Skip to main content

Twenty years later, Connors' 1991 Open run remains awe-inspiring

Never, though, has there been a tale of unfinished business like Jimmy Connors' in 1991. To this day, his run to the semifinals remains the most rollicking, tempestuous, unforgettable episode in Grand Slam history. Crazy as it sounds to young fans today, it didn't matter that he eventually came up short. Connors crafted memories for a lifetime, the echoes still vibrant in the rafters of venerable Louis Armstrong Stadium.

As the 2011 Open unveils its first-week action, seasoned fans lament the absence of tennis royalty: the showman. We get fleeting glimpses today, but hardly in the manner that brings a nation to a standstill. That was the 39-year-old Connors in '91, when tavern-dwelling steelworkers, firemen and carpenters -- devoted sports fans who dismissed tennis as a rich-man's folly -- demanded that the television sets be switched to CBS.

In every great story there is conflict, and such was the essence of Connors' charm. So often we've witnessed belated acceptance of a superstar's appeal, earned largely through longevity. John McEnroe (petulant), Billie Jean King (tomboyish), Chris Evert (monotonous), Martina Navratilova (openly gay) and Pete Sampras (uninspiring) were far from universally popular champions in their prime, eventually to be embraced as champions of relevance and character. At the very top of that class goes Connors, perhaps the most reviled tennis player in history during his breakthrough years in the early 70s.

Make no mistake, Connors personally changed tennis back then, and all for the better. Only one player, the great Pancho Gonzalez, had ever brought such desire, volatility and outright anger to the court, and Gonzalez' prime (the 1950s) arrived long before the onset of big-time sports television. Connors' matches were a matter of public record, and as much as people despised him at first (much as they had resented the young, brash Cassius Clay in the boxing ring), they found themselves spellbound, unable to turn away from the spectacle.

In the words of Joel Drucker from his exceptional book, "Jimmy Connors Saved My Life," Connors showed that "Tennis is a language, a culture, a romance, a passion, a partnership, a joust ... No one had ever thrown himself at every ball with such intensity. With his James Cagney-like strut, Connors was the quintessential ugly American: isolated, ambitious, arrogant, disrespectful of those who'd come before him -- and wildly successful ... Connors showed that the middle of life's court was nothing. It was the lines where you wanted to live."

Still, the respect came grudgingly. People detested Connors when he so rudely dispatched the classy, 39-year-old Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 at the 1974 U.S. Open final, just as they cheered lustily at Arthur Ashe's clever dismantling of Connors at Wimbledon in '75. Support came naturally in New York, where Connors won two of his final three majors (the 1982 and '83 U.S. Opens) before boisterous crowds eager for a scrap, but there was lingering sentiment that Connors, for all of that on-court brilliance, shouldn't be getting away with such a rude, unsporting approach to the game.

Funny thing about Connors, though: You couldn't get rid of him. He was 38 years old in the autumn of 1990, when he had reconstructive surgery to correct a long-standing wrist problem, and he was certain (after spending 16 weeks in a cast) that he'd never play again. He was ranked No. 174 heading into that life-changing U.S. Open, granted entry only as a wild-card.

Right off the bat, he found himself down two sets, 0-3 and love-40 to Patrick McEnroe in the first round. The match got a late start at 9:15 p.m., and only a few thousand fans were around at 1:35 a.m., when Connors polished off a miraculous five-set win, 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. But those remaining fans were in an uproar, and Connors graced match point with one of his signature displays, defiantly pointing to all four corners of the court in a pelvis-thrusting frenzy.

"Jimmy used the crowd's adrenaline," McEnroe said later. "I don't think it was a question of them being against me. If I were in the stands, I probably would have been cheering for him, too."

The second and third rounds brought straight-set wins over Michiel Schapers and Karel Novacek, setting up a Labor Day fourth-rounder -- on Connors 39th birthday -- against Aaron Krickstein. By this time, his feats were the subject of a "Nightline" feature by ABC's Ted Koppel, and the tennis community was standing at full attention. "What Jimmy has," said Ilie Nastase, "is what we would all kill for: Just one more time."

