Jimmy Connors Tennis Career and Records

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Jimmy Connors just published his book called ‘The Outsider: My Autobiography’, and stevegtennis has decided to dedicate some space to this tennis legend.

Jimmy Connors was part of that tennis elite of the 1970s and 1980s which also included Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl: an elite, interestingly, that closely mirrors the current Top Quartet of Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer.

Of that 1970s/1980s group, Connors was the first to appear on the horizon. Coached in California by the former champion, Pancho Segura and guided closely by his determined mother, Gloria, Connors was a star on the US junior circuit before joining the professional game. He first turned pro in 1972 and over a professional tour career which lasted until 1996, he managed to amass an impressive series of records. 

He was part of that milieu firmly positioned in the Open era who were to seize the laurels from the Lavers, Newcombes, Roches, Rosewalls and Emersons of the preceding era. Connors was a ‘Big Beast’ and was to lead the charge.

Over a pro Tour career lasting 24 years (not including his Seniors play), he set records that still stand to this day. He won more career ATP titles than any other male player with 109, well surpassing Lendl, McEnroe and even Federer. He won eight Grand Slam singles, two doubles and one mixed – a total of 11. Among all-time Grand Slam singles winners, with 8 wins, he holds the position of tied 8th place. This compares with 11 for Borg, 8 for Lendl and 7 for McEnroe – an impressive record and particularly so when one considers that he was barred for contractual reasons from the French Open for several years at his peak and that he only competed twice at the Australian.

In the head-to-head rivalry with Lendl, Borg and McEnroe, the record is interesting. Unlike Borg (who never won the Australian or the US Open) and McEnroe (who never won the French or the Australian), Connors won Wimbledon, the US and the Australian, like Lendl (also a Triple Crown winner who only missed out on Wimbledon). In his career head-to-head encounters with these rivals, Connors was surpassed by Lendl (22-13). Against McEnroe, he trailed by 20-14 and against Borg, he also trailed by 13-8. On these statistics, he was decisively the least impressive of the four in head-to-heads, but Connors played most of his matches against the three after his career had peaked.

Like Borg, he played with a double-handed backhand (rare for the era). Unlike Borg who applied topspin , however, he played it flat or with a vicious slice – it was one of the most potent weapons in his armoury. With an average serve and net game, it was his return of serve that was lethal which combined with his overall baseline game, was the platform for his successes. He had a steely determination, hated losing and was known to pull out all the stops to win a match.

Not always the most popular player on tour, he had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ on court with opponents and players. Before McEnroe appeared on the Tour, he, along with Ilie Nastase were the resident ‘bad boys’, ever keen to ruffle the feathers of the tennis establishment.His relations with other players on the tour were never close – it was all ‘business’. In particular, his relations with McEnroe (the ‘new kid on the block’) whom he saw as muscling into his limelight, were hostile and explosive. Despite this, Connors was always popular with the fans in McEnroe’s New York backyard of Flushing Meadow – New York crowds warmed to his ‘chutzpah’ and ‘never say die’ attitude.

Even to this day, he retains his competitive spirit on the Seniors Tour and for his age, remains in good shape. Not one to mince his words, he raised a media flap with the recent publication of his autobiography and its revelations about his past relationship with Chris Evert.

Like Bjorn Borg, he was an icon of the 1970s. His first Wimbledon title  in 1974 was against the ever-popular Ken Rosewall (the best player never to have won Wimbledon). In that year, he won three Grand Slam singles, becoming the new force to be reckoned with.  Interestingly, however, it was not until 1982 that he won another Wimbledon despite being in three finals. In the early part of his career, he took the scalps in major events of  those icons, Rod Laver and John Newcombe, presaging  a ‘changing of the guard’ at the top of the game.

Many have remarked on Connors’ lack of commitment to the Davis Cup during his playing career. Unlike McEnroe and Arthur Ashe who  were perennial stalwarts of the US Davis Cup team, Connors preferred to focus on his individual career. While his presence would certainly have injected a dynamism to any US team, his lack of a ‘team playing’ spirit was always likely to lead to friction among his colleagues.

To watch Connors on court was to witness a player who always gave 100%. Delicacy of play was not one of his hallmarks, preferring instead to rip the fuzz off the ball with every shot. He hit the ball on the rise, giving him an edge over opponents on his returns. His baseline play was clinical and a joy to watch.  While not quite as prolific at his peak as Borg, McEnroe and Lendl were at theirs’, his longevity over 24 years on the Tour was admirable. 

The United States has for several years been facing a serious challenge producing players to compete at the very top of the game. What they would give now for a player of the calibre of a Jimmy Connors. A man who thrived on competition and a challenge, he would have been just the man to step into the breach.

 

Paul McElhinney

May 2013

 

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