Imagine someone with the mentality of a steel-cage, no-holds-barred ultimate fighter, the build of a KPMG accountant and the megalomania of George S. Patton and you get some idea of what James Scott Connors, one of the great players of the Open Era, brought to the world of tennis. Connors, the winner of a record 109 men’s tournament singles titles but someone criticized for his crass behavior and lack of respect for opponents and umpires, was once quoted as saying that “people don’t understand that it’s a damn war out there.”
By “people,” he must have been referring to the fans or the media because it’s unlikely that that fact escaped his opponents, particularly ones he thought he could intimidate or drive to distraction with his shenanigans.
One of those unfortunate rivals was Brad Gilbert, an occasional top 10 player best known for his later success as Andre Agassi’s coach, who described two encounters with Jimmy in his classic tennis instructional guide “Winning Ugly.” In one battle with Connors, Gilbert reached match point, hit an apparent winner, heard the sweet-sounding “Game, Set, Match, Gilbert” from the umpire and went to the net to receive congratulations from his seemingly vanquished opponent.
The only problem was that, in Connors’ mind, the fact that his adversary – while holding match point – happened to hit a ball inside the lines that he couldn’t reach and the umpire declared the match to be over was not enough of a reason for the contest to end.
Instead of accepting defeat, Connors proceeded to go ballistic, yelling and screaming at the umpire and whipping the crowd into an uproar. Before Gilbert knew what had hit him, the umpire had officially undone his previous declaration and the shell-shocked Californian found himself having to re-win a match he had already won.
Predictably, Gilbert hardly won another point, becoming yet another victim of tennis’ all-time master at gamesmanship.
The second incident had a happier ending for Gilbert. He won the match, but not until after almost losing control of it when Connors – facing a routine straight-set defeat – began clowning around with the fans in an attempt to break Gilbert’s concentration and lull him into thinking the match was over.
While these antics may have irked opponents and made tennis purists wince, the fact is the average tennis fan – especially in America and especially as he got older and less dominant – admired Connors for his ferocious, never-say-die attitude and because he was sure to give them a little value-added for their entertainment dollar.
Unlike most of today’s nose-to-the-grindstone types doing all they can to pretend the spectators aren’t even there, Connors orchestrated the crowd like Leonard Bernstein on steroids. If he wanted them to erupt he would pump his fists and gesture toward them; if he wanted them to hiss and whistle, he’d start picking on the umpire; if he wanted them to laugh, he’d go into his bag of tricks.
In one Connors match I happened to witness as a teenager at the 1987 Cincinnati event, his opponent – Nigeria’s Nduka Odizor – was unhappy with a call and spent several minutes unsuccessfully arguing his case with the chair umpire. The crowd started getting restless and Jimmy – perhaps bored, perhaps annoyed that he wasn’t the center of attention – began hitting a tennis ball high into the night sky and fielding it with his racquet before it hit the ground. First 30 feet in the air, then 40, then 50 or 60, with Connors each time deftly “catching” the ball on his strings.
The crowd started laughing and became mesmerized by Connors’ routine, completely forgetting about Odizor’s conversation with the chair umpire. After Jimmy won the match in three sets, the Cincinnati fans went home happy to have seen one of the game’s all-time greats and also to have been treated to great entertainment by a master showman.
Born September 2, 1952, in Belleview, Illinois, Connors was a top junior and collegiate player at UCLA who quickly carried his success into the pros. Before the age of 22, he had clearly established himself as the best player in the world, winning all three Grand Slam events in which he played in 1974.
The only Slam he missed that year was the French Open, which barred him from competing because he had signed on to play World Team Tennis – a league the French authorities opposed because it conflicted with their championship. Even though the game’s winningest-ever clay-court player – Bjorn Borg – won Roland Garros that year, he was considerably less dominant on the surface in 1974 than he would be in subsequent years.
Considering the Swede went to a decisive third (in the first round) or fifth set four times at that year’s French Open – against Jean-Francois Caujolle, Erik Van Dillen, Raul Ramirez and Manuel Orantes – it’s no stretch whatsoever to think that Connors could have claimed the title, the only Slam that escaped him in his illustrious career.
Even without winning in Paris, however, Connors is one of only five male players in the Open Era – Agassi, Mats Wilander, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being the other four – to win at least one Grand Slam title on grass, hard courts and clay. In Jimmy’s case, he managed to win one of three U.S. Opens played on an artificial clay surface known as Har-Tru, losing in the finals of the other two.
As his record indicates, Connors’ game was adaptable to all surfaces. Though he lacked a big weapon on the serve, he felt completely at home on hard court or grass because of his compact ground strokes and outstanding footwork.
In fact, for Connors, who grew up playing on lightning-fast wood courts at the 178th Armory Artillery in St. Louis, the faster the surface the better. His flattish backhand and and side-spinning forehand produced shots that skidded, stayed low and were difficult to time for most opposing baseliners. And once he gained the upper hand in the point, Connors was second to none at transitioning from baseline to the net to put the ball away.