The Krickstein match now stands as a curiosity, a kaleidoscope of chaos, a Barnum & Bailey act that could not be replicated today -- and in many ways, that's a shame. Poor David Littlefield, the chair umpire, looked as if he was about to become ill under the withering barrage of Connors' rants, but he just sat there calmly, issuing no penalties, letting the show go on. By the referees' modern-day handbook, perhaps Littlefield's inaction would be viewed as inexcusable. At the time, it was crucial.

"So often, Connors was above the law," Drucker wrote. "In New York that year, Connors was the law."

How bad did it get?

"Bullcrap!" Connors yelled at Littlefield after he'd overruled a call in Krickstein's favor during the second-set tiebreaker. "Get out of the chair. Get your ass out of the chair! You're a bum! I'm out here playing my butt off at 39 years old and you're doing that?"

At one point in the fourth set: "Kiss me before you do anything! Just kiss me!"

With Krickstein serving at 4-2 in the fifth, after a Connors approach was called long on break point and Littlefield refused to overrule: "You are an abortion! Do you know that? ... Get the f***out of there!"

It came to pass that Connors, trailing 5-2 in that final set, came all the way back to win, 3-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6. I've heard some spine-chilling crowd reactions over the years -- notably during the Rafter-Ivanisevic Wimbledon final on "People's Monday" and Agassi's Open classics against James Blake and Marcos Baghdatis -- but nothing quite like this. As Mary Carillo put it so well, "Jimmy made all of us watching him part of his act. He had the uncanny ability to make you feel as though you could, merely as a spectator, conspire with him to win the match he was playing."

Surely, there couldn't be any more of this -- and yet, a fresh new chapter unfolded. In a nocturnal quarterfinal against Paul Haarhuis, Connors punctuated his 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory with one of the most electrifying points in Open history. On the brink of despair, desperately needing to cash in a break point as he trailed 5-4 in the second set, a retreating Connors tossed up four consecutive lobs (an artful weapon in his arsenal that few have done better). Haarhuis, stubbornly refusing to let the ball bounce, answered with four returnable overheads. Connors lined up the fourth one to crush a cross-court forehand, and after a lunging Haarhuis managed a backhand volley, Connors raced inside the baseline for a low, textbook backhand winner down the line.

Bedlam. Absolute madcap insanity. The fist-pump has become little more than a joke in today's game, lamely (and tamely) unveiled by the likes of Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli roughly two hundred times a match. Connors' version came from the streets, from deep in the soul, at just the right times, and even the Connors-haters (a dwindling group, but still in evidence) had to admire the raw passion of it all.

"It's unbelievable, the effort and the joy he gets out of playing," marveled John McEnroe at the time (he had lost in the third round). "He's what every tennis player tries to emulate. A living legend."

As the semifinals arrived, Jim Courier was waiting. That was Courier's breakthrough year, with a first-ever major at the French Open; by February of '92, he would be No. 1 in the world. Asked about the match now, Courier admits that if Connors had somehow gained momentum, the tournament might have had another classic. But Courier was relentless in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 rout, his signature performance before falling to Stefan Edberg in the final.

"That was the great anticlimax," noted longtime journalist and tennis historian Steve Flink, "that Jimmy never got into that match. It wasn't even really that competitive. Age finally caught up to him. It's remarkable, though: last year at Wimbledon, Jimmy told me, 'That was the best 11 days of my life.' And I know he meant it. Here's a guy who won five Opens -- that's something no other great player would have said. Sampras, Federer, they were there to win. Jimmy always put it in a larger context."

I heard from Carillo via e-mail this week, and she remembered Connors "orchestrating his efforts and the crowd like Leonard Bernstein. I especially remember the first weekend, when he was waiting under Louis Armstrong Stadium and I complimented him on how he'd lit up the tournament. He said, 'Not bad for an old man,' or something like that. But then he said, 'You give me back 10 years...'

"He didn't have to finish the thought. The only thing that ever stopped Jimmy from winning, from wanting to win, was the earth spinning around the sun."