely and brutally. Gloria Connors lost most of her teeth that day in Jones Park. Jimmy Connors would forever recollect that infuriating, humiliating and deeply dismaying incident, and it colored his character forever.
As Bodo writes, “Jimmy will often trace the anger and rage that suddenly wells up in him throughout his life to that day in Jones Park. Gloria understands those feelings in her favorite son, and she finds a good use for them…. Gloria and Jimmy don’t give a damn about what the world thinks, for they see themselves as ‘outsiders’ living a perpetual struggle in an ‘us vs. them world’…. The grotesque irony is that they are outsiders mainly in their view, not in the eyes of the world. But perhaps it is always that way. And perhaps it serves Gloria’s purposes and ambitions.”
Describing Ashe during his UCLA years in the sixties, Bodo writes, “Arthur Ashe enjoys the intellectual stimulation of college. His disciplined mind is also receiving rigorous workouts, some of which make him uncomfortable. The Black Power movement is stirring to life, and while Ashe stubbornly refuses to immerse himself in racial preoccupations, some of the questions materializing from the ether of a changing society are vexing ones. He isn’t demonstrative, he isn’t angry, he doesn’t believe in the politics of confrontation any more than he believes in the essential right to be rude. It just isn’t his style.”
Addressing Ashe in another context, Bodo writes, “He’s never just another tennis player. Sometimes he’s a symbol of his society’s most benighted prejudices, at other times the beneficiary of touching acts of support. He brings out the worst in certain institutions and the best in some people. He spent his early years being told he’s ‘too black’, but soon will, in the opinion of some, be ‘too white.’ He will be many things to many people, but the one thing he will not be is plain old tennis genius Arthur Ashe.”
Some of the best work done by Bodo in the book concerns the inimitable Pancho Segura, the charismatic and enterprising coach of Connors. Gloria Connors sent Jimmy out to California to start working with Segura when he was nearing his 16th birthday, and Segura played a critical role as a tactical and technical advisor for Connors in his early pro years, most notably in 1974, when Connors won three of the four biggest tournaments and lost only four matches all year long. Bodo astutely points out that the relationship between Connors and Segura—so rewarding for both men—was ultimately doomed because Gloria Connors did not want to relinquish her authority. She and her mother had been the chief architects of Jimmy’s game, and Gloria foolishly and obstinately refused to allow Segura the authority he needed to keep Connors on the right track as a competitor.
Alluding to the early years Segura shared with Connors in the late sixties while Pancho was the celebrated head pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in California, Bodo writes, “Thus, Segura becomes a guru in tennis-drenched Los Angeles. When he is not otherwise engaged at the club, he is up in Pasadena, helping the local philanthropist run the program that will produce Stan Smith. Players cognizant of his reputation as a master tactician will make pilgrimages to the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, where the board is wise enough to relax member-guest rules to allow Segura to work with whom he wants, when and where he wants.”
He loved nothing more than working with Connors. I will forever recollect walking right behind Segura at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills during the 1974 U.S. Open. Segura was looking to locate Connors, who was probably thirty yards ahead of him walking from the clubhouse toward the fabled stadium. Segura whistled loudly, and then exclaimed, “Jimbo! Jimbo!” After a brief moment, I could hear Connors responding with the same whistle, and yelling, “Segu!” Segura raced ahead to find his young charge. That was their system. It was how they operated.
In any event, Segura was in my view the single most important individual ever to cross paths with Connors across a storied career. He taught him how to think, what to believe, and the right way to play strategically on the biggest points. Bodo writes perceptively, “Segura also sees something of himself in Connors—a vestige of that outsider bent on conquering a world not his own.” Bodo adds later that Connors “will always remember Segura telling him: ‘All I ask is that you believe in yourself. No negative thoughts, no excuses. Lose like a man and win like a man. If you’re injured, don’t play. If you play, you’re not injured. Always give 100 percent and I’ll be happy.’”
That, of course, was the Connors trademark. He was the toughest and most resilient competitor of his era, and one of the ironclad gladiators of all time. Connors was a fighter through and through, ever motivated, always looking for ways out of danger, seldom if ever giving up on himself. Meanwhile, Connors had always believed he was not one of the boys; he prided himself on being a maverick playing by his own rules, setting his own agenda, and surrounding himself only with unabashed loyalists. He had that unequivocally in the form of Bill Riordan, his colorful and often obstreperous manager.
Riordan is given serious treatment in the book by Bodo, and deservedly so. Riordan’s influence on Connors for a long stretch in the early to mid-seventies was almost boundless. He was much like a fight promoter who had a penchant for making outrageous comments about and for his client, and for a long while Connors relished the wit, calculated madness and sheer originality of Riordan.
