Connors, James Scott ("Jimmy")
CONNORS, James Scott ("Jimmy")
(b. 2 September 1952 in East St. Louis, Illinois), tennis champion who was one of the most dominant players from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s and who won the U.S. Open on three different surfaces.
Connors was the son of James Connors, a tollbooth manager; his mother, Gloria, and his maternal grandmother, Bertha Thompson, were both first-rate tennis players. They put a racquet in his hand as soon as he was able to hold it, and his mother later declared that he had a solid game at age five. Gloria Connors was her son's coach until he was sixteen; mother and son then moved to Los Angeles so he could receive special training from Pancho Segura, one of the most unorthodox and most effective players of the 1940s and 1950s. Under Segura's tutelage, Connors learned to make his two-handed backhand a fearsome weapon; Segura himself had been noted for using two hands on both the forehand and backhand side.
Connors attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and was All-American in tennis in 1971. He turned professional the following January but the sport he entered was in some disarray. The new Open era had begun in 1968, which meant that major tournaments like Wimbledon (England) and Forest Hills (New York City) were open to both amateurs and professionals. But a conflict between the All-England Championships at Wimbledon and the World Championship Tennis (WCT) circuit led to nearly all the big names boycotting Wimbledon in 1973. That boycott had negative implications for the careers of men like John Newcombe and Stan Smith, both serve-and-volley players and former Wimbledon champs. Into the opening created by the boycott came Connors and his new all-court game.
By 1974 Connors had developed a game that was both unorthodox and highly effective. He never had a powerful or intimidating serve but rather evolved into one of the best all-court players ever seen on the tour. His ground strokes were hit nearly flat, especially his two-handed backhand. Connors developed the best return of serve on the tour, often punishing taller, more elegant players with his sharp angles and use of flat shots. Even critics acknowledged that his was probably the second-best service return ever seen, after that of Don Budge, who had dominated tennis in the late 1930s. Connors had one of the best overheads in the game, but his volleys, while effective, were uninspired. Rather than any single weapon, his game depended on a relentless competitive spirit; between 1970 and 1990, no other player fought as hard for every point as did Connors.
His breakthrough came in 1974, when he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S Open. His victim in the finals at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills was the Australian player Ken Rosewall. The Wimbledon final was a devastating 6–1, 6–1, 6–4 performance. It was the most impressive rout achieved by any U.S. player in the professional era. In that magical year, Connors won 99 out of 103 matches played. Comparisons were soon made between him and the Australian champion Rod Laver, who had won the Grand Slam (with victories at Wimbledon and the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens) in 1962 and 1969, but Connors's combative spirit forbade any serious associations. He always saw himself as an outsider, even when he was on top of the sport. Connors's victories were marred by his notoriously childlike behavior. He mocked Rosewall at times, and rather than shake hands at the end of a match, he displayed contempt for his opponent. For a generation of older U.S. players, men like Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, and Arthur Ashe, this behavior made all Americans seem unsportsmanlike and rude.
Connors refused to play in Davis Cup competition that year. Responding to this decision, Ashe declared that Connors was "seemingly unpatriotic." Connors filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Ashe, whom he then faced in the Wimbledon finals of 1975.
Ashe was the underdog going into the final, but he had studied Connors's game at length and identified a few weaknesses that he managed to exploit. As ferocious as Connors's attack was, he had trouble scooping low fore-hands on his approach shots, and his second serve lacked punch. Ashe believed that if he could keep Connors guessing and prevent him from steamrolling the match, anything might happen. Happen it did. Ashe won the match by a lopsided 6–1, 6–1, 5–7, 6–4. While Connors remained number one in world rankings, the feeling that he was invincible died that July afternoon. Making matters worse, he lost to Manuel Orantes, a Spanish clay-court expert, at Forest Hills that fall. Keen observers began to question whether Connors had the right temperament to stay in competition.
Connors roared back, however. He won Forest Hills in 1976 and ran neck-and-neck with the Swedish player Bjorn Borg in the fight for number one. In the early summer of 1977, Connors seemed in his best form ever, which made his five-set loss to Borg at Wimbledon even more painful. Connors was down 4–0 in the fifth and final set when he found a remarkable reservoir of energy within; he raced back to even the match at four-all and clearly had the momentum. Just as he reached parity, though, Connors appeared to run out of gas. Borg swept the last two games and walked away with his second Wimbledon crown (he won five consecutive Wimbledons, 1976–1980).
