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50 Years of Influence, US Open: Jimmy Connors
Published Aug 23, 2018
In the five decades since the first US Open, these are the players, innovators and newsmakers whose contributions have helped make it one of our nation’s essential sporting events
“Hair, arms, and legs flew, along with plenty of fur, as Connors bashed his way into a game he so obviously loved.”
That was how Bud Collins described his first sighting of an 18-year-old Connors at the 1970 US Open. He was making his debut as the “tagalong” doubles partner of his mentor, Pancho Gonzalez. Collins recognized what this floppy-haired ball of eternal fire would inject into the tournament for the next two decades: passion and fun.
It didn’t take long for the tagalong to turn into a titlist at Forest Hills; he won the tournament on grass in 1974 and clay in 1976. But it wasn’t until the US Open moved from the private preserve of the West Side Tennis Club to a public facility in Flushing Meadows in 1978 that Connors became the tournament’s patron saint. No country-clubber, he said the asphalt surface and loose atmosphere reminded him of the courts he’d grown up on in the midwest. Connors was the first player to practice at Flushing Meadows; two weeks later he became the first man to win a title there. By the end of the fortnight, Jimbo was an honorary New Yorker.
“They love it when you spill your guts at the US Open,” Connors said of the rabid fans in his adopted hometown. “Spill your guts at Wimbledon and they make you stop and clean it up.”
Connors would win five US Opens, but he saved his best show for last, when he made his furious, finger-pointing run to the semifinals in 1991 at 39.
Late in the fifth set of that run’s most memorable match, a marathon fourth-rounder with Aaron Krickstein, Connors summed up his relationship with the New York fans: “This is what they paid for, this is what they want.”
For 50 years, New York City has staged the biggest circus in tennis; it will never have another ringmaster like Connors.