WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents a 2012 National Humanities Medal to National Humanities Medal to writer Frank Deford during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Deford is recognized for transforming how we think about sports. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Steinberger: Deford Is Arguably the Finest Sports Writer of His Generation

Frank Deford announced yesterday that, after 37 years as a sports commentator on NPR, he is stepping away from the mic. Deford, who is 78, had a great voice for radio, full of warmth and mirth, and millions came to know him through his three-minute spots on NPR every Wednesday morning. But millions more knew him first as a sports writer—arguably the finest one of his generation. His retelling of the famous Jack Nicklaus-Tom Watson duel at the 1977 British Open, his profiles of the jockey Steve Cauthen and basketball coach Bobby Knight—these articles enjoy canonical status. So, too, does his 1978 piece about Jimmy Connors. It was memorably titled “Raised by Women to Conquer Men,” and I happen to think it is the greatest tennis article ever written.

I grew up in the same Connecticut town where Deford lives, and one of my closest childhood friends lived a few doors down from him. Oddly, though, I only recall seeing him once; it was after college, I was visiting my parents and stopped in a wine shop to pick up a bottle, and there he was, just as he’d been described numerous times—a dead ringer for Clark Gable. But though I never had the chance to know Deford, I grew up reading him. His stuff was enthralling—the turns of phrase, the economy of style, the elegance of his prose. George Plimpton, hardly a hack himself, said of Deford, “I just wish he wouldn’t write so much—and embarrass the rest of us.” I was a kid, not a sportswriter, so I had no reason to feel embarrassed; I was just in love with the guy’s writing. I hated reaching the last page of a Deford article.

That was especially true of the Connors article. I didn’t read it when it came out; I read it years later, when I bought a collection of Deford’s greatest hits entitled The World’s Tallest Midget (as he explained in the introduction, sportswriters were considered an inferior breed in newsrooms, and the best ones were sometimes described as the tallest midgets. In Deford’s case, one part of that description was actually correct: he was very tall. But as a writer, he was definitely no midget). The Connors article came out prior to the 1978 US Open, on the eve of Connors’s 26th birthday. Four years earlier, as a brash 21-year-old, Connors had had one of the greatest seasons in tennis history, winning three of the four majors, 15 tournaments in total, and 99 of the 103 matches he played. But he had since lost six of seven grand slam finals, and his irascible, coarse behavior had turned him into one of the sports world’s most despised figures. Deford’s article was an attempt to account for his diminished fortunes and his boorishness.

Deford centered the article around Connors’s relationship with his mother Gloria, who was also his coach. Gloria, along with her mother Bertha—known as Two Mom—had taught Connors the game and nurtured both his talent and his pugnaciousness The lewd conduct, Deford suggested, was rooted in Connors’s upbringing. His father had been a somewhat peripheral figure in his life, he’d had few male influences, and his vulgarity seemed to represent a ham-fisted effort to assert his manliness. The odd thing, as Deford noted, was that Connors was a model of decorum off the court and unfailingly respectful of women. “So here, perhaps,” observed Deford, “is the greatest contradiction of all between the public figure and the private man: a genuine personal prudery contrasted with the grotesque machismo and vulgarity he flaunts upon his stage. Connors’s court pantomimes are invariably sexual, his imprecations obscene, his attempts at comedy and his belligerent statements sexual or scatologicalJimbo was going to show the world that he is not some sissy or mama’s boy, but that he can be as coarse and crude as any father’s son.”

Gloria Connors and Two Mom had also imbued Connors with an us-against-the-world mentality that had now, in Deford’s judgment, become the source of his undoing. Bjorn Borg had beaten him in two straight Wimbledon finals and had exposed significant flaws in his game—his serve didn’t have enough pop, and his forehand approach had let him down. But Connors had no interest in tinkering with his game because “to even acknowledge that changes might be considered would, it seems, repudiate all that Gloria and Two Mom did with a child many years ago,” as Deford put it. He refused even to alter the way that he practiced—instead of hitting with fellow touring pros, his regular sparring partners included a teaching pro from Las Vegas and a friend who was a Hollywood producer. Connors was unwilling to adjust and unreceptive to advice from anyone other than his mother, and as a result, his career had stalled.

But Deford went on to say that the challenge posed by Borg went beyond just shotmaking and strategy. Connors, he wrote, had always been motivated by hatred of his opponents—hatred was his fuel, his animating spirit. But Borg, the phlegmatic Swede, was a tough guy to hate. In the closing paragraph of the article, Deford zeroed in on the central paradox and puzzle of Jimmy Connors and suggested that only by finding a new and more positive source of motivation could he regain the invincibility he had shown in ‘74. “It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate in order to win,” Deford said. “And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.”

Connors, not surprisingly, hated the article, and he hit back at Deford in the most effective way possible: he went out and won the 78 Open, crushing Borg in the final 6-4 6-2 6-2. And in the years that followed, it became clear that Deford had failed to entertain another possibility: that even if Connors struggled to muster the requisite hatred for Borg, other rivals would emerge whom he would find it very easy to hate. John McEnroe was one of them; in fact, he and Connors played in the semis of the 78 Open, the fourth meeting in what would quickly become a notoriously contentious rivalry. A year later, Connors played Ivan Lendl for the first time and found an even better foil (which is to say, an even more despised rival) in the dour Czech. It was only towards the end of Connors’s career, when the fans, especially in New York, had turned in his favor, that affection—of and for the crowds—supplanted hate as his chief source of competitive ardor.

But the fact that Deford misjudged Connor’s prospects going forward in no way detracts from the greatness of the article—not in my opinion, anyway. It was a brilliant portrait of a champion who seemed to have lost his way and of a complex, highly unusual relationship between a mother and her son. If you are a younger reader who has been reared on Bill Simmons-style sports journalism, the Deford article will strike you as different. It is different—it is from another era, when sports writing was a little more formal, when writers (even ones as esteemed as Deford) made themselves subservient to the stories and not vice-versa. Deford’s voice in the Connors piece is unmistakable, but he didn’t put himself at the center of the article, didn’t eat up entire paragraphs unspooling his personal theories, didn’t try to dazzle readers with his wit or erudition or vocabulary. It’s the best tennis article that I’ve ever read, and even after all these years and after re-reading it God knows how many times, I still hate getting to the last page.

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