The seed of this success story was planted and nurtured in East St. Louis, mostly by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, “Two-Mom,” whose death so disturbed Connors that he nearly quit tennis. It was his grandmother who initially fell in love with the sport and passed her love along to Gloria, who became a nationally ranked player. Gloria, in turn, set the standard not only for athleticism but for toughness in Jimmy.
One telling episode on a public court in St. Louis when he was 8 years old indelibly shaped his attitude. Connors, his older brother Johnny, Gloria, and Two-Mom were playing tennis at Jones Park next to two young toughs whose transistor radio was on full blast. After Gloria’s requests to turn down the volume were ignored, Connors’s grandfather, chief of the park police, attempted to intervene but was jumped and knocked to the court.
Gloria attempted to help her dad only to have several teeth punched out. She wasn’t able to talk for a month, but the next day, when her young sons asked her to play tennis, she managed to join them in hitting balls in the backyard, never complaining of discomfort.
Gloria became Jimmy’s hero, and the raw emotion of that violent day would fuel his passions thereafter. “I could always find something to drive me,” he relates in partnership with sportswriter/editor David Hirshey, “and most of the time those feelings of anger and rage bubbled up from the past. My mother taught me how to harness those emotions. She called them Tiger Juices.”
Under his mother’s tutelage, Connors refined his game, which was long on blistering baseline shots that yanked opponents from side to side.
There was no indoor tennis facility in East St. Louis, so he honed his technique drilling on a Knights of Columbus basketball court, then moved onto the polished-wood floor of the local National Guard armory.
Making impressive use of his signature two-handed backhanded, which was also Evert’s stock in trade, he moved up the junior ranks, playing in tournaments all over the country.