It was 30 years ago today

Jimmy Connors Defies Father Time,
September 2, 1991, National Tennis Center


Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different sites. Yet, he's best remembered for a tournament in which he didn't even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit.

This aging inspiration captivated even casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his blend of tenacity and showmanship. It was surprising Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. He'd played and lost three matches in 1990, before submitting to wrist surgery. He plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991, owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in Wimbledon's third round. He was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his "home court."

In the first round he faced McEnroe. Sure, it was Patrick, not his more talented older brother, but he was ranked 35th, was an Australian Open semifinalist, and had beaten Boris Becker that summer. McEnroe grabbed the first two sets and took a 3-0 lead in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi) and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game, perhaps 6,000 loyalists remained from the sellout crowd.

Then, at 0-40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. McEnroe could not finish off tennis's Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans who remained. With his vibrant new Estusa racket flashing in the night, proclaiming the return of the king, Connors held, saved two more break points at 2-3, won five of six games for the third set, and stampeded McEnroe in the final two sets. The four-hour and 18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m.

"The crowd won it for me," Connors said. "The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick."

By the fourth-round Connors was the story of the tournament: Becker stopped practicing to come over and congratulate him; defending champion Pete Sampras's third-round press conference included 12 out of 16 questions about Connors before Sampras snapped that he wanted questions about his own tennis; Nuprin rushed its new Connors commercial onto the air; and Ted Koppel explored the Connors phenomenon on Nightline.

September 2 was Connors's 39th birthday, and as he entered the court for his match against Aaron Krickstein, the fans greeted him with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." He gave them the ultimate present: a match for the ages. Connors always used the crowd better than any other player, in defiance as a strident young outcast being booed before earning respect and adoration in the late 1970s. And no crowd connected better with Connors than the New York crowd, which fed of his working-class humor, his drive, his urgency.

Against Krickstein, Connors perfectly played and played to his audience, exulting, exhorting, slapping his thigh, pumping his pelvis, and thrusting his fist for four hours and 42 minutes. He still resorted to base tactics—calling an umpire "an abortion"—but mostly he oozed charm, even as he used the ovations as a stalling tactic to catch his breath and psych out Krickstein. At one point he directly addressed the nation, turning to a courtside television camera and boasting, "This is what they come for. This is what they want."

Although he'd fallen further behind against McEnroe, this was no simple task. Krickstein, who had idolized Connors, then become a friend and occasional hitting partner, was fresh off a win over 1990 finalist Andre Agassi.

Connors lost the first set, then clawed back to win the second in a tiebreaker. Worn down, he tanked the third, 6-1, while waiting for his second wind. He recovered to win the fourth set, but it took a toll. In the fifth set, he seemed finished after dropping a 17-minute, 23-point game.

But trailing 5-2 in the fifth was apparently right where Connors wanted to be. He was as aggressive as ever. He won one game with a touch backhand volley and another with an overhead, while Krickstein remained pinned to the baseline, unable to slow the attack.

Tennis writer Peter Bodo was in the press box near Arthur Ashe, who had loathed Connors for his refusal to join the players' union, his unwillingness to play for America's Davis Cup team, and his on-court behavior. Witnessing Connors's voodoo magic, Bodo asked Ashe if he thought Connors was still an a*****e. Ashe paused, then replied, "Yes. But he's my favorite a*****e."

As the crowd screamed and shrieked, Connors pulled even. By the time they reached a tiebreaker, the outcome seemed preordained. Connors flattened Krickstein, 7-4, to end the night. Well, not quite. This time the stands remained full to the end, and the fans serenaded their Jimbo with an encore of "Happy Birthday."

Even nemesis John McEnroe was impressed enough to search out Connors in the locker room to congratulate him. "I've just got to go in there and touch him and see if he bleeds," McEnroe said.

Connors reached the semifinals, thanks to one more miraculous moment. He was down a set and a break at 5-4, in the second set of his quarterfinal match against Paul Haarhuis. There was no way Connors could endure another five-setter, so if he couldn't solve Haarhuis here, the run would end. Haarhuis grabbed a 30-15 lead. Two points for the set.

Connors snatched two quick points. Break point for the old man. Haarhuis approached the net behind a deep backhand. Connors flung a lob skyward. Haarhuis slammed an overhead. Connors, back literally against the wall, managed another backhand lob. Another overhead to the backhand corner. Connors threw up one more lob. The crowd was electrified by his perseverance. This time Haarhuis rifled his shot toward Connors's forehand. Scampering relentlessly, he hurled another lob, turning even tennis's most defensive shot into a statement of aggression and defiance, thrusting his jaw out, and saying, "Hit me again, I won't ever go down."

Haarhuis was exhausted, mentally, if not physically. His last overhead was his weakest, and Connors, the game's finest opportunist, whacked a crosscourt forehand. Haarhuis reached it, but his backhand volley was soft. Connors raced in, driving a vintage backhand winner up the line.

