1975: Ashe upsets Connors in Wimbledon final

by: Steve Tignor | April 30, 2015

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Forty years ago, Ashe finally became King Arthur by going against his aggressive mentality. (AP Photo)

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We know that Icarus flew too close to the sun and was burned, but did Tarzan ever swing too high and lose sight of the trees? That’s one explanation—metaphorically speaking, of course—for what happened in the 1975 Wimbledon men’s final, which would go down as one of the most epochal and popular upsets in tennis history.

Coming into the event, 22-year-old Jimmy Connors was the overwhelming favorite. He had won the tournament the previous year, was No. 1 in the world, and was playing with unprecedented viciousness. In 1974, Jimbo had gone 99-4, and there was talk in the locker room about how he would “go on winning everything for years.”

Few people watching Connors’ Wimbledon semifinal against Roscoe Tanner would have dared to disagree. “Jimmy,” wrote British journalist Richard Evans, “was primed and ready for one of the most awesome and terrifying displays of attacking tennis ever seen on the Centre Court....Pumped and rolling like never before, Jimbo only just stopped short of beating his breast like some miniature tennis Tarzan. But in fact this extravagant show of power-packed tennis was only contributing to his downfall.”

You see, there was one person watching who had to believe that Connors could be beaten. Arthur Ashe, who had just finished a five-set win over Tony Roche in his own semifinal, sat toweling off in the Wimbledon locker room as Jimmy strutted across the TV screen above him. Ashe saw the bullet-serving Tanner hit the ball hard at Connors, only to have it come back harder. Now he knew what not to try in the final. There was only one problem: Like Tanner, Ashe had always played with slashing power and caution-to-the-wind aggression. Could he change, just this once?

The consensus was that, whatever Ashe tried, it wasn’t going to work. His friends in the press were almost frightened for him. Bud Collins said he was “scared to death that Arthur was going to be terribly embarrassed.” Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated skipped the match entirely rather than see Ashe be humiliated.

Between the semis and final, Ashe huddled with his agent, Donald Dell, and his friend and fellow player Dennis Ralston. They mapped out a plan that resembled the one that Muhammad Ali had used to take back the heavyweight championship from George Foreman the year before: Rope-a-dope. Rather than go toe-to-toe with a bigger-hitting, younger man, Ali had laid back and absorbed Foreman’s haymakers. When Foreman grew tired, Ali went in for the kill.

Ashe would implement the tennis version of this strategy. Instead of feeding Jimbo, a born counterpuncher, the pace he craved, Ashe would dink and dunk, slice and dice. Instead of cracking the flat serve he loved so much, and which Connors loved to crack back with his two-handed backhand, Ashe would bend it out wide. “I had the strangest feeling that I couldn’t lose,” the underdog would say later.

Ashe was confident enough to tweak his younger opponent before the match began. He walked onto Centre Court wearing red, white, and blue sweatbands and his Davis Cup team jacket, with "USA" emblazoned across the front. This was a not-so-subtle reference to Connors’ recent boycott of Davis Cup, and to the controversy that swirled around the two at the time.

Two years earlier, Ashe had helped lead the ATP’s Wimbledon boycott, a labor uprising that left the players largely in control of the game for the first time. Connors, a decade younger than Ashe, had benefited from the risk that his fellow players had taken. Rather than join the boycott, 20-year-old Jimbo had happily leaped into the void at Wimbledon and bashed his way to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. A year later, Connors ascended to No. 1 and became the first Open era champion who had no connections to the bad old amateur days, the first who hadn’t ridden across the country in the back of a station wagon on a barnstorming tour.

Yet Connors, who was always a solo artist, was anything but grateful. Instead, before Wimbledon, he and his maverick manager, Bill Riordan, sued Ashe for comments Ashe had made about recent Connors’ Davis Cup boycott.

“He ain’t one of the boys,” Ashe told Time in ’75. “Right now he’s sorely misguided. We hardly say hello.”

Is this what the ATP had fought for? Many tennis fans, and virtually all of his fellow players, yearned for Ashe, the sentimental favorite at 32 years old, to give the kid his comeuppance on Centre Court.

“The political background had obviously added spice to the occasion,” Evans wrote, “but even without that the match would have attracted an unusual amount of interest, because Ashe had already established himself as one of the most articulate and popular athletes in the world, while Connors was the perfect anti-hero—brash, vulgar, and threatening.”

The world, for once, got what it wanted. Ashe’s brave tactic worked perfectly. He chipped the ball, he rolled it softly, he kept it low, he swung Connors from side to side, he hit his often-wonky forehand volley with precision. He gave Jimbo nothing to work with, no punches to counter. Ashe won the first two sets by the astounding scores of 6-1, 6-1. Most impressive of all, when Connors snuck out the third and went up a break in the fourth, Ashe, closing his eyes in meditation during each changeover, stuck with the plan. In the end, like Ali, he finally let rip with two knockout backhands to break in the fourth set. A few minutes later, Ashe finished this most masterly of upsets with one more swinging serve, and one more volley winner.

With that, Ashe had given tennis’ old, gentlemanly guard one final hurrah; his Grand Slam title would be the last for his generation. At the same time, he became the first and so far only black man to win Wimbledon. When the match was over, Ashe turned to his player’s box and raised his fist, briefly, in celebration. Many people watching believed Ashe had made a Black Power salute, like the ones Tommy Smith and John Carlos had made on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Ashe—as author Eric Allen Hall noted in his 2014 biography of the player—said his clenched fist was merely a gesture of triumph toward Dell, one of the architects of this victory. Later, though, Ashe said he was happy that, “Among blacks, I’ve had quite a few say [the win] was up there with Joe Louis in his prime and Jackie Robinson breaking in with the Dodgers in 1947.”

Connors would later reveal that he had suffered hairline fractures in his shin during his first-round match at Wimbledon that year. Yet nothing could spoil this moment. Ashe was a calm man who normally played with reckless abandon, and he quickly returned to that style after his win over Connors. “It was all biff and bang and glorious technicolor winners for the rest of his career,” Evans wrote. 

Ashe was the rare athlete who transcended all boundaries, and he has inspired whites and blacks alike. With his win over Jimbo, that seemingly invincible miniature Tarzan, he offered hope to his fellow players in particular. Ashe showed that thought and courage do matter in tennis, and with enough of both, anyone can be beaten.

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