Blair Henley / Wedneday, October 30, 2013
ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on Jimmy Connors brought back memories for Tennis Now's Blair Henley,
and served as a reminder that personality, for better or worse, is good for the game.
(Photo Credit: Al Bello / Getty Images)
Lying flat on my back, I could see white wisps of vapor moving overhead. It was a hot, sunny day in New York, I knew that much. My friends in Florida, where I lived during the winter, didn’t believe it could get so suffocatingly hot all the way up north. Experience a New York heat wave once and you get it.
Quite comfortable in my repose, I had forgotten how I arrived in that position, staring up at the blazing sun and the agonizingly small slivers of cloud cover. Then I saw one panic-stricken face pop into my line of sight, obstructing my quite pleasant view of the sky, then another, then another.
Wait a second…
I wasn’t supposed to be cloud-gazing with bits of Har-Tru green clay stuck to my sweaty limbs. I was supposed to be listening to Andres Gomez give his runner-up speech after losing to Jimmy Connors in the final of the 1995 Citibank Champions. That’s when it hit me: My 12-year-old ballgirl self had just blacked out in front of a stadium full of people. The last thing I remembered was lining up with my fellow ballkids in a perfectly staged semicircle around the trophy table, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind my back, as Gomez – the 1990 French Open Champion – took the microphone to accept his prize money check.
Before I knew it, I was being draped with cold towels as the talking heads hovering above me repeatedly asked if I was okay. Though this was my first fainting experience, I figured I was fine – physically, at least. But even in my lightheaded stupor, I was very, VERY, aware of a certain sense of, oh yeah, complete mortification. I had just passed out while thousands of people watched, successfully interrupting the trophy presentation of two famous tennis players.
At that moment, a familiar face entered my field of vision.
“Can I get you a beer?”
Had I been a few years older, I surely would have paused to consider the possibility of hallucination before breaking out in an ear-to-ear grin because Jimmy Connors, the Jimmy Connors, had asked me if I wanted an alcoholic beverage. As he looked down at me, his trademark flapper-fringe bangs falling forward, my embarrassment disintegrated. All I could think of was the story I would tell my friends at tennis practice the next day.
Truth be told, I wasn’t old enough to remember Connors’ improbable run to the 1991 US Open semifinals in detail. But I, like many others, relived it Tuesday night in the masterfully done ESPN 30 for 30 film, This Is What They Want. Had I known all there was to know about Jimmy Connors at age 12, I probably wouldn’t have been so excited that he offered me a cold one. He is, admittedly, a rude, self-centered egomaniac, a fact we were all recently reminded of when he intimated highly personal details of his relationship with Chris Evert in his memoir without her knowledge or consent.
But he was also an incredible athlete and showman. He was great for the game. True tennis fans get all warm and fuzzy when Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro engage in a tender embrace after a five-set battle, but general sports fans, the fans who need to care about tennis if the game ever hopes to return to its McEnroe-Borg-Connors-era glory, care more about what their favorite quarterback had for breakfast today than they do about friendships on the ATP Tour.
Tennis could use a heaping spoonful of the drama Connors created via his interaction with the crowd and his hatred of his opponents. Tennis purists poo-poo Victoria Azarenka’s admission of milking a medical timeout and Ernests Gulbis’ spoiled child routine on the court, but characters and controversy create interest.
Connors was right. The people want drama. They want to pull for one player. They want to hate another. To be sure, Connors lived an internet-free existence, one where he couldn’t be taunted on Twitter for being a twit or Google himself only to see page after page of negativity. Perhaps he, too, would have been tamed by technology had it been available. Regardless, Connors provided a showmanship blueprint that could be quite useful for players today. Let’s hope a few of them were watching Tuesday night.
Post-fainting spell, I would eventually get carted off the court, NFL-style, to cheers from the crowd. Turns out, I was the first of five ballkids who went down for the count that day. By the time they were tended to, giving Connors the chance to accept his championship trophy, many people had cleared out of the stadium. A group of dehydrated preteens had done what so few were able to do during Connors’ career – steal his thunder.