Connors conquered with intensity

Updated: September 11, 2006, 11:24 AM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"We went to church one day and Jimmy went into confession and he came out like a half-hour later. I said, 'How did it go?' and he said, 'Well, the priest told me to come back next Sunday because I wasn't finished,' " says Chris Evert about Jimmy Connors on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Jimmy Connors
Jimmy Connors is the only player to win the U.S. Open on three different surfaces.
He was raised by women to conquer men, and that's exactly what Jimmy Connors did. He conquered them, as he had been taught by his mother and grandmother, on the tennis courts.

He won five U.S. Open titles, and is the only player to win this championship on three different surfaces. He won two Wimbledons and one Australian Open. For five consecutive years in the seventies, the left-handed dynamo was ranked No. 1 at the end of the year. He is the all-time leader in professional singles titles with 109 and matches won at the U.S. Open (98) and Wimbledon (84).

How's that for conquering?

His biggest weapons were an indomitable spirit, a two-handed backhanded and the best service return in the game. It is difficult to say which was more instrumental in Connors becoming a champion.

He was born on Sept. 2, 1952, the younger of Gloria and "Big Jim" Connors' two children. He was raised to be a tennis player by his mother, a teaching pro, and his grandmother, Bertha Thompson, whom he called "Two Mom."

He started playing as a toddler in East St. Louis, Ill. "My mother rolled balls to me, and I swung at them," Connors said. "I held the racquet with both hands because that was the only way I could lift it."

Though smaller than most of his competitors, Connors didn't let it bother him, making up for a lack of size with determination. After moving to Belleville, Ill., at nine he won his first important tournament, the Orange Bowl 10-and-under. He was ranked No. 1 in his age group at 12, 14 and 16.

In 1971, as a UCLA freshman, he won the NCAA singles title. He turned pro the next year and won six tournaments on tour. After winning 11 more in 1973 and compiling an 81-16 record, he had climbed to No. 3 in the world by the end of the year.

Then in 1974, the 5-foot-10, 155-pounder dominated his competitors, winning 15 tournaments and going 99-4. More significantly, he won three quarters of the Grand Slam: He won the Australian Open in his first crack down under (he would play this tournament only once more) and then captured Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In the latter two tournaments, he beat Ken Rosewall in the finals, and limited the aging Australian legend to an astounding eight games in six sets.

Connors was denied a shot at the Grand Slam because he was banned from the French Open that year after signing to play in World Team Tennis. Because the Association of Tennis Pros (which Connors refused to join) and the French officials opposed WTT, the entries of WTT players were refused.

During the year, the world's No. 1 male player was involved in a storybook romance with the No. 1 female player, Chris Evert. The relationship between the Wimbledon champions was hot and heavy and they got engaged. But in 1975 there was a mutual breakup. Three years later, Connors married Patti McGuire, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year.

While tennis fans enjoyed Connors' gritty style and his never-say-die attitude, they often were shocked by his antics. His sometimes vulgar on-court behavior -- like giving the finger to a linesman after disagreeing with a call -- did not help his approval rating. During the early part of his career, Connors frequently argued with umpires, linesmen, the players union, Davis Cup officials and other players. He was even booed at Wimbledon -- a rare show of disapproval there -- for snubbing the Parade of Champions on the first day of the Centenary in 1977.

Though No. 1 for 263 weeks in the seventies -- including 159 consecutively -- he wouldn't win another Wimbledon in the decade. Three times he lost in the finals, to Arthur Ashe in 1975 and to Bjorn Borg in 1977 and 1978. The 1977 defeat to Borg was an exceptional match, with Connors rallying from 0-4 in the fifth set to tie before the Swede won the final two games.

Jimmy Connors
Jimmy Connors is a two-time Wimbledon singles champion (1974 and 1982).

It wasn't until 1982 that Connors would win his second title on the Wimbledon grass. Three points from losing to John McEnroe in a fourth-set tiebreaker, Connors came back to win the tie-breaker and then took the fifth set 6-4. Jimbo overcame 13 double faults to win the four-hour and 15-minute match.

Overall, though, Connors had a losing record (13-20) against McEnroe, who rose to prominence after Connors peaked. But just as Connors had shining moments against McEnroe, so did he have important triumphs against Borg and Ivan Lendl, two other No. 1 players he had losing records against. Though 7-10 against Borg and 13-22 against Lendl, he beat each twice in the finals of his favorite tournament, the U.S. Open.

He whipped Borg in four sets, including taking a breath-taking 11-9 third-set tiebreaker, in the final on the clay of Forest Hills in 1976 and routed the Swede in straight sets on hard court to take the first tournament at Flushing Meadow in 1978. These victories enabled Connors to become the only player to ever win the Open on three different surfaces (the 1974 victory had come on grass). In 1982 and 1983, Connors won four-set finals against Lendl at Flushing Meadow.

But perhaps Connors' finest performance at the U.S. Open was in 1991, when he celebrated his 39th birthday. It certainly was his most popular. By now, an older Connors had toned down his vulgarity, though not his competitive spirit. And the fans were enthralled by the way he gutted out one victory after another against much younger opponents.

In 1990, he only had played three matches -- losing them all -- as he recovered from a wrist injury and surgery. By the end of the year, his ranking had fallen from 14th to a tie for 936. By the 1991 Open, he was No. 174 and needed a wild card to get into the tournament.

In the first round, he faced McEnroe. Younger brother Patrick this time, not John. Connors trailed two sets and 3-0 in the third set in an evening encounter. But then began the stuff of legends. At 1:35 in the morning, after four hours and 18 minutes of play, Connors walked off the court a winner, having taking the fifth set 6-4.

Next came straight-set victories over Michiel Schapers and 10th-seeded Karel Novacek. On September 2, Connors gave himself a wonderful 39th birthday present. He lost two of the first three sets to Aaron Krickstein before tying the match. Krickstein went ahead 5-2 in the fifth. But with the crowd wildly cheering, and Connors pumping his arm after winning shots, he roared back and won in a tiebreaker. The place went crazy.

It's been reported that some fans paid scalpers as much as $500 to see his quarterfinal match against Paul Haarhuis. They didn't feel cheated. From a set and break down, he rallied to win the final three sets as again the crowd shrieked its delight on winning Connors points. At 39, he was, incredibly, in the final four. But the magic was gone in the semifinals as Jim Courier won in straight sets. Although Stefan Edberg won the tournament, it was Connors' Open in the public's view.

Connors, who won $8,641,040 in official earnings, wound down his playing on the tour in 1993. That year, he started his own tour for players 35 and over. With his will as strong as ever, he dominated play throughout the 1990s.

On July 11, 1998, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 2006, he returned to the tennis world when he became Andy Roddick's coach.

Connors and his wife Patti have two children, a son Brett and a daughter Aubree Leigh. They live on the family ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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