Against big servers, on the other hand, his uncanny ability to read the direction of their serves, throw his body and racquet at the ball and block it back in play made him tennis’ best returner of his era.
His game also was nearly as effective on clay at that time, since the Spanish and Latin American players of the 1970s and early 80s were using wood racquets and therefore not able to produce the extreme topspin they can today.
Even the so-called clay-court “specialists” were hitting balls that bounced at a reasonable height for Jimmy and allowed him to throw his body into his powerful two-handed backhand and dictate the rallies, much as he was able to on a hard court.
Though Connors was never quite the dominant player that John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Federer would later become, his versatility, grit and consistency made him the best player in the world for five straight years, from 1974-78.
During that period, he won five of his eight Grand Slams and held a clear edge over his chief rival Borg, winning eight of their 12 matches, although two of those losses were Wimbledon finals. Certainly Connors could have won more Slams in those five years; he never played the Australian Open (a relatively minor event at that time) after 1975 and – because of his feud with French officials – didn’t play Roland Garros once during his stint as the world’s best player.
Beginning in 1979, however, Connors began being faced with tennis obstacles he would be able to overcome less and less frequently. The first of these was Borg, who, as Jimmy was gradually departing his prime, was swiftly entering his.
The unflappable Swede could not be rattled by any sort of mind games, gamesmanship or antics. He also had a bigger serve than Jimmy, better footspeed and more margin for error on his groundstrokes. The combination of all those factors added up to eight wins for Borg in the pair’s last eight matches, although to Connors’ credit the final four matches were much more competitive.
About the same time, in a development infinitely more difficult to swallow, Connors also began losing his place as the No. 1-ranked American to upstart fellow brat McEnroe. Between mid-1979 and early 1982, the serve-and-volleyer with hands of gold won seven of their 10 meetings, including all three at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Later on in their careers, during McEnroe’s prime in the mid-1980s, John would compile a 10-match winning streak against the elder Jimmy.
Connors was still very competitive and a feared opponent for anyone, but it was also obvious to anyone watching that the 5’10, 155 lb. American’s lack of a huge serve or forehand left him vulnerable to a player with the athleticism, variety, power and deft touch of McEnroe. The question was whether someone with the pride and, let’s face it, enormous ego of Connors could accept playing second or third fiddle in the world of tennis.
The answer is perhaps surprising. As it turned out, it was the stoic and outwardly modest Borg, another player without an answer to McEnroe’s genius, who couldn’t stomach defeat and called it a career at age 25. Connors, meanwhile, played on and on and on, outlasting Borg – two years his junior – by 15 years and playing his last ATP singles’ event in 1996, two years after McEnroe called it quits.
And even after his “retirement,” Connors kept playing in front of big crowds as the top draw on the senior tour. The fact is that, as much as Jimmy craved winning, he craved competition, the spotlight and the chanceto win even more.
No matter what you think of Connors, his on-court misbehavior and his lack of interest in being a team player (especially his avoidance of Davis Cup for most of his career), there is something admirable in his never-ceasing quest to challenge himself year after year, match after match, convinced there was always something more to achieve, some other great moment in the sport to be seized.
And if you ask most tennis fans what they most remember about Connors’ career, those later, post-1978, post-No. 1 moments are precisely what they recall.
Maybe they remember his stunning upset over heavily favored McEnroe at the 1982 Wimbledon. Or maybe they can’t forget his surprise victories in the 1982 and 1983 U.S. Open finals over a power-hitting but then-mentally fragile Lendl.
Perhaps they still have fresh in their minds his classic, five-set battle against a shaggy-haired, neon-clothed Agassi at the 1989 U.S. Open quarterfinals, a year after getting drubbed by the teenager in straight sets.
Of course, no fan over the age of 30 could ever forget Jimmy’s encore performance, when he captured the attention of the entire sporting world by reaching the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open at age 39.
Many of those who attended that year’s event probably don’t even recall who won the tournament – it was Stefan Edberg – but they’ll never forget Jimmy coming from two sets down to beat McEnroe’s younger brother, Patrick, in the first round.
They could never forget the point against Paul Haarhuis when Connors put up defensive lob after defensive lob before striking a backhand passing shot down the line and putting the crowd into a frenzy.
And they’ll always remember his epic 7-6 in the fifth set duel with Aaron Krickstein, in which an exhausted Connors – being urged on by an entire stadium of adoring and raucous fans – famously said into the camera before the final tiebreaker: “This is what they paid for. This is what they want.”
Certainly, for a me-first and me-against-the-world guy like Connors, he was playing that match for himself not anyone else, but love him, hate him, root for him, root against him, there’s never been anyone in the history of tennis who gave fans more of what they paid for and what they wanted for a longer period of time than legendary competitor Jimmy Connors.