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Sports Then and Now

Jimmy Connors Left It All On The Court

Posted on September 01, 2009 by JA Allen
Jimmy Connors was never one to hide his emotions.

Jimmy Connors was never one to hide his emotions.

James Scott Connors was a momma’s boy, and that became his strength as he battled his way to the top of men’s tennis.

As we settle in for another two-week extravaganza in New York, we must acknowledge the man who won the U.S. Open five times on three different surfaces.  Connors holds the record of having won 98 singles matches at the Open in New York.

With that outrageous attitude…cocky, self-assured, and in your face, Connors epitomized not only tenacious tennis, but New Yorker tennis.

The women in his life taught him to be strong, to stand on his own two feet, and fight for what was rightfully his.  His mother, a teaching pro, taught him how to play tennis.

She taught him well.

Connors turned pro in 1972 and won six tournaments that year, followed by 11 more in 1973 as he became the No. three ranked player in the world.  Jimmy Connors had arrived, finding his special place in the grand scheme.  He knew exactly what he wanted and he understood exactly what it took to get there and stay there.

He dominated men’s tennis in 1974, winning three of the four slams—failing only at the French Open because he was denied entrance after he signed up to participate in World Team Tennis.  Because the ATP and French officials opposed World Team Tennis, Connors was not admitted into the French Open field in 1974.

With Connors, you either loved him or you hated him.  There was no middle ground.  Tennis fans loved his workman-like ethics and his intensity.  As an adversary he became like a doberman affixed to your backside.  There was no shaking him loose once he sensed your vulnerability.

He had a vocabulary, however, that would have made Lenny Bruce and even Andrew Dice Clay blush.  His obscene gestures sent fans either over the top or reaching for the smelling salts.  He gave linesmen the finger and engaged in other gestures that rivaled the sheer brazen defiance of Courtney Love.

He argued with umpires, tournament officials, and other players.  He was even booed at Wimbledon in 1977 when he brushed off participation in the Parade of Champions.  Connors did what pleased him and in the process often bruised egos and ruffled feathers.

Connors had a very long career and played competitive pro tennis until he was 41 years of age—eventually retiring from the tour in 1993.

Today, his most treasured and perhaps most memorable U.S. Open tournament was his appearance in 1991 when, at the age of 39, he rallied back time after time against younger players.

Beseeching the crowd and imploring the tournament officials to be fair, Connors clawed his way back from the brink of defeat so many times, he became a cult favorite of the mad New York crowd.

Jimmy Connors won the U.S. Open five times.

Jimmy Connors won the U.S. Open five times.

He defeated a young Patrick McEnroe, Michiel Schapers, and Karel Novacek before meeting Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round.  Krickstein and Connors took it to the fifth set, where Krickstein built a 5-2 lead.  But Connors, spurred on by the crowd and sheer adrenalin, came back to win in a fifth-set tiebreak.  The crowd went berserk.

Connors won his quarterfinal over Paul Haarhuis but lost in the semifinals to Jim Courier.  The New York crowd had literally picked Connors up and carried him all the way into the final four, where reality finally trumped the dream.

His days as a player ended on that note.  It was his last hurrah.  He competed a couple of more years but without impact.

He went on to develop and play on a tour for players over 35.  He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1998 and for a brief spell he coached Andy Roddick.

But now he returns to tennis as an analyst for the Tennis Channel and, with Martina Navratilova, will begin his duties by hosting the U.S. Open in the Tennis Channel’s debut coverage in New York.

The Tennis Channel, eager to break through into the big time in cable television, banks on Connors’ celebrity status to help them wedge their way into a market already filled with superstar networks and renowned commentators.

The blunt and outspoken Navratilova will undoubtedly test the diplomatic skills of Connors, whose outrageous behavior has softened over the decades.  Still, they do make quite a dynamic duo pitted against each other or together against the established order of media coverage.

In the early stages, it should be as interesting to follow the online coverage provided by Connors and Navratilova as it is the matches they cover.  Can they reign in their individual proclivities and assimilate them into proper broadcaster etiquette?  Judging the two personalities they can and will make a compelling team or die trying…

If the past is any predictor of the future, Connors will find a way to make the broadcast booth his own and take the tennis world by storm again in his own fashion, doing it his way…

JA Allen is a regular contributor to Sports Then and Now.

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