Connors conquered with intensity
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
He was raised by women to conquer men, and that's exactly what Jimmy Connors did. He conquered them, as he had been taught by his mother and grandmother, on the tennis courts.
Connors won five United States Open titles, and he is the only player to win this Grand Slam event on three different surfaces. He won two Wimbledons and one Australian Open. For five consecutive years in the 1970s, the left-handed dynamo was ranked No. 1 at the end of the year. He is the all-time leader in pro singles titles with 109 and matches won at the U.S. Open (98) and Wimbledon (84).
His biggest weapons were an indomitable spirit, a two-handed backhand and the best service return in the game. It is difficult to say which was more instrumental in Connors becoming a champion.
He was born Sept. 2, 1952 in Belleville, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He was raised to be a tennis player by his mother, a teaching pro named Gloria Thompson Connors, and "Two Mom," grandmother Bertha Thompson. He started playing as a toddler.
"My mother rolled balls to me, and I swung at them," Connors said. "I held the racquet with both hands because that was the only way I could lift it."
Though smaller than most of his competitors, Connors didn't let it bother him, making up for a lack of size with determination. He played in his first U.S. Championship, the boys 11-and under division, when he was just 8 years old.
After winning the NCAA singles title as a UCLA freshman in 1971, he turned pro the next year and won six tournaments on tour. He won 11 more in 1973, a year that ended with him ranked third in the world.
Then in 1974, the 5-foot-10, 155-pounder really began dominating, winning 15 tournaments. More significantly, he won three quarters of the Grand Slam: He won the Australian Open in his first crack down under (he would play this tournament only once more) and then captured Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In the latter two tournaments, he beat Ken Rosewall in the finals, limiting the aging Australian legend to an astounding six game victories in six sets.
Connors was denied a shot at the Grand Slam because he was banned from the French Open that year after signing to play in World Team Tennis. Because the Association of Tennis Pros (which Connors refused to join) and the French officials opposed WTT, entries of WTT players were refused.
During the year, the world's No. 1 male player was involved in a storybook romance with the No. 1 female player, Chris Evert. The relationship between the Wimbledon champions was hot and heavy before eventually cooling. Each later married someone else.
Though No. 1 for 263 weeks in the '70s, he didn't win another Wimbledon that decade. Three times he lost in the finals, to Arthur Ashe in 1975 and to Bjorn Borg in 1977 and 1978. The 1977 defeat to Borg was an exceptional match, with Connors rallying from 0-4 in the fifth set to tie before the Swede won the final two games.
It wasn't until 1982 that Connors would win his second title on the Wimbledon grass. Three points from losing to John McEnroe in a fourth-set tiebreaker, Connors came back to win the tie-breaker and then took the fifth set 6-4.
Overall, though, Connors had a losing record (13-20) against McEnroe, who rose to prominence after Connors peaked. But just as Connors had shining moments against McEnroe, so did he have important triumphs against Borg and Ivan Lendl, two other No. 1 players he had losing records against. Though 7-10 against Borg and 13-22 against Lendl, he beat each twice in the finals of his favorite tournament, the U.S. Open.
He whipped Borg in four sets, including a breath-taking 11-9 third-set tiebreaker, in the final on the clay of Forest Hills in 1976, and routed the Swede in straight sets on the hard court to take the first tournament at Flushing Meadow in 1978. These victories enabled Connors to become the only player to win the Open on three different surfaces (the 1974 victory came on grass). In 1982 and 1983, Connors won four-set finals against Lendl at Flushing Meadow.
But perhaps Connors' finest performance at the U.S. Open was in 1991, when he celebrated his 39th birthday. It certainly was his most popular. By now, an older Connors had toned down his vulgarity, though not his competitive spirit. And the fans were enthralled by the way he gutted out one victory after another against much younger opponents.
In 1990, he had played only three matches (0-3) because of a wrist injury and surgery. By the end of the year, his ranking had fallen from 14th to a tie for 936th. By the 1991 Open, he was No. 174 and needed a wild card to get into the tournament. In the first round, he faced McEnroe . but younger brother Patrick this time, not John. Connors trailed two sets and 3-0 in the third set in the evening encounter. But then began the stuff of legends. At 1:35 in the morning, after 4 hours and 18 minutes of play, Connors walked off the court a winner, having taken the fifth set 6-4.
Next came straight-set victories over Michiel Schapers and 10th-seeded Karel Novacek. On Sept. 2, Connors gave himself a wonderful 39th birthday present. He lost two of the first three sets to Aaron Krickstein before tying the match. Krickstein went ahead 5-2 in the fifth. But with the crowd cheering wildly and Connors pumping his arms after winning shots, he roared back and won in a tiebreaker. The place went crazy.
Reports said some fans paid scalpers as much as $500 to see his quarterfinal match against Paul Haarhuis. They weren't cheated. From a set and a break down, Connors rallied to win the final three sets as again the crowd shrieked its delight on his winning points. At 39, he was, incredibly, in the final four.
Unfortunately, the magic was gone in the semifinals, as Jim Courier won in straight sets. Still, although Stefan Edberg won the tournament, it was Connors' Open in the public's view.
Connors, who won $8,641,040 in official earnings, wound down his playing on tour in 1993. That year, he started his own tour for players 35 and over, and with his will as strong as ever, he has dominated play there as well. On July 11, 1998, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.