Former No. 1 tennis player Jimmy Connors comes home to coach young players
The affinity between Jimmy Connors and the U.S. Open is often considered tennis’ quintessential romance of player and venue — a romance that probably reached its peak in his 1991 requiem run to the semifinals at age 39.
But it was not love at first sight. And the story of how that romance evolved, from horror show to love affair, during two very different U.S. Opens in 1977 and 1978, is reflective of the dramatic transformation of tennis 40 years ago in a radically different New York City.
The 1977 U.S. Open men’s singles final between the East St. Louis-born and Belleville-bred Connors and Guillermo Vilas began on a late Sunday afternoon, a September day that with its breeze and mild temperatures offered a refreshing contrast to a summer when excessive heat was but one source of oppression. It ended with a scene akin to a coup d’état in a banana republic — a finish fitting for what the city was at that time.
Those who wish to chronicle urban decay will find a gold mine in New York’s summer of 1977: There was the terror of “Son of Sam,” the serial killer. There was the July 13-14 power blackout, with hundreds of fires and looters, thousands arrested and millions of dollars in damage. The Big Apple’s dystopia of 1977 was also flavored by racial squabbles, a nasty mayoral election and excessive financial woes.
In a decade when movies were front and center in America’s cultural dialogue, representative New York films of the ‘70s unraveled corrupt policemen (“Serpico,” 1973), urban vigilantism (“Death Wish,” 1974), and corporate hegemony via media (“Network,” 1976), the last including a scene where thousands of New Yorkers opened their windows and yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
But the ultimate exemplar of Gotham as abyss was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet who donned a Mohawk, carried concealed weapons, tried to assassinate a political candidate and ended up saving the life of a 12-year-old hooker, along the way killing her pimp.
Then there was the tennis. At the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, Queens, the sport’s boom was in full glory. By 1977, the tournament had outgrown the club and had announced plans to relocate the following year to a new facility 3 miles away in Flushing Meadows on the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
Since the start of the Open era in 1968, when professional tennis players were allowed to compete with amateurs, the U.S. Open had seen radical change. Tiebreakers, yellow balls, colorful clothing, extensive television coverage and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money had all entered the mix. What was once an acoustic garden party had become an electric carnival. Welcome to the jungle.
And no one more gloriously and garishly personified tennis’ new animal kingdom than Connors. Before “Jimbo,” tennis stars had been mild-mannered crooners such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Stan Smith, who with their wood rackets and white clothes personified the sport’s long-standing culture of civility.
Connors, who declined to comment for this article, shook it all up. With a snarl and a strut, a two-handed backhand and a steel racket, the “Brash Basher of Belleville” became tennis’ first rock star — a hip-swaggering punk who had been promoted like a boxer by his manager, coached and coddled by his mother and grandmother, and refused to join the 1972-formed players association, the ATP. Even Connors’ frequent coach, the wise Pancho Segura with his striking silver hair, tan and warm-up suit, came off as both strategist and corner man.
Connors had also hired bodyguards, a pair of New York City teenagers named Robert Harper and Doug Henderson. Such was the attitude of a paranoid pugilist who savored royal treatment. The same month the 1977 U.S. Open started, one of Connors’ musical heroes, Elvis Presley, had died.
“The King is dead,” Segura told his charge. As Segura recalled years later, Connors replied, “What a shame, there are only a few of us kings left.”
But while others had defined the throne with understatement, Connors saw it differently. “People don’t understand,” he said about life inside the lines, “that it’s a goddamn war out there.”
Fueled also by his mother’s sense of class injustice, reluctant to even talk with many of his peers, Connors’ cocoon of isolation hardly endeared him to long-standing tennis fans, many of whom found him not just arrogant, but — even more of a sin to the upscale club crowd — downright vulgar.
Bad Behavior at the Club
In the semifinals of the 1977 U.S. Open, Connors played Corrado Barazzutti, a grim and steady baseliner nicknamed “The Little Soldier.” Connors, serving at 3-all in the first set, faced his third break point of the game and hit an untouchable inside-out backhand that landed very close to the line. After the linesman signaled it good, Barazzutti stared at the line, clearly hoping the umpire would inspect the mark.
Connors scampered across the clay court and stomped out the marks in the vicinity of his shot. As the crowd booed, Connors yelled, “I’m the last [American] you’ve got left, so you better pull for me!”
But not for one this ugly. The CBS announcer Pat Summerall said, “He’s got the crowd against him, but he likes that.”
He scraped past Barazzutti, 7-5, 6-3, 7-5, and in the final took on Vilas, a likable, poetry-loving Argentine with wavy hair, tree trunk-like thighs and a bruising lefty baseline game that was in many ways an ancestor of Rafael Nadal’s highly physical playing style.
