Jimmy Connors is almost as famous for refusing to play tennis as he is for actually swinging the racquet. Rivalry between Connors and contemporary prodigy John McEnroe kept the game from being bland, as the two seemed to take it in turns to throw hissy fits or storm off the court sulking, soon helping tennis to lose its name as a genteel, somewhat chivalrous sport.
However, in later years, Connors’ dogged refusal to retire earned him affection from the crowds. His competitive spirit was described in the media as a charming part of his determination. But whatever his personality, Connors’ record speaks for itself: he won five US Opens, two Wimbledons – eight years apart – and was ranked number one worldwide. His total career haul of 109 titles is still far and away a record. Today, he remains considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
James Scott Connors was born in September 1952 in Illinois. His mother was a professional player and little James first started swinging a racket at the age of two. However, he did not immediately turn to professional tennis, instead enrolling at university in California. Indeed, he only made his international debut in 1970, relatively late by the standards of today’s world champion tennis players. However, he made his mark very quickly, winning the NCAA singles title the very next year. In true headstrong style though, he refused to join the ranks of professional tennis players who belonged to the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and continued to make his own way.
Connors climbed up the international rankings during the early 1970s. In 1974 he finally won the Wimbledon final against Ken Rosewall, soon followed by the US and Australian Opens in the same season. However, his victories were tempered by the stress of a lawsuit. Connors and his manager had decided to sue the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for ‘restricting’ Connors’ game, after he had been banned from the French Open because he was a World Team Tennis player, rather than a member of the ATP.
The lawsuit was certainly fair on some counts. Connors was World Number One player in 1974, and he never would win that final Grand Slam title, so in a sense the ATP had deprived him of the opportunity to achieve the ‘Career Grand Slam’ to which all great tennis players aspire.
Nonetheless, he set a new record (since broken by Roger Federer), by holding on to that number one title for 160 weeks. In 1975 he was runner-up in the three Grand Slam tournaments that he had won the previous year. The disappointment was partially compensated by the fact he won two extremely lucrative ‘Challenge Matches’ against Rod Laver and John Newcombe.
In 1976 Connors took the US Open title back and held onto his number one ranking. The next year, he won the World Championship Tennis tour, but refused to participate in a ‘Champions’ Parade’ in Wimbledon. He also finally lost his number one ranking in 1977.
The following year, Connors finally turned ‘professional’ by entering a Masters Tournament – and winning. He also won the US Open that year, breaking a new record by being the first man to have won a Grand Slam on all three surfaces: grass, hard and clay courts.
The Refusal to End
From 1978 to 1981, Connors seemed to have reached a plateau, consistently failing to get past the semi-finals in any of the big tournaments. People began to whisper about retirement. However, Connors surprised them all with a comeback in 1982 in which he beat young tennis prodigy – and Connors’ arch-rival – John McEnroe at Wimbledon. Connors had finally recaptured the title after an eight-year hiatus during which time many of his contemporaries had retired from tennis.
He soon made it back to number one, and won the US Open the next year. Connors’ comeback was to be short-lived though. In 1984 McEnroe defeated him conclusively at Wimbledon, and that would be his last Grand Slam final.
Nevertheless, Connors confounded everyone by continuing to play throughout the 1980s, participating in long and often thrilling matches, though he rarely got past the quarter-finals in any tournament. In 1990 his career seemed finally to be over, with back injuries and wrist damage so severe he had to go into surgery. There was one final twist though, as he came back in 1991 and to everybody’s astonishment, at the age of 39, made it to the semi-finals of the US Open, where he was finally defeated by Jim Courier. Soon after, Connors finally retired for good, with nearly $9 million in prize money and countless titles to show for his exploits at the top.
Connors has eschewed the world of advertising that beckons most retired sports stars and instead stays with feet planted firmly in the world of tennis. After spending time on the senior professional circuit, he has worked as a pundit for the BBC – sometimes alongside old rival John McEnroe – and has also worked as a coach for professional players. Connors has also coached US player Andy Roddick.
Connors was not shy in a dispute, quite happy to challenge an umpire’s decision with more or less aggression depending on his mood. His aggressive nature found its way out on the crowd and on opponents at times too, as well as in his game. When playing, he hit the ball hard and tended to send it sailing low and straight across the court, in marked contrast to the light, darting shots preferred by many players. The shot worked: it overpowered his clever opponents. Connors’ style was in many ways old-fashioned in that it was reliant on power and precision rather than tactical devices and training. He wound lead tape around the head of his racket in order to maximize these aspects.
Connors had been engaged to his mixed doubles partner Chris Evert, but they called off the wedding in 1973. Seven years later, Connors married Playboy model Patty McGuire. The couple are still together and they have two children. They live in California.
Perhaps you can blame Connors and myself, Nastase and a few others, because they tightened the rules after us to the point where you felt they would have preferred some robots out there. – John McEnroe on Wimbledon losing its ‘magic’.
He is a real killer with the heart of a lion – Connors’ coach Pancho Segura, after Connors’ first Wimbledon victory
‘Experience is a great advantage. The problem is that when you get the experience, you’re too damned old to do anything about it.’
‘I want to bring the crowd into the match: in short, turn it into a football game.’
‘I hate to lose more than I love to win.’
‘People say I’m around because I have a lot of heart, but I know all the heart in the world couldn’t have helped me if I wasn’t physically fit.’