That autumn Connors lost the U.S. Open final to Guillermo Vilas. Clay-court masters like Borg, Vilas, and others seemed to have found the weak point of Connors's game: low balls to his one-handed forehand.
Connors met Borg in the Wimbledon finals yet again in 1978. Connors won the first two games and then only five more in the entire match. He was humbled in a stunning 6–2, 6–2, 6–3 defeat. Borg had greatly improved his serve, while Connors was playing the same as he always had. That same year, Connors was threatened by the appearance of another American player, the brash John McEnroe. While Borg and Connors fought each other hard on the court, there was no real animosity between them. Things were different with Connors and McEnroe. As commentator Bud Collins once put it, "They hated each other."
Connors lost to Borg in the 1979 semifinals at Wimbledon, and the Swede went on to his fourth consecutive title on the grass. The next year spelled the end of Connors's long run as either number one or number two. Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon, McEnroe took the U.S. Open, and both players showed greater shotmaking skill than Connors, though perhaps not as much competitive spirit. When McEnroe ended Borg's string of Wimbledon victories in 1981, it seemed as if Connors had become a sideshow to the Borg-McEnroe rivalry.
As usual, Connors thwarted his critics to come back for another important win. In July 1982 he dueled with McEnroe for four hours and fourteen minutes in a thrilling five-setter at the Wimbledon finals. He showed the vintage Connors, complete with dazzling shots and outrageous behavior. The final score was in Connors's favor: 3–6, 6–3, 6–7, 7–6, 6–4. Anyone who thought that this victory was a fluke was convinced otherwise when Connors defeated Ivan Lendl in the final at the U.S. Open two months later: 6–3, 6–2, 4–6, 6–4. That year was Connors's comeback year; he seemed to have vindicated himself against the odds.
After 1983 Connors was still seen as a competitive threat, but as a man past his prime. Younger, stronger players like Stefan Edberg and then Boris Becker became known for their aggressive attack games, and Connors's all-court skill faded in people's minds. What remained though, was the competitive ferocity.
Connors won few tournaments after 1985, but he continued to compete. In one last blaze of glory, he reached the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991. To get there he fought an intense four-hour, forty-one-minute match with Aaron Krickstein on what happened to be his thirty-ninth birthday. The grueling match showed that Connors was still the best draw in the men's game. New York fans had always appreciated him more than Wimbledon or Australian fans did; now they applauded his vigorous effort. He reached the quarters, but lost there to a steady Jim Courier. Stefan Edberg, who won the tournament, called Connors "Mr. Open."
That was the last gasp. Connors retired from competition in 1993, citing a long list of injuries. He was by then a family man, having married former Playboy Playmate Patti McGuire in 1979. He worked for a time as a television broadcaster, but was never as effective in the role. By 2000 Connors was a thoroughly retired man.
In 1974 it had seemed as if Connors might have dominated the world of professional tennis for the next ten years. His demolition of an older generation of Australians like Ken Rosewall gave new excitement and energy to U.S. tennis. Connors's career was brilliant, but he was thwarted to some extent by the powerful combination of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. None of this contradicts the fact that Connors was one of the great American tennis champions, or that he won three U.S. Opens on three different surfaces (grass in 1974, clay in 1976, and Har-Tru in 1978, 1982, and 1983). Nor does it obscure the fact that Connors achieved his wins without reliance on any single weapon, such as Borg's serve, McEnroe's volleys, or Rosewall's slice backhand. To a great extent, Connors's game was invented, a contortion that worked well time and again.
Useful resources include "Jimmy Connors: The Hellion of Tennis," Time magazine cover story (28 Apr. 1975); Jack Kramer, with Frank Deford, The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979); Barry Lorge, "Jimmy Connors: Star Spangled Hero or the Ugly American?" World Tennis (Jan. 1979); Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989); and Curry Kirkpatrick, "Open and Shut," Sports Illustrated cover story (18 Sept. 1991).
Samuel Willard Crompton