Class of 1998
World No. 1 (1974)
Grand Slam Results
10-time major champion, and 9-time finalist
ATP World Tour Championships
Winner of the 1977 ATP Tour Finals
Member of the U.S. Davis Cup Team 1975, 1981, 1984
Member of the 1981 U.S. Championship Davis Cup Team
Overall Record: 10-3
Singles Record: 10-3
Appearing on the YES Network show Center Stage in 2014 to promote his book The Outsider, Jimmy Connors was asked by host Michael Kay if it was “nice being called a tennis legend?”
“I like hearing that,” Connors said with a broad smile and a nod of his head.
Connors’s place in history is well established: He was perhaps the most rebellious player to ever play, a combative, relentless, and driven athlete whom tennis analyst Mary Carillo said was “one of the most important tennis players of the modern era.” Connors never, ever made apologies for his on-court behavior, his maniacal competitive drive or his nomadic approach that kept him isolated and distanced from his tour counterparts. There was no middle ground with Jimmy Connors – he was adored or disliked, but nothing in-between. “I was not about establishment,” Connors told ESPN’s 30 for 30. “Being an outsider drove me to being able to play better. It became me against everyone else. I wasn’t going out there to win friends. I was going out there to win tennis matches.”
The incorrigible Connors won eight major singles championship, including five US Opens (1974, 1976, 1978, 1982, 1983), two Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles Championships (1974, 1982), and one Australian Open (1974), tied for fifth best in history. Connors said that Paris was his favorite destination on tour, but he failed to reach the finals in 13 trips to Roland Garros. He was a semifinalist four times. He holds the Open Era record for most championships won (109) and was the year-end No. 1 world ranked player from 1974 through 1978. He placed a stranglehold on the top ranking on July 29, 1974 and didn’t relinquish it for 160 consecutive weeks, a record that held firm until it was broken by Roger Federer on February 26, 2007. In his career, he was ranked 268 weeks, slightly more than five total years.
On his resume of victories, Connors won the Masters Cup (ATP Finals) in 1977 over Björn Borg and two World Championship Tennis Finals in 1977 and 1980, defeating Dick Stockton and John McEnroe, respectively. He appeared in 26 Grand Prix Super Series finals in 17 years, winning 19 times.
Tennis has had its share of electric performers, but none quite like Connors. He was fiery, controversial, outspoken, and utterly competitive. His play was every bit a tribute to the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, because that’s exactly what type of effort Connors put forth in each of the 1,532 matches he played. He won 1,254 of those, the best in history. “Tennis was never work for me, tennis was fun,” Connors often said. “And the tougher the battle and the longer the match, the more fun I had.”
If you weren’t lucky enough to watch Connors pump his left fist and roar in exuberance after hitting a big shot in person (likely produced from his prolific backhand), he was a riveting performer on television, particularly at the US Open. The love affair Connors had with the US Open, the New York fans, and vice-versa was frenetic. As the only player in history to win the US Open on all three surfaces, Connors won a record-tying five championships, appeared in seven finals (third best all-time), and played in an all-time best 12 semifinals. His record 97 wins at Flushing Meadows is 18 wins better than his nearest competitor Andre Agassi (79) and his 85 percent winning mark achieved with a 97-17 record, ranks third best in history. He reached the 1976 and 1977 US Open final without losing a set, defeating Borg in the 1976 final, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, and dropping his first sets in a losing effort against Guillermo Vilas, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-0.
While a calendar year and career Grand Slam evaded Connors, largely because he only played in two Australian Opens (winning in 1974 over Phil Dent, 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, and losing to John Newcombe in the 1975 final, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6), Connors is one of only six Open Era male players to win three or more majors in the same year, which he accomplished in 1974 by winning the Australian, Wimbledon (6-1, 6-1, 6-4 over Ken Rosewall), and the US Open (6-1, 6-0, 6-1 over Rosewall in what was one of the most lopsided victories in major history). Connors joined Rod Laver (1969), Mats Wilander (1988), Roger Federer (2004, 2006, 2007), Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011, 2015) as the only players to earn that feat.
Connors was born in Belleville, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and was dubbed the “Belleville Basher” by tennis scribe Bud Collins. He began stroking balls at age 4 that were fed to him by his mother Gloria, who was also his coach. The prodigious Connors played in the U.S. boys’ 11-and-under national championships in 1961 at just eight years old. In 1968, when Connors was 16, he and Gloria moved to Southern California where he was coached by the esteemed Pancho Segura. His collegiate career was brief but fortuitous. As a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), he won the NCAA Division I Singles Championship and earned All-America honors. He turned professional in 1971 and won the first of his 109 tournaments in Roanoke, Virginia, defeating Czech Vladimir Zechnik, 6-4, 7-6. His last championship match was in 1989 at Tel Aviv, Israel, defeating Gilad Bloom, and by the end of his career he had 109 titles and 55 runner-up appearances.
Connors hit the ball with full extension and exertion. He took the ball early, on the rise, but like most of the pros of his generation who hit the ball with topspin – some heavily like Borg and Vilas – Connors hit the ball extremely flat, with little or no topspin. The balls snapped off his racquet like a torpedo in a perpendicular line that were precariously close to skimming the net, but rarely did. He pounded his groundstrokes from the baseline, but his game did not resemble a pure backcourt game. It was always on over-drive, attacking, relentless, tenacious; the brand of tennis equating to the personality of the player.
