Long Island Tennis Magazine’s Literary Corner: Ray Benton Saved My Life ... A Review of Joel Drucker's "Jimmy Connors Saved My Life"

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I am supposed to review books about tennis in this space, but every so often, a book comes along that weaves the tennis content with so much other profound content that the tennis parts seem secondary.

Joel Drucker's Jimmy Connors Saved My Life is one such book. It's a great title for starters. The book describes the author's teenage and young adult years, as he and his family grapple with his brother's mental illness. Like Frank Conroy's Stop-Time, Drucker's book traces his development into an adult as he deals with normal adolescent crises and some that were specific to him and his family.

To deal as sensitively with these issues, to be able to open up his life for his readers, and to use the tennis star who gave vulgarity a bad name as his sounding board is ironic on about a million levels, but Drucker pulls it off.
But let's give Connors some credit, too. Toward the end of the book, Drucker quotes him as saying, "Your story, that could be of interest. But not me. From me, they want only smut."

At first, Drucker wasn't a fan of Connors. Then he was, and in a big way. In addition to Drucker's struggles to find the appropriate role tennis should play in his life as he grows up, there is another theme that makes Jimmy Connors Saved My Life so affecting. As a young man, Drucker got to know Connors, interviewed him a few times and wrote some stories about his hero. He dreamed of being Connors’ official biographer, but he could never get Connors to commit. In the truest punk rock ethos, when Connors balked, Drucker went ahead and wrote his book about him anyway.

And make no mistake, even if readers of Jimmy Connors Saved My Life hear a lot about Drucker, the book is also a compelling history of the Connors era of tennis. The knowledgeable fan will learn things about Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl that are fascinating.

Today, the tennis world knows of Ray Benton, the chief executive officer of the Tennis Center in College Park, Md. as one of the country’s prime developers of tomorrow's stars. Maybe we know that Benton has worn many hats in the game, including working with Donald Dell in early iterations of the tennis management business.

But Drucker describes the moment in 1975 when Benton was in the middle of one of the sport’s many intense political battles. As director of the Denver World Championship Tennis event, to be televised by NBC (remember the networks used to have some power in American media), Benton had to watch as Connors entered the qualifying round of his Denver event. Connors was scheduled to play in the CBS-sponsored Challenge Match in Las Vegas shortly.

The two stars weren't supposed to play each other in the weeks leading up to the CBS event. When Connors entered the qualifying event, John Newcombe had to drop out. Benton was on the scene trying to soothe the warring factions.

One refreshing aspect of Jimmy Connors Saved My Life is that Drucker doesn't see his hero through rose-colored glasses. After recounting the Benton story, he writes that Connors' behavior at the Denver event was just the kind of craven act that made him so despised.

Drucker also repeats the single quote that sums up his choice of White Whale the best. When Arthur Ashe was asked if Connors was a pain in the neck, he replied, yes but he was his favorite pain in the neck.

This isn't to say that Drucker's book is flawless. About halfway through it, he starts using the word tepid on every other page. Nor does he avoid the worst temptation of the tennis writer. If I had the ear of Wimbledon's board, I'd tell them to take down the sign on the grounds that reads: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat these two Impostors just the same." Drucker uses this riff himself, and then quotes another writer recycling these lines from Rudyard Kipling. By the power vested in me, this quote should never be used or referred to.

But, there is nothing tepid about Drucker's book, either as a memoir of his coming of age or as a thorough recounting of the 70s and 80s glory days of our game. Even to the tennis-besotted, Jimmy Connors is an unlikely muse. But Drucker succeeds like in the jazz adage, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing" and Jimmy Connors Saved My Life swings.

Drucker's book is a sublime accomplishment by a former tennis nerd. Of course, Connors used a straight backswing, while I prefer a loop, but …