Bodo writes, “In Riordan, Connors has found a man with whom he can bond in a way that goes deeper, if not more usefully, than the way he connects with Pancho Segura. Unlike Jimbo’s indurate coach, Riordan is a sentimentalist at heart; he shamelessly compares himself and Jimmy to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or, as Riordan once told Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated: ‘Gloria and Two-Mom said how nice I was, and wouldn’t it be great to have a guy like me represent a guy like Jimmy? We’re generations apart, as you know, but practically the same person. The only difference is that when I started out, I made the choice between good and evil, and picked good. The kid went the other way.”
Eventually, Riordan took his free-wheeling style and capacity for deliberate trouble making too far, to the detriment of Connors, who wasn’t paying enough attention and was often too willing to go along with his manager’s whims. Ashe was a proud member of the ATP board from the very beginning in 1972—and was one of the prime movers and shakers behind the Wimbledon player boycott in 1973 when most of the leading players forthrightly stood up for their peer Nikki Pilic and chose not to participate in the sport’s showcase event. But Connors—spurred on by a defiant Riordan—refused to join the ATP and played at Wimbledon that year. That did not endear him to Ashe or any of the top players, who were rankled by the young American’s deliberate ignorance, arrogance and self-centeredness.
Ashe was a perennial top five to ten in the world player who had won the first United States Open in 1968 and captured the Australian Open two years later. He made it to the 1972 U.S. Open final and should have prevailed on the grass courts at Forest Hills for the second time, but he was beaten in a five set final by Connors’ buddy Ilie Nastase after leading two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth set. By 1973, Connors was ascending swiftly in only his second season as a pro, winning the U.S. Pro Championships in five sets over Ashe, toppling Ashe again in a straight set final at the South African Open. That set the stage for a glorious 1974 campaign when the southpaw American was nearly invincible.
Connors won every major he contested that season at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But he was barred from the French Open, as were all players who committed to the newly formed World TeamTennis. Riordan used that as the basis for a “legal claim”, as Bodo puts it. That failed but Riordan persisted with one of his many lawsuits in those years, this one against Jack Kramer (CEO of the ATP, Donald Dell (ATP legal counsel and manager of Ashe and other players), and Commercial Union (sponsor of the year-long Grand Prix circuit). Riordan was blaming the likes of Kramer, Dell and the tour itself for keeping his man from playing the French Open, thus denying the American a chance to become only the third man ever to win the Grand Slam.
Bodo points out that the lawsuit was eventually dropped. He added, “The news stories noted that Connors was actually suing his fellow players, almost all of whom were members of the ATP, and Ashe in particular (he was then President of the ATP), for $10 million. Connors would later claim to have confronted Riordan for taking this unilateral action that neither Jimbo nor Gloria knew about. But at the time, he issued no such disclaimer. In fact, he appeared to enjoy the notoriety.”
All of these manufactured lawsuits instigated by Riordan contributed mightily to the unpopularity of and disdain for Connors. Leading up to his account of the Ashe-Connors Wimbledon final of 1975, Bodo writes, “After Riordan files his $10 million lawsuit against the usual suspects for allegedly conspiring to keep Jimmy Connors out of the  French Open, Kramer fires back with a $3 million lawsuit against Riordan and Connors, accusing them of libel. If Riordan has any regrets about accusing Kramer of ‘lining his pockets’, or characterizing Kramer and Dell as ‘piranhas who have attempted to monopolize the game’, he’s keeping mum about them. He keeps firing away, and because he is the manager of the most riveting character—as well as the best player—in all of tennis, he takes full advantage of the bully pulpit. Both lawsuits were ultimately dropped, and came to nothing, partly because Riordan was let go by Connors.”
Interestingly, Bodo speculates that many in “the cognoscenti” believed Connors would have won the Grand Slam in 1974, but the view here is markedly different. Connors never won the French Open, and the odds would have been stacked against him in 1974; in fact, he never even made it to the final of the world’s premier clay court tournament. In any case, over the first half of 1975, Ashe was playing some of the most inspired and intelligent tennis of his life. He was the dominant force on the WCT circuit, featuring most of the top players, and he won the prestigious WCT Finals at Dallas over Bjorn Borg.
Connors, meanwhile, was playing on the Riordan circuit against largely second rate opposition. And he was losing just a trace of his luster; at the start of that 1975 season, the wily John Newcombe cut him down in a four set Australian Open final. That victory foreshadowed Ashe’s Wimbledon win in some respects. Although Connors bounced back in the winter and spring to topple Rod Laver and Newcombe in so-called “Winner Take All” televised challenge matches on CBS, he did not have quite the swagger he had displayed the previous year.
Yet Connors swept into the Wimbledon final without conceding a set in six matches, crushing the big-serving southpaw Roscoe Tanner in the semifinals with a devastatingly potent return of serve display. Connors, of course, was renowned for his majestic return of serve, and that was the cornerstone of his game. His backcourt prowess was unassailable as well. His flat groundstroke trajectory was awfully difficult to counter. Above all else, Connors was supremely combative.
