Sunday, September 2, 2012

Remember Him?

     Today, September 2nd, is his birthday. He's turning 60 years old. But you haven't heard much about him lately. He retired almost 20 years ago.

     He was born and raised in Belleview, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He was raised by two women, his mother Gloria, and his grandmother Bertha Thompson, who he called "Two Mom."

    His mother was a coach, and she began teaching skills to him when he was just a toddler. "My mother rolled balls to me," he later explained, "and I swung at them."

     When he started playing against other kids, he found out he was small by comparison. But he didn't let that bother him. He made up for his size with determination and feistiness. When he was only 8 years old he entered his first official contest, playing in a group of 11-and-unders, and from then on he was a regular on the junior circuit, winning more than his share of games.

     In 1968, when he was 16, his mother took him to California to benefit from the tutelage of top-notch coaches. He entered UCLA as a freshman in 1970. He immediately made the team, became a star, and at the end of the year won the NCAA championship.

     He left school in 1972, turned pro and joined the tour. He hit his way to the top of the leaderboard in six tournaments that season, as a promising 20 year old playing against veterans a decade older than he was. The next year he won 11 tournaments.

     In 1974, he stepped up to dominate his sport. He won in Australia. He won in England. And he won in New York. At only 5 feet, 10 inches, 155 pounds and 22 years old, he beat tennis great Ken Rosewall first at Wimbledon and then again in New York to win the U. S. Open.

Stadium at the U. S. Open
     He won three-quarters of the Grand Slam that year, but was denied a shot at a full Grand Slam. He'd signed to play for World Team Tennis, instead of the Association of Tennis Pros. French officials opposed WTT, and banned WTT players from the French Open. But this young tennis player had his own ideas, and he wasn't going to be pushed around by a bunch of aging tennis bureaucrats.

     He climbed to the Number 1 ranking in men's tennis. Then he started dating Number 1 female tennis player Chris Evert. The relationship between the two American tennis greats only boosted his star power -- he made the cover of Time Magazine in 1975 -- as well as his popularity among the fans.

     Yet some people were put off by his on-court antics. He once gave the finger to a linesman after a disputed call. He argued with umpires, referees, officials, and other players. Nevertheless, his talent won out, and he stood atop his Number 1 ranking for an astounding 263 weeks during his prime years in the 1970s. Still, like any athlete, he suffered some heartbreaking defeats as well. He made it to the finals at Wimbledon three more times during the 1970s, but lost first to Arthur Ashe in 1975 and then to Bjorn Borg in 1977 and 1978.

     The U. S. Open was always his favorite venue (the 2012 Open is being played this week at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, NY). He was victorious over Borg in the finals in 1976 and 1978. He beat out rival Ivan Lendl in 1982 and 1983 to take two more titles -- giving him a total of 5 U. S. Open titles, a record only later matched by Pete Sampras who won four times in the 1990s and a fifth time in 2003, and Roger Federer, who won 5 straight titles from 2004 through 2008. This coming week Federer has a chance to break the Connors-Sampras-Federer record with an unprecedented sixth win.

     The man I'm recalling is not John McEnroe, who won the U. S. Open four times. He is McEnroe's arch rival, Jimmy Connors, the original bad boy of professional tennis.

     Connors went on to win a second Wimbledon title in 1982, beating McEnroe in a spectacular come-back performance. Connors was three points from losing in a fourth set tiebreaker. Then he won the tiebreaker, and took the fifth and deciding set 6-4.

     But perhaps Connors finest hour came in 1991. By that time he was 39 years old. He had suffered several injuries, and was ranked way down at Number 194, needing a wild card to get into the tournament.

     In the first round he faced Patrick McEnroe, John McEnroe's younger brother. Connors lost the first set, then the second set. He was down 3-0 in the third set when he finally found his footing, hitting the ball with more power and accuracy. He started winning games, and at 1:35 a.m., after more than four grueling hours of play, he won the fifth set 6-4 and walked off a winner.

     He then won two more matches and found himself, on Sept. 2, 1991, his 39th birthday, facing top-ten player Aaron Krickstein. Connors was down two sets to one. He won the fourth set to tie it up. He fell behind 5-2 in the fifth and deciding set. Then once again Connors roared back, with the crowd cheering for their aging champion, and won the match in a tiebreaker.

     Connors later lost to Jim Courier in the semis, who in turn lost to Stefan Edberg in the finals. But the most memorable match of the year, perhaps of the decade, was the time when the aging star made magic happen once again on center court.

     Jimmy Connors retired from tennis in 1993 and went on to become a businessman and investor in gambling casinos. He married Playboy model Patti McGuire in 1979, and together they have two children. Over the years he has also done some tennis coaching (he briefly coached retiring American ace Andy Roddick) and tennis commentary for TV. He currently lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with Patti, now his wife of over 30 years.



schmidleysscribblins, said...

Blogger is so irratating. I lost my first comment.

I used to watch tennis, and would have known had your mystery person been Pete Sampras.

Stephen Hayes said...

I don't follow tennis very closely but I found this information interesting and inspirational. Thanks.

Dick Klade said...

You fooled an old sports writer for quite a while with this one! Guess I didn't recall just how great a player Connors was.

(Solved my problem with robot comment difficulties. Went to Settings/Comments on the dashboard, scrolled down quite a ways, and disabled the critter. Not much risk in doing that if you get e-mail notices of all comments. If an unwanted one shows, you can go to the comments list and delete it quickly.)

Tom Sightings said...

Dick, thanks for the tip. I followed your instructions and have now made it easier to comment, without trying to decipher those unreadable letters and numbers. Let's see how it goes.

Friko said...

I used to watch him play at Wimbledon. Wimbledon is the only tennis tournament that gets any air time in the UK.

Bob Lowry said...

You got me...I was going with John until the very end. He still appears in commercials making a nice living off his image.

I had forgotten about Jimmy Connors. I wasn't aware of all his antics, just his skills.

Suzanne and Malcolm said...

I guessed Jimmy by the 3rd paragraph and was absolutely positive by the 5th. I saw him play a lot of tournaments in Florida during his day.

Tennis has never had a player with as much passion and "heart" as Jimmy Connors. Although Agassi is a very close second.

His 30 year marriage speaks volumes of the "man" he is also.

Thanks for this tribute to a great guy and a tremendous tennis player.

If DJokovic can keep it together we might be saying these kinds of things about him 20 years from now.

Anonymous said...

The town he is from is Belleville

Anonymous said...

Always thought of Jimmy Connors as a class class act..He is so much better than John "whiner" McEnroe!!!!!!!!! I so thought of him and Chris Evert as the two top sweethearts of tennis...He has been married for 30 years shows a lot of class..I never thought of him as a bad boy, just fighting for fair calls on the court..He certainly never was crude like Mc was and is!!!!!!!!!!!!! His son and wife were there at the tournament when he was almost 40 and he was working that playing field..He has class and manners and loves the game and passion..Oh, my thanks for making me feel young I am 4 years older but I still remember what a gentleman he was and is...We don't have athletes like that today, save Pampras, Agassi and a few others!!!!!!!!!!!!!!