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1991: Jimmy Connors' gripping U.S. Open run at age 39

by: Steve Tignor | September 10, 2015

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In Flushing Meadows, Connors gave the fans what they wanted—one more time. (AP)

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In August of 1990, Jimmy Connors left the grounds of the U.S. Open without having played a match, something that had never happened in his 20 years at the tournament. But there was no way around it this time: The five-time champ, who at 37 was well into the sunset years of his career, was suffering from a wrist injury that just wouldn’t let up.

Jimbo, of course, wasn’t quite ready to sail off into the sunset just yet. According to tennis writer Joel Drucker, as he rode out of the National Tennis Center in a taxi, Connors turned back to look at Louis Armstrong Stadium and told the crew of cronies that surrounded him, “If I ever get back there, that place is going to rock and roll.”

By August of ’91, ‘if” had turned to “when.” Connors, despite being one year closer to 40, had reached the third round at the French Open and Wimbledon, and had been serenaded off the court by packed houses in both places. To him, though, those were just the warm-up acts before the main event. “I had only one goal in mind: New York,” Connors said.

Since winning the inaugural Open at Flushing Meadows in 1978, the Big Apple had been “my stage and the crowd my people,” he said. In ’91, he believed a deep run there was still possible. “If I can win a match or two,” he told himself as he trained and carbo-loaded like a man half his age, “I know the crowd will do the rest for me.” 

Two sets into his opening match at the ’91 Open, though, all of his work seemed to have gone for nought. The truth was out: Even James Scott Connors, the warrior's warrior, was no match for father time. That night a packed crowd had arrived on time, but Connors’ game hadn’t. Uncharacteristically nervous, he went down two quick sets and a break in the third to Patrick McEnroe. Rather than serenading him off, the fans in the corporate boxes were bolting early; even Jimbo’s old friends Jose Luis Clerc and Ilie Nastase deserted him.

A few hours later, around 1:00 in the morning, Nastase arrived home and said to his wife, “What a shame it was about Jimmy.”

“About what?” she asked. “Look at the TV. He’s serving for the match right now.”

How did Jimbo turn it around? As he said, this was his house. 

“I’m two sets down, 0-3, 0-40,” Connors wrote in his autobiography, The Outsider, “when that feeling returns. F--- this, I’m not letting Patrick McEnroe beat me in my own backyard. I’m not ready to say good-bye.”

All it takes is one hold of serve, and the crowd, desperate for any kind of positive energy from their man, goes berserk. 

“Now I can’t miss,” Connors remembered. “Nothing Patrick throws at me is good enough. The fans are giving me everything they have, and they’re demanding everything I have. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I doubt I ever will again.”

Connors closed out the match at 1:35 A.M. Swept up by “that insane New York energy,” he found himself pointing his index finger at each corner of the stadium. He'd been right: The Open audience, his audience, had brought him through. But Connors was wrong to doubt that he would ever experience anything like the McEnroe match again. It turned out that he was just getting started on the ride of his life. His magical, sentimental, finger-pointing final hurrah wouldn’t end until the semifinals.

It was a run that would be capped by what has since become the all-time piece of rain-delay filler in U.S. Open broadcast history: His five-set, fourth-round win over Aaron Krickstein. The match was played on Jimbo’s 39th birthday, in front of a capacity crowd and millions more on TV over Labor Day weekend. Tennis has never thrown a party quite like it.

There’s a reason that, nearly 25 years later, broadcasters can’t let go of Connors vs. Krickstein. It had everything and then some. From start to finish, Jimbo revved up the crowd—“the intensity of noise in the stadium was overwhelming,” he said—while battling tooth and nail with his younger opponent and chair umpire David Littlefield, who didn’t seem to get the memo that this was supposed to be Jimbo’s day. 

The five sets seesawed with Connors’ energy levels. After barely hanging on to win a second-set tiebreaker 10-8, he gave away the third set, 6-1, before roaring back to take the fourth. Again, though, as in the McEnroe match, it appeared that Connors had come to the end of his road when he went down 2-5 in the fifth. Again, he wasn’t ready to say good-bye.

“They’re demanding more drama,” Connors said, “and I’m going to give it to them.”

Connors was as good as his word. Attacking relentlessly—and taking his sweet time toweling off between points—the 39-year-old forced a final-set tiebreaker. Just before it began, he sat down in the corner of Armstrong Stadium and spoke into the CBS camera that was stationed there. He had a message for his old friend Vitas Gerulaitis, who was in the broadcast booth that day.

“This is what they paid for. This is what they want,” a nearly exhausted Connors said. As his crowd rose one more time, he walked slowly toward the baseline, milking the moment for all it was worth.

And that’s one more reason that tennis can’t let go of this match. The crowd that day was rising for Connors, but it was also rising for the now-bygone era that he represented, the wild west days of the 1970s and early '80s, when so many of these fans were drawn to the sport’s larger-than-life personalities. No one had represented that era as thoroughly as Connors, the first full-fledged product of the professional game. He had played the sport for love and money, and always given the fans full value for their dollar. On this day, as he had predicted, he had made the U.S. Open rock and roll again.

Now, his shoulders a little slumped but his competitive juices still flowing, he would give them what they wanted one more time.

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