Layered into this was a crowd that was not pro-Connors — not just because of the way he’d behaved the day before, but also because flag-waving at sports events in those days was hardly standard procedure. This was the ‘70s, a brief window when Cold War tensions had simmered and jingoism was largely in retreat.
One of the few people in the stands rooting for Connors that day was his former fiancée, Chris Evert. In contrast to Connors’ New York City roller coaster, Evert’s New York journey was little more than a tidy trek on the monorail. The previous day, Evert had won the singles title for the third consecutive time — and second straight without the loss of a set.
After Connors and Vilas split the first two sets, Vilas won the third in a tie-break and swiftly took a commanding lead in the fourth.
Connors served at 0-5, down championship point for the fourth time. His down-the-line forehand approach to Vilas’ backhand yielded a meager passing shot that Connors put away. But Vilas looked back at the linesman, keen for him to call Connors’ approach shot wide. Connors wasn’t about to run across the net this time. Vilas kept staring. The linesman then signaled out.
As Vilas jumped for joy, hundreds of fans, akin to a soccer crowd, poured onto the court, and the chair umpire John Coman was in no position to examine the mark left by Connors’ shot. Instead, he called the match for Vilas, who was lifted onto the shoulders of several fans.
A photographer stuck a camera inches from Connors’ face. When Connors asked him to move away, the photographer drew closer. As Henderson wrote in his 2010 book, “Endeavor to Persevere: A Memoir on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Tennis and Life,” “The photographer made the last in a series of bad judgments by calling Connors a jerk. Connors turned bright red and propelled himself towards him.”
Henderson lifted the flailing Connors completely off the ground. Though Connors next issued a torrent of profanity toward the photographer — “He was angry enough to kill,” Henderson wrote — there was no physical violence.
A number of fans on the court began to taunt Connors, who walked off the court alongside Henderson, his mother and other members of his inner circle. He headed to the locker room, picked up his gear and left the club — an exit highlighted by Connors spitting on a tree — and entered a small blue Ford.
Was it the beginning of the end for Jimmy Connors? Not quite. Call it the end of the beginning.
Tough Times in the City
New York City, on the ropes, reeled and rallied. There had been the 1977 launch of “I Love New York,” an advertising campaign intended to tell the world what made the city like none other. The mayor’s race ended in November, won by an underdog, Rep. Ed Koch, who in the wake of the blackout had run a campaign strongly focused on law and order.
Koch was inaugurated on Jan. 1, 1978. “These have been hard times,” the new mayor said. “We have been tested by fire. ... We have been shaken by troubles that would have destroyed any other city. But we are not any other city. We are the city of New York, and New York in adversity towers above any other city in the world.”
That same week, Connors returned to New York to play the season-ending Grand Prix Masters tournament (now the ATP Finals). As Connors prepared to play Vilas, Henderson stood next to Connors and wondered if he was nervous about the crowd. Would it be as hostile to him as it had been the last time he’d played in New York?
But this was not Forest Hills — it was Madison Square Garden, home to basketball and hockey, far removed from the club. “The Garden crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Connors,” Henderson wrote. “Gone was the highbrow sophistication exhibited by the Forest Hills crowd that afforded it the luxury of rooting against their country’s best player.”
Though Connors narrowly lost to Vilas, 7-5 in the third, the round-robin format kept him alive. In words that would have pleased Koch, Connors said, “Don’t count me out.” Three days later he won the tournament, rallying from 0-2 in the third to beat Bjorn Borg, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.
A Statement at the Open’s New Home
So what was to come at the 1978 U.S. Open?
Start with a very different facility. The National Tennis Center was a public tennis center intended for the masses, featuring hard courts, located close to a subway station — and in range of many a noisy plane departing from nearby La Guardia Airport. The new stadium court was ready on Friday, Aug. 18, just 10 days before the start of the tournament. Connors was among the first to practice on it, and he sat alongside the court for 30 minutes waiting for officials to put up a new net.
As usual, though, Connors’ eagerness was leavened with anger. Just before the tournament, Sports Illustrated had published Frank Deford’s article, “Raised by Women to Conquer Men,” a deep dive into Connors’ Oedipal-like life. “It is his own man that the boy is chasing,” Deford wrote. “Jimbo will be 26 next week, and the boy and his mother can only go so far. There must be the man to accept the harsh truths, so that once again he can win finals, win other people.”
Matters weren’t helped by Connors’ loss at Wimbledon. Though he was still ranked No. 1 on the ATP computer, he’d been trounced by Borg in the final, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. Keen for redemption, miffed at Deford, scarred by ’77, Connors opted to skip his U.S. Open postmatch news conferences.
During one of Connors’ first practices at the new facility, his