His game was buoyed by the game-changing steel Wilson T2000 racquet. The racquet provided a vast performance enhancement to the traditional wooden racquets favored by the majority of pros, and it aided every part of his game – from his blistering two-handed backhand to his serve that benefited from the increased power the frame afforded. “I think his skills were underestimated,” said rival John McEnroe. “He was a much better volleyer than people realized.”
Connors has said his 1982 five set (3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4) victory over McEnroe at Wimbledon was his most memorable match, the championship coming eight years after his first in 1974, and earning him an improbable world No. 1 ranking given he was in his 12th year on tour.
The tennis community viewed Connors as a “maverick,” likely the stimulus for calling his memoir The Outsider. In 1972, he refused to join the newly formed Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the union that was embraced by most male professional players. Connors chose to play in a series of less prestigious and smaller tournaments that were organized by his manager and promoter Bill Riordan. When Connors finally dipped into the larger arena, his first significant singles championship came at the 1973 U.S. Pro, where he defeated Arthur Ashe in a five-set tussle, 6–3, 4–6, 6–4, 6-3, 6–2.
The core of Connors’s career came from 1974 to 1978 when he won five major championships, appeared in six additional finals, and appeared in a record five-straight US Open finals (the first male player since Bill Tilden played in eight straight from 1918-25), winning titles in 1974, 1976, and 1978. In that memorable 1974 season, Connors was not just dominant, but unstoppable. He compiled a 93-4 record, won 15 tournaments, including three major championships. Officials in Paris denied Connors entry into the field at the French Open because of his association with World Team Tennis (WTT).
The bigger the stage, the better Connors performed. In major tournament play he reached the semifinals or better 31 times (a record he held until surpassed by Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2012) and advanced to the quarterfinals or better 41 times (another Connors record until broken by Federer at Wimbledon in 2014).
Connors didn’t play a lot of doubles tournaments, but he did win 16 tournaments and two majors. He picked the right partner – equally entertaining and controversial Ilie Năstase – and the pair were finalists at the French Open in 1973 and won Wimbledon in 1973 and the US Open in 1975. He also advanced to the US Open Mixed Doubles final with Chris Evert, who he was briefly engaged to in 1974.
In his interview on Center Stage, Connors was asked what championship he was most proud of. “The one I didn’t win, 1991 US Open,” he said. Connors was coming off a wrist injury, was ranked 174th in the world and was in the field as a wild card. He was twice the age of the previous year’s champion Pete Sampras, and the odds of him advancing past the first round weren’t favorable. In the first round against Patrick McEnroe, Connors went down 2-0 in sets and trailed 3-1 in the third set. “I thought I had it in the bag,” McEnroe said. Connors used a questionable line call that went in McEnroe’s favor to ignite himself and the fans. With chants of “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy” reigning down from the crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, he roared back and at 1:35 a.m. earned a shocking five-set victory, 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. He defeated qualifier Michiel Schapers easily in the second round, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, and the excitement and momentum was palatable throughout the Open. He thumped Karel Novacek in the third round, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3, setting up a classic fourth round match against Aaron Krickstein, who had defeated Andre Agassi in straight sets in the opening round.
Connors was celebrating his 39th birthday, which ratcheted up the drama. Krickstein took the first set easily, 6-3, and had hoped to earn a quick 2-0 sets lead, silence the crowd make an exit before things got hairy. That didn’t happen. At 7-all in the second set tiebreaker, the match spiraled away from Krickstein after a Connors crosscourt overhead was called out, then overruled by the chair umpire Paul Littlefield after a Krickstein protest. Connors went on a five-minute tirade that challenged the entire match complexion. He thundered back and on each winner pointed his racquet at Littlefield which created a rock concert atmosphere in the stadium. Krickstein won the third 6-1, and Connors tied the match with a 6-3 fourth set victory.
Krickstein was confident in five-setters and took a 5-2 lead and was serving for the match at 5-3. He won the first point on an ace, and the game went to deuce. Krickstein muffed one of his favorite shots, a one-bounce overhead, that went seven feet long and Connors hit a crisp volley on the next point to come within 5-4. Krickstein surged ahead 6-5 and needed just two points to defeat Connors for the first time ever. Connors leveled the match at 6-6 and on the changeover looked into the CBS television camera, saying, “This is what they paid for, this is what they want.” He defeated Krickstein in five sets and in the quarterfinals took out Paul Haarhius in four sets. The match became a classic based on a single point that saw Connors return four consecutive overheads and then launch a lunging backhand winner down the line. The magic ended in the semifinals against Jim Courier, and although Stefan Edberg won the championship that year, Connors was the sentimental champion, Sports Illustrated placing him on its cover with the headline, “The People’s Choice.”
“If you took the ten greatest moments or points in US Open history, six or seven of them would be his,” said John McEnroe, “and three or four would be at the ‘91 Open.”
In head-to-head competition against his main rivals, Connors trailed McEnroe 20-13, Borg 10-7, and Ivan Lendl 22-13, but posted five of his eight major victories against that trio, defeating Borg in the 1976 and 1978 US Open, McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1982, and Lendl in back-to-back US Open championships in 1982 and 1983.
Australian Open: W 1974
French Open: SF 1979, 1980, 1984, 1985
Wimbledon: W 1974, 1982
US Open: W 1974, 1976, 1978, 1982, 1983
French Open: F 1973
Wimbledon: W 1973
US Open: W 1975
Wimbledon: QF 1973
US Open: F 1974