The crowd, on its feet, roared—for this point, for almost two decades of unsurpassed thrills. Connors won that set, 7-6, and cruised through the next two as well. Although Connors lost to Jim Courier in the semifinals, he was clearly the tournament's biggest winner—make that 1991's biggest sports story. "F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that there are no second acts in American lives. Jimmy Connors would probably tell Fitzgerald exactly where he could shove that remark," writer Joel Drucker once commented in a magazine piece.

The McEnroe match featured the longest road back at a time when no one expected anything, and it served as a reminder that Connors was more than just a great talent and a mesmerizing entertainer: He had succeeded so often and for so long because of his intense dedication to the game and the idea of competing. But for the history books, choose the Krickstein match—although Connors always thrashed Krickstein, this confrontation marked the apex because it put Connors back in the spotlight he loved and he always preferred facing the pressure of high expectations and somehow exceeding them.



---From "The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports", by Stuart Miller (2020)
 
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BTURNER

Legend
One thing to remember about Krickstein, back in the day he had a great reputation for outlasting opponents in a fifth set.

If I start typing about what to admire about Connors, this post will get very very long.
 

BGod

Legend
The entire run was bananas.

In 92 his last match with Lendl could have also been pretty great had he won that 2nd set.
 

ibbi

Legend
One thing to remember about Krickstein, back in the day he had a great reputation for outlasting opponents in a fifth set.

If I start typing about what to admire about Connors, this post will get very very long.
Perfect time for it! :D
 

Mr.Lob

Legend
No mention of the famous line call in the Krickstein match? Don't think he talked to Connors after that. He thought Connors intimidated the chair umpire to change the call?
 

ibbi

Legend
No mention of the famous line call in the Krickstein match? Don't think he talked to Connors after that. He thought Connors intimidated the chair umpire to change the call?
He got over it! They had an exhibition a few years back :D
 

ollinger

G.O.A.T.
Krickstein and Connors had been good friends on tour before that match, Krickstein was so upset by Connors' behavior during the match that they became estranged for a time after. Sometime in the last 10 years or so Krickstein asked Connors to come to a club he was running so the two of them could play a sort of commemorative exhibition match, and Connors accepted.
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
Krickstein and Connors had been good friends on tour before that match, Krickstein was so upset by Connors' behavior during the match that they became estranged for a time after. Sometime in the last 10 years or so Krickstein asked Connors to come to a club he was running so the two of them could play a sort of commemorative exhibition match, and Connors accepted.
Krickstein won that one! I always found his 'upset' a bit of a stretch. He knew who he was playing and where he was...this was Jimmy's playground and his largest fan base. He was expecting what exactly? He should have been more upset with his inability to win that 5th set at 5-2 up. He had no answers for Connors' attack.
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
And 30 years ago TODAY...

The GOAT fist pump.

That lob exchange is almost always on the list of greatest USO points/shots...rightfully so. After that 2nd set, Connors got a 2nd wind, Harhuis was deflated and then got rolled. Harhuis was a dangerous guy...he had taken out Becker, if I am not mistaken.
 

Mustard

Talk Tennis Guru
Connors and Ashe was an interesting relationship. It wasn't just loathing. I've seen them laughing and joking together, and Ashe did get Connors to play more Davis Cup than either Dennis Ralston, Tony Trabert or Tom Gorman ever managed. Ashe got Connors to agree to dedicate one year to a full Davis Cup schedule at one point (1984), and it ended in the Gothenberg disaster for the final, when Connors was on his own at a hotel and wrote "F**k you, Artie" in the clay before he left. Sweden pummeled the US in that final.
 
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BTURNER

Legend
Krickstein ended his career having won 27 out of his 35 career matches that went into a fifth set, 10 of which he won from 2 sets down.
Do you have the stats on Krickstein's career losses in the fifth to 39 year old players ranked 150 in the world or lower? We can take a stab in the dark here?
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
Connors and Ashe was an interesting relationship. It wasn't just loathing. I've seen them laughing and joking together, and Ashe did get Connors to play more Davis Cup than either Dennis Ralston, Tony Trabert or Tom Gorman ever managed. Ashe got Connors to agree to dedicate one year to a full Davis Cup schedule at one point (1984), and it ended in the Gothenberg disaster for the final, when Connors was on his own at a hotel and wrote "F**k you, Artie" in the clay before he left. Sweden pummeled the US in that final.
Yeah, it was kind of weird. A bit of a love-hate thing maybe? I was a little surprised when Connors agreed to play DC, but figured it was his last chance to be on a winning team as he was getting on in years. And, who wouldn't want the #1 and #2 guys on that team? That final was a hot mess, but I really do believe if the order of the matches was different, perhaps a better outcome, momentum wise. That court was also a mess of ground up rocks...abysmal by most accounts. That was one of the things I really disliked about DC...rather than have a 'neutral' surface, they let the home country pick. Ridiculous. Though, I do wonder if it was in the US, where it would have been contested? Since it was December, no options for grass. Probably some super fast indoor carpet somewhere which would have helped the US team.
 

