Connors, Jimmy (1952—)

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Connors, Jimmy (1952—)

Born September 2, 1952 in East St. Louis, Illinois, James Scott (Jimmy) Connors started playing tennis at the age of two, and grew up to become one of the most recognizable and successful pros in the history of the sport. His rise to the top of the game helped spark the tennis boom that took place in America in the mid-1970s, bringing unprecedented numbers of spectators out to the stands. Like his equally competitive (and even more temperamental) compatriot John McEnroe, tennis fans either loved Connors or hated him. His determination, intensity, and will to win could be denied by no one, and his penchant for becoming embroiled in controversial disputes over tour policy was legendary.

As was the case with his one-time fiance, American tennis legend Chris Evert, Connors was raised to play the game by a determined parent who also happened to be a teaching pro. Gloria Thompson Connors had her son swinging at tennis balls even before he could lift his racket off the ground; this early training, combined with Connors' natural ability and never-say-die attitude, paved the way for his later success. At the 1970 United States Open in Forest Hills, an 18-year-old and still unknown Connors teamed with his much older mentor Pancho Gonzalez to reach the quarterfinals in doubles. A year later, while attending the University of California at Los Angeles, Connors would become the first freshman ever to win the National Intercollegiate Singles title. But neither that honor, nor his All-American status, was enough to prevent him from dropping out of school in 1972 to become a full-time participant on the men's pro circuit.

Connors finished 1973 sharing the number one ranking in the United States with Stan Smith. The next year he reigned supreme, not just in the States but around the world. Winner of an unbelievable 99 out of 103 matches, and 14 of the 20 tournaments he entered (including the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the United States Open, and the United States Clay Court Championships), Connors totally dominated the competition in a sport that was exhibiting spectacular growth. Two surveys taken in 1974 showed an eye-popping 68 percent hike in the number of Americans claiming to play tennis recreationally, and a 26 percent jump in the number of those saying they were fans of the pro circuit. As a result, tournament prize money increased dramatically. In 1978, Connors became the first player to exceed $2 million in career earnings.

Although many potential fans refused to jump on the Connors bandwagon—his behavior towards umpires, linesmen, and opposing players was often reprehensible, and he repeatedly refused to participate in the international Davis Cup team tournament—few tennis lovers could resist watching him perform. Bill Riordan, Connors' shrewd manager, capitalized on his client's charismatic persona by arranging a pair of made-for-television exhibition singles matches dubbed the "Heavyweight Championship of Tennis." Connors, never one to shy away from the spotlight, won them both (years later, he would defeat Martina Navratilova in a gimmicky "Battle of the Sexes" handicap match). The unprecedented media coverage of these much-hyped events landed Connors a Time magazine cover photo in 1975. Riordan was also behind the highly publicized $40 million antitrust suit Connors brought against the Association of Tennis Professionals and Commercial Union Assurance (sponsor of the ILTF Grand Prix) a year earlier. It was alleged that these organizations were conspiring to monopolize professional tennis by barring any player who had signed up to play in the newly formed World Tennis League from competing in the 1974 French Open. Thus, Connors was denied his shot at the elusive Grand Slam that year. By the end of 1975, Connors split with Riordan and dropped the hotly contested lawsuit; only then did his relations with fellow tour players begin to improve.

None of Connors' off-court battles had an adverse effect on his game in the 1970s. Though he lacked overpowering strokes, Connors was a dynamic shotmaker with the mentality of a prizefighter. His trademark two-fisted backhand, along with an outstanding return of serve, surprising touch, and the ability to work a point, all contributed to his success. Number one in the world five times (1974-78), Connors won a total of eight Grand Slam singles championships, including five United States Opens. He is also the only player to have won that title on three different surfaces (grass, clay, and hard courts).

In 1979, Connors disclosed that he and former Playboy Play-mate-of-the-Year Patti McGuire had gotten married in Japan the previous year. Around this time his game suffered something of a decline. He failed to reach the final round of the United States Open for the first time in six years, and his once-fierce rivalry with Bjorn Borg lost its drama as he got crushed by the Swede four times. But predictably for someone of his competitive spirit, Connors recommitted himself, and won two more United States Open titles in the 1980s.

For a long time, it seemed certain that Connors' biggest contribution to American culture would be the sense of mischief and passion he brought to the once aristocratic game of tennis. But his determination to postpone retirement and continue fighting on court in the latter stages of a storied 23-year career gave him a new claim to fame, as he endeared himself to older spectators and even non-tennis fans. At age 39, Connors rose from number 936 in the world at the close of the previous year to make it all the way to the semifinals of the United States Open in 1991. En route, he came from way behind to defeat a much younger Aaron Krickstein in dramatic fashion. Ironically, it is likely that the match people will remember most is the one that came in a tournament he did not win. Considering that Connors holds 109 singles titles—tops in the Open era—along with 21 doubles titles, this is nothing for him to lose any sleep over. In 1998, Connors was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

—Steven Schneider

Further Reading:

Burchard, Marshall. Jimmy Connors. New York, G.P. Putnams,1976.

Collins, Bud, and Zander Hollander, editors. Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. New York, Doubleday, 1980.

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Connors, Jimmy (1952—)

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