Between 1975 and 1977, Jimmy Connors’ manager organized a « heavyweight tennis world championship » for his protégé. They copied the model of boxing : a series of very lucrative matches which thrilled the Las Vegas Caesars Palace.
At the start of the year 1975, Jimmy Connors had just ended an exceptional season, with three Grand Slam victories in the three Grand Slam he had played (the only exception : the French Open, as the organizers punished him for having played in slightly obscure exhibition matches before the tournament.) During his third triumph of the season, at the US Open, the myth says he yelled out a provocative « Bring me Laver », informing the rest of the world of his will to defy the one who was considered the best, at the time, on a tennis court. The Australian was then 36, and only took part in a few major tournaments, but he remained the ultimate reference. A legend who achieved the Grand Slam in two different years, 1962, and 1969. The wise old man, Rod Laver against the arrogant Jimmy Connors, a match which sounded legendary. But as the first one was less and less present on the circuit, it seemed improbable to see the two facing each other in an official tournament. The duel had to be planned, and that’s what the American’s manager, a certain Bill Riordan, decided to do.
Financial deal and big lie
A funny chap, that Bill Riordan : he’s the one who supposedly advised Connors to snub the US Davis Cup team and favor his own personal career, and to accept lucrative invites to play in exhibition matches. The son of a boxing manager, this boxing fan had the idea of organizing a « heavyweight championship of tennis », copying the model of the most famous and prestigious boxing duel. Amused by the challenge which was offered to him, Rod Laver accepted to be the sparring-partner. Amused, but mainly interested for the lucrative aspect of the match. « I was only there because I had never been offered that much money to hit a ball », the man who won eleven Grand Slam tournaments later said. Behind the scenes, Riordan had decided how much money he was going to give the two players : 100 000 dollars for his protégé, and 60 000 for the Australian veteran. The duel was however sold to the public and to the media as a 100 000 dollar match for the winner, with the defeated player getting nothing, to make things a little more spicier.
Eastwood and Heston in the stands
The match was held at the Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, on February 2nd, 1975. A tennis courts with stands which could welcome 4000 spectators was specially built for the occasion. The tickets were sold for 25 to 100 dollars. Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood were among the celebrities present to witness this moment of history, which was however far from the original and noble aspect of the sport. Each of the player had their coach in a corner, just like in a ring. As for the crowd, it was displayed very close to the players, and asked to set the place on fire. Rod Laver won it over Connors at the clap-o-meter. Booed, the latter payed for his supposed arrogance his refusal to play for the national team (ironically, the Americans were knocked out prematurely from the Davis Cup by Mexico, on that same weekend, in Palm Springs.) « I thought that I was playing well, remembers Laver in his autobiography. I was a strong opponent. The crowd was behind me, and Jimmy got annoyed and gave one of the stands the finger. » But in this duel of lefties, and despite Laver’s wonderful volleys, Connors ended up winning the match in four sets, 6/4 6/2 3/6 7/5, in what remains the only match played between the two players.
Undefeated in four « fights »
Despite the criticism the event received in the world of tennis, Riordan decided to carry on with the adventure, as he was helped by the investments made by the exclusive broadcaster, the channel CBS. Connors, having won this first unofficial heavyweight tennis champion’s « belt », defended his title on April 26th, 1975, against John Newcombe, still in Las Vegas, and once more at the Caesars Palace against Manolo Orantes on February 28th, 1976. Two opponents defeated, just like the third and last, Ilie Nastase, in a match played in Porto Rico this time, at the Dorado Beach hotel, on March 6th 1977. A month later, Bill Riordan revealed to the press that the prize money for each player was decided before the match, contrary to what he had always said before. A lie which provoked a scandal, and meant the end of these exhibition matches, as well as the termination of Riordan and Connors’ professional relationship. Nevertheless, Jimmy Connors will forever remain as the unique heavyweight tennis champion.