CHillTennis

Semi-Pro
It's hard to believe that it's been 30 years.

In the modern era, Jimmy Connors was really the player who pioneered the trend of having a late career resurgence.

After undergoing hip surgery, in early 1990 (and having to skip that season) it seemed unlikely that he had many playing days left in front of him.

That's what made this run all the more special.


It's slightly off topic, but I would love to see Federer finish his career like this (with a grand slam title or atleast with a deep run like the one that Jimmy Connors had.)
 

big ted

Hall of Fame
It's slightly off topic, but I would love to see Federer finish his career like this (with a grand slam title or atleast with a deep run like the one that Jimmy Connors had.)
i was thinking that too but at the same age fedr got to QTRS of W no problem with a bad knee lol..
some people were expecting him to get to the finals lol
 

Russeljones

G.O.A.T.
I remember this, it was good fun, and still is, except maybe for poor Aaron. I don't know what they did to Jimmy in that tournament but he could run for 4 hours like a teenager lol.

What I like less though is that it was… 30 years ago. :eek:
A bit of an unpleasant reminder for some of us. :giggle:
 

Mustard

Talk Tennis Guru
It's slightly off topic, but I would love to see Federer finish his career like this (with a grand slam title or atleast with a deep run like the one that Jimmy Connors had.)
Wasn't that Federer's 2019 French Open and Wimbledon runs?
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
It's hard to believe that it's been 30 years.

In the modern era, Jimmy Connors was really the player who pioneered the trend of having a late career resurgence.

After undergoing hip surgery, in early 1990 (and having to skip that season) it seemed unlikely that he had many playing days left in front of him.

That's what made this run all the more special.


It's slightly off topic, but I would love to see Federer finish his career like this (with a grand slam title or atleast with a deep run like the one that Jimmy Connors had.)
Actually, it was wrist surgery. Connors wrist 'blew out' in a match in early 1990. He tried rest and rehab, but ultimately needed surgery and missed most of that year. Hip replacements came way later--after he left the Seniors tour, I'm quite certain. Interestingly, Agassi had a similar issue w/his wrist and went to the same doctor...but I don't think it was quite as serious as Jimmy's case (?) I could see Fed have one more deep run in him, if his knee can hold up. But the longer he stays away, the harder it will be to get in the groove again. Connors never left the game for very long...he was playing ATP matches here and there into the mid-90's alongside the senior tour stuff.
 

atatu

Legend
Connors and Ashe was an interesting relationship. It wasn't just loathing. I've seen them laughing and joking together, and Ashe did get Connors to play more Davis Cup than either Dennis Ralston, Tony Trabert or Tom Gorman ever managed. Ashe got Connors to agree to dedicate one year to a full Davis Cup schedule at one point (1984), and it ended in the Gothenberg disaster for the final, when Connors was on his own at a hotel and wrote "F**k you, Artie" in the clay before he left. Sweden pummeled the US in that final.
Ashe undefeated against Connors in Wimbledon finals though.
 

terribleIVAN

Hall of Fame
Connors was on electrolyte IV drips to aid his recovery during this run.
Not sure of the legality of that these days.
I've read he was using blood transfusions to resolve the problem of lactic acid buildup.

I think he replaced something like a quarter of his total blood supply between each of his matches.

Otherwise i don't see how he could have managed all these exploits.
 
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terribleIVAN

Hall of Fame
It's slightly off topic, but I would love to see Federer finish his career like this (with a grand slam title or atleast with a deep run like the one that Jimmy Connors had.)
You couldn't find 2 personalities more opposite than Connors and Federer.

Where Connors was brash and defiant, Federer was introvert and insecure.

One is the people's champion, the other the corporate champion.

One has married a beauty queen and playboy pageant, the other a matron.
 

CHillTennis

Semi-Pro
i was thinking that too but at the same age fedr got to QTRS of W no problem with a bad knee lol..
some people were expecting him to get to the finals lol
Yes, indeed. Federer has set the bar very high for himself.

I think he would have to win another grand slam tournament for it to have the same impact as Jimmy Connors '91 US Open run.

Like you said, his fans expect him to atleast make the 4th round or quarter-finals of every event that he plays.
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
Yes, indeed. Federer has set the bar very high for himself.

I think he would have to win another grand slam tournament for it to have the same impact as Jimmy Connors '91 US Open run.

Like you said, his fans expect him to atleast make the 4th round or quarter-finals of every event that he plays.
I think Fed could sneak in another GS, with a little bit of luck. His 2019 W loss was a massive missed opportunity, no question. We will see if he can come back strong in 2022. Much like Connors, he has not been away from the game all that long. The Connors 'comeback' story is a tad flawed in that regard, as he was still a T10 player in 1989 and playing well enough to thrash Edberg at the USO. It was just a big question of him being able to come back from wrist surgery. Guy was playing with a splint/strap/brace in summer of 1990 before he finally had the reconstructive surgery.
 
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