John McEnroe vs Jimmy Connors Head to Head and Rivalry

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John McEnroe vs Jimmy Connors Head to Head: 20-14

The rivalry between Jimmy Connors (Player Profile) and John McEnroe (Player Profile) was visceral and passionate. It had none of the mutual respect and admiration of that other great rivalry of the 1980’s, that between Borg and McEnroe. McEnroe’s rivalry with Borg was, in part, based on the fact that one was Yin to the other’s Yang – a rivalry of opposites. Connors and McEnroe were too much alike for there to be have been any chance of either giving quarter to the other. Two aggressive Alpha males totally committed to winning, provided great theatre for the tennis public of the 1980’s.

Both had very competitive parents strongly committed to their children’s success. Connors’ mother, Gloria, herself a former tennis coach, could regularly be seen at major tournaments, eying events regally from the stands, like the mother of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, determined no one would best her son.  Perhaps, some of Connors’ obstreperous behaviour could be put down to tugging against the apron-strings of this maternal force of nature.  McEnroe’s father, a New York lawyer with a trademark white canvas hat, was hardly backward in coming forward in support of his son either, often having to have his enthusiasm ‘restrained’ at major events.  In an era when players’ entourages were nothing like their current size, these family support systems were quite common– it just seemed that Connors’ and McEnroe’s were more evident and vociferous.

McEnroe first came on the international scene in 1977, a young, brash 18-year old. In that year’s French Open, he won the French Open Mixed Doubles and entered Wimbledon as a qualifier, and in the process set a record in the Open era, by going all the way to the semi-finals. In that semi, he came up against the great Connors, at the height of his game and already a Wimbledon singles winner. On that occasion, Connors was too strong for the neophyte McEnroe, but a marker was set down for a rivalry that was to last for over a decade. McEnroe was the ‘new kid on the block’, a source of envy and resentment to some and of admiration and enthusiasm for others. It was clear in what camp Connors, eager to preserve his dominance, found himself.

Whatever one’s personal predelictions, key official statistics gives the mastery in the rivalry to McEnroe. In all matches against one another, McEnroe came out on top 20-14 and in finals contests between the two, he also narrowly shaded it 8-7. Also, in Grand Slam event matches, McEnroe dominated by 6-3. In their two Grand Slam Final encounters against one another, the record was a 1-1 tie.

However, in terms of overall career singles’ titles victories, Connors far surpassed McEnroe with 109 as against 77 – a credit to Connors’ consistency, longevity and persistence.  He also still holds the record for the number of career wins by a male in the professional era.  In overall titles (singles and doubles), however, McEnroe with 148 was dominant.

In terms of Grand Slams, while Connors may not have won as many as McEnroe, he did win at Wimbledon, the US Open and in Australia, while McEnroe only won at the first two venues.  Contractual difficulties between WCT and the French prevented Connors from playing in the French Open for several years which leaves open the question of whether he might have joined that illustrious group of Budge, Laver and Federer, winners of all four.

Even though their Wimbledon Finals encounters will be remembered for the titanic struggles they were, they never came across one another in a final of a US Open. For a favourite son of New York and another New York favourite who shared the brash chutzpah so beloved of New York’s ebullient crowds not to have gone head to head in the final of New York’s flagship event, seems counter-.intuitive. They did play each other in four Flushing Meadow semi-finals, however, with McEnroe coming out on top by 3 wins to 1.

Both were feisty left-handers and essentially ‘outsiders’ in an establishment game. Connors had a baseline game aided by searing, mainly flat ground strokes.  He tended to avoid a serve/volley strategy. McEnroe had a good all-round game but also showed great mastery at the net, a skill that came into its own in his doubles’ career. Unlike Connors, McEnroe was a great exponent of ‘top spin’ on both his serve and ground strokes. Connors was also a capable doubles performer, teaming up with, amongst others, Ile Nastase (the two ‘Bad Boys’ of their era).   However, the doubles rivalry between Connors and McEnroe was no contest, the latter (in combination with Peter Fleming) being one of the greatest doubles players ever.

McEnroe had the benefit of being at his peak as a player when Connors (the older man by a number of years) found his career waning – although this did not lessen the intensity of his determination to beat the younger man. McEnroe’s rise was borne out by his winning 12 of his last 14 encounters with Connors.

In their twilight years, both are active members of the Seniors Tour, neither losing their competitive edge, particularly with one another – McEnroe’s relative age advantage giving him an edge at that level.

Latterly, both have become TV commentators and McEnroe, in particular, has morphed from ‘enfant terrible’ to ‘elder statesman’, largely as a result of his compelling and authoritative commentaries. Clearly sticklers for punishment and unable to avoid any opportunity to go toe-to-toe with one another, both shared a commentary box during the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage in the mid-Noughties. How many sparks must have flown off-air during those encounters!

During their careers, both represented the USA in the Davis Cup. Connors was a lukewarm and occasional participant, not sharing the same level of commitment to the cause as McEnroe who appeared for the US at every opportunity and even captained the team at the end of the last millennium. This commitment to a cause ‘beyond himself’ probably enamoured him to more people than the more ‘individualist’ Connors.

Both were dominant in the game in an era when the US still held a dominant sway in the international game, despite the intrusion of an occasional Borg or Lendl at the time. Connors appeared to enjoy ‘winding up’ the explosive McEnroe, knowing which buttons to press on the younger man. Information latterly revealed suggests, however, that McEnroe’s outbursts on court were more ‘engineered’ than was thought at the time, not needing the prodding of an opponent to bring them on. Connors was no saint on court, but it seemed that with the arrival of McEnroe whose regular antics became fodder to the tabloid media, some of the former’s infelicities of behaviour got ignored.

Whatever the ins and outs of their rivalry, it was a palpable one which inspired the best and the worst in both of them and in the process, produced the most competitive and enthralling tennis. As rivalries go, there were few as intense as their’s, aided and abetted by the many similarities in their respective psychological make-ups. Interestingly, no rivalry at the top of the current men’s game even closely approximates the intensity of Connors/McEnroe. The sporting public’s lust for the gladiatorial both fed and was fed by their rivalry. How much had really changed from the era of the Romans and the lions in the Colliseum?


Paul McElhinney

22 October 2012

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