- Joel Drucker
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"Alone in his already decaying pleasure palace, aloof, seldom visited, never photographed "
-- From the film, "Citizen Kane"
All the better for both parties when Andy Roddick earned his most impressive tournament title in 18 months the same week he announced the resignation of Jimmy Connors as a coach. Memories of the Roddick-Connors relationship will fade rapidly, aided by the rocket fuel-like burst of energy gained from his victorious run last week in Dubai.
Like all relationships, no one will ever know precisely what factors triggered their breakup. Roddick's announcement that Connors had resigned, however, carried the tinge of orchestration. The magnanimous Roddick was willing to declare that Connors had vacated his post. The reticent Connors was unavailable for comment but issued a fairly terse statement. "Andy and I developed a great personal relationship and my admiration for Andy is unwavering; I have instilled in him some of my love and passion for the game and given him all the necessary ingredients to challenge the best; now it is up to him to trust it and incorporate it into his game; it has always been my view that maximum success as a tennis professional requires a 365 day a year commitment and I know he can do it."
Even if Roddick's comments implied a mutual parting, the notion that Connors had resigned -- allegedly therefore, strictly on his own terms -- in no way implied any disenchantment on the pupil's part. Roddick surely wouldn't have minded having Connors nearby at more tournaments and events he holds dear, such as the Davis Cup.
From the minute it was announced in July 2006, Roddick-Connors was akin to one of those celebrity hookups for which the death watch begins instantly. The day after the two held their first joint news conference together, a former Grand Slam champion asked me, "Do you think this is more about Jimmy or Andy?" I replied, "I think you answered your own question."
Probably the biggest reason the duo worked well was that Roddick kicked himself out of a slump the summer of 2006, winning the prestigious Masters title in Cincinnati and reaching the final of the U.S. Open. "I liked his work ethic and desire," Connors said at the time. "It reminded me of me."
The conventional approach to coaching is that in order to effect change the coach must first see the world through his player's eyes. Connors' approach to Roddick differed: You will see the world through my eyes. And as Roddick implied -- but never discussed in particular detail -- the view was spectacular.
So why did it stop? Results are but one part. Since that 2006 U.S. Open, Roddick hasn't reached another Grand Slam final. And perhaps there was a hint of frustration on the Connors' part at his and Roddick's struggles to improve Roddick's game -- ironically and notably in the areas in which Connors excelled, return of serve and transition game.
But results and technique are only partial explanations for Connors' exit. Even if he was cosseted in his role as guru for Roddick and his day-to-day coach, Andy's brother John, a tidal wave of emotions bubbled and boiled inside Connors during his time with Roddick that will likely never be revealed.
Connors has spent much of the past year in mourning. In January 2007, his mother Gloria died. She was not only the person who brought him into the world, but she was also his coach, confidante and, most likely, only true friend -- someone he talked to 10 times a day. "They're all out to get you Jimmy," she'd told him more than once. Paranoia and fanatical dedication had taken the two of them from East St. Louis, Ill., to the top of the world.
With his anchor gone, Connors viewed tennis in a light that was more harsh, painful and lonely than ever. On the one hand, he saw a sport of great riches. In 1982, the year Connors won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he earned a bit more than $1.1 million. A quarter century later, that was the 10th-highest sum on the men's tour, an amount won by 14th-ranked Tomas Berdych. "At least when I played, you had to win big to make big money," Connors once said.
Perhaps in Connors' mind the men's game had become less an entrepreneurial jungle and more the province of middle managers -- a contented group of languid baseline bangers younger than Jimbo's son passing time, happy to accept their cozy offices and parking spaces while King Roger reigned supreme. And what was Connors in this lurching republic but some sort of senior consultant?
As their handlers fetched their rackets and energy drinks, what did today's players know of Connors' time in the trenches? Let the likes of McEnroe and Federer wield the racket like a paint brush. For Connors, the racket was a bayonet, a device by which he speared hundreds. Revisiting the emotions stirred by all that blood and guts was no easy task for a 55-year-old man who, as Roddick noted, these days likes walking his dogs in the morning and playing golf.
Sitting inside a stadium watching Roddick struggle to compete effectively, how could Connors merely observe and give up his heart and mind to another player? Even if he liked Roddick, it was supremely difficult for Connors to acknowledge anyone else with a racket but himself. In Connors' mind, no one more than he had paid the price; no one else had matched the days he and Gloria had literally scraped ice off the courts so they could practice.
Once upon a time, Connors' stomach, heart and feet had churned like no one in tennis history. Though Connors' on-court expressions might lead you to think he's an extrovert, at his core he's an introvert, an energy conserver so bent on harnessing his anger -- "tiger juices" was the term Gloria used -- that he refused to watch a Western movie the day of a match lest he get caught up watching a chase scene.
A player in his bones, and a shy one at that, it was hardly enjoyable for Connors to do all the work of today's coaches -- the scouting, the talking, the postmortems, the hour after hour hanging out inside locker rooms, dining areas and hotel lobbies.
Shortly before pairing with Roddick, Connors had commenced work on an autobiography. There once was a time when he asked me to write a proposal for such a book. One afternoon, we spent three hours walking and talking across the lawns of Pebble Beach. I asked him, "What would I have learned if I'd have taken lessons from your mother?"
Connors paused, his eyes squinting the way they had so often when he bared down prior to a big point.
"Son," he said, "you'd have learned the game."
But as he sits inside his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., perhaps even Connors doesn't know the full extent of what all that means. And how much it hurts.
Joel Drucker has spent more than 25 years writing about Jimmy Connors. His book, "Jimmy Connors Saved My Life", was published in 2004.
10hEthan Sherwood Strauss