BY HOMER JACOBS
12th Man Magazine
Jimmy Connors won eight Grand Slam tennis titles and spent 160 weeks atop the world rankings during his illustrious and boisterous career.
He has beaten Bjorn Borg, won epic matches against John McEnroe and even took down Father Time in reaching the U.S. Open semifinals as a 39-year-old in 1991.
Jimbo did it all. He just couldn’t beat Bob McKinley.
In one of the more amazing anomalies in the tennis world, McKinley, now the assistant men’s tennis coach at Texas A&M, once beat Connors 18 straight times as the two grew up together on the junior tennis circuit.
“Where he grew up—Bellville, Ill.—is literally right across the river from St. Louis,” McKinley recalled. “So, he played all his tennis in St. Louis. And I’m from St. Louis, and I’m about a year and half older than he is. He was always good, and we virtually would end up playing in the finals of every tournament in that area, starting from when we were 12 or 13.
“I just had his number, primarily at first because I was a little older. But then it got to be a mental thing to where he just didn’t think he could beat me.”
The ultimate dagger of a match for Connors came in the early 1970s when McKinley was in college at Trinity University in San Antonio and Connors was still a senior in high school. Connors was two games away from knocking out his old nemesis.
McKinley was in desperation mode, so he began to hit drop shots to bring Connors to the net, where the hard-hitting groundstroke king was uncomfortable, particularly in hitting overhead smashes.
McKinley lobbed Connors into submission, rallying to win yet again.
“After the match, I was coming off the court, and his mother, Gloria, is waiting for me,” McKinley said. “As I’m coming off the court, she comes up and shakes her finger in my face and says, ‘You will never beat Jimbo like that again. We’re going to go home and work on his overhead.’
“The first time he beat me really hurt because it was the quarterfinals of the NCAAs. And I was serving for the match with two points from winning the match. And he came back and beat me, won the NCAAs, turned pro…and he just took off. But I should have beaten him again.”
Connors became a tennis legend. But McKinley’s tennis career has been a hall-of-fame one, as well. In fact, McKinley’s name resides in five halls of fame—from the prestigious International Tennis Association to that at his alma mater.
The accolades are a culmination of an impressive playing and coaching career, as McKinley reached as high as No. 50 in the world on the men’s pro tour and played in the round of 16 at Wimbledon in singles and the semifinals of the U.S. Open in doubles.
He later went on to coach at Trinity from 1974-84 and direct the famed John Newcombe Tennis Academy in New Braunfels for 11 years.
But after tiring of the babysitting that is often required at the Newcombe’s, McKinley was hoping to follow his heart back to the college game.
And then received the call from Aggieland…or, specifically, Tim Cass.
The former A&M head coach was about to land one of the most respected tennis minds in the country. The only problem was that Cass would soon take an administrative job at New Mexico, leaving McKinley to dangle in the wind.
Fortunately, the Aggies then hired Steve Denton in the summer of 2006 as head coach, and Denton honored Cass’ first offer.
“The thing I knew and loved was college tennis,” said McKinley. “I didn’t care about being the head coach.”
Now, McKinley and Denton are trying to rebuild the Aggie program into a national contender, with A&M set to host its third NCAA Championships this May.
“It’s going a little slower than we had hoped,” McKinley said. “We thought we would come in here and this year be a top-10 team. And that’s still a possibility, but not looking like a probability. But (the program) is definitely going in the direction we wanted it to.”
If the Aggies somehow reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs, there’s one UCLA alum who may not want to see a Bruin-Aggie match-up…James Scott Connors.
THE McKINLEY FILE
Bob McKinley grew up in St. Louis and resides in College Station with his wife, Elaine. The couple has four children, including Stephanie, a third-year veterinarian student at Texas A&M.
•A 1972 cum laude graduate of Trinity University. Four-time tennis All-American and captain of the ’72 NCAA championship team at Trinity.
•Coached Trinity to the finals of the NCAA Championships in 1977 and 1979
•Reached No. 50 in the world as singles player and beat such former top-10 players as Brian Gottfried and Roscoe Tanner among others; teamed with Dick Stockton to reach the doubles semifinals of the 1972 U.S. Open.
“The pro tour was fun. It was a different era. Guys would compete on the court and go have a beer after the match. In the locker room, you’d sit around and play backgammon. It was more like a big fraternity and club than the way it is now. And that’s all because of money.
“One of our (A&M) players here recently asked me if I had an entourage. Nobody had one. Even the best players in the world didn’t travel with coaches, trainers and all this stuff. You were out there by yourself.”