But Ashe was quietly confident. He knocked off Borg—who would win Wimbledon for the next five years (1976-80)—in the quarterfinals and then ousted the tenacious, left-handed Tony Roche in a five set semifinal. That triumph took Ashe into the final, which was played five days before his 32nd birthday. Bodo incorrectly wrote that the July 5 skirmish was played on a Sunday, but the switch to Sunday finals for the men did not take place for another seven years, when Connors toppled John McEnroe in a classic five set 1982 final.
In any event, the night before Ashe took on Connors in the most important tennis match he would ever play, he assembled his brain-trust to help devise the right strategy. That group included his old friend and former doubles partner Charlie Pasarell, Marty Riessen (with whom Ashe joined forces to win the 1971 French Open doubles title), Erik Van Dillen (a former U.S. Davis Cup doubles player) close friend and manager Dell, and Ashe’s buddy Freddie McNair, a fine player who excelled in doubles. In his first autobiography called Off The Court (with Neil Amdur), Ashe remembers McNair telling him, “You’ve got to play through his [Connors’] strengths to his weaknesses.”
Bodo interviewed Pasarell and Dell about that fateful evening, and alludes to the phone conversation Ashe had with another former doubles partner and masterful thinker Dennis Ralston, a finalist at Wimbledon in 1966 and one of the sport’s premier coaches. McNair is not mentioned by Bodo, but undoubtedly he played a significant role in allowing Ashe to figure out precisely how he wanted to play Connors, as Riessen and Van Dillen must have done as well. But clearly Dell and Pasarell were highly influential because they were such highly valued friends of Ashe.
The consensus was that Ashe should resist the impulse to play the way he had throughout the bulk of his career. Ashe was known for “hitting out” on the ball, going for audacious winners, imposing his will with a daring degree of power, and serving big and potently. He was inclined to go for broke and play with abandon. Ashe was a serve-and-volleyer of the front rank but not a percentage player of the John Newcombe or Rod Laver mold. Gradually, however, Ashe injected a wider range of tactics and greater court awareness into his craftsmanship. In his victory over Borg at Dallas that year, he mixed power with finesse persuasively; many observers overlooked that performance as a barometer for how Ashe at that period in his career had evolved into a more diversified and flexible player.
Be that as it may, no one was fully prepared for what he would produce against Connors on the Centre Court. He had never beaten Connors in three previous confrontations, losing twice in straight sets at the 1973 and 1974 South African Open finals in addition to the five set showdown at the 1973 final of the U.S. Pro Championships. But Dell, Pasarell, McNair and Ralston had fueled him with a newfound belief. They urged him to serve Connors wide with slice deliveries in the deuce court, to give Connors softly paced shots down the middle of the court, to make the southpaw hit a lot of low forehands, and use the lob more regularly that he had done before. He was encouraged to avoid serving potently too frequently and to rely instead on his location, particularly in the deuce court with the wide delivery.
Bodo skillfully navigated the pre-match planning, and then does an excellent job of recreating the atmosphere in the Centre Court on that memorable July afternoon nearly forty years ago. He writes, “There is no sign of overwhelming, pro-Connors sentiment in this crowd. And that can be attributed to the popularity of Arthur Ashe. No black man has ever been champion at Wimbledon, and if you were to create an appropriate one to achieve that honor you might come up with someone like Ashe. The contrast he embodies with Connors is inescapable and manifest on almost every level, and that accounts for some of the palpable tension in the air, which is otherwise soft and still.”
Ashe cut down the heavily favored Connors 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in that historic final, recording one of the most celebrated victories ever in that cherished arena, putting on the single most cerebral display of his career. Bodo builds up to that contest beautifully, giving the readers a deep understanding of who these men were and how they got there. Surprisingly, he makes no mention of Ashe having breakfast with his close friend Doug Stein the morning of the final and saying, “I have this strange feeling that I just can’t lose today”. Moreover, Ashe later told some of us that he looked up after the first two sets and, “the clock told me it was only 2:41. I thought it was at least 3:15 or 3:20. I really think if I had not looked up at the clock, I would have beaten Connors in straight sets. That snapped me out of a time warp.”
Eventually, of course, Ashe prevailed, and Bodo admirably depicts the older American’s triumph after Connors threatened to take the match into a fifth set. Bodo’s best material in the latter stages of the book comes from conversations he had with Dell and Pasarell. In many sections of the book, he culls material gathered from other books, including Joel Drucker’s “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life”; the autobiography of Connors entitled The Outsider; Ashe’s autobiography Days of Grace, and a diary of a year on the tour done by Ashe with collaborator Frank DeFord in 1975 called Portrait in Motion. But Bodo consistently applies his nimble mind to add layers of insight to what others have written on the subject.
It is a very enjoyable read from a seasoned and discerning reporter. Peter Bodo vividly brings the reader back to a monumental occasion in the game, to a match and performance that could never really be replicated. Ashe and Connors are portrayed fairly and accurately, as both players and people. The story is enticing every step of the way. In the final analysis, this is a book to be celebrated by a wide range of fans who will clearly want to have it in their homes.
You can purchase Peter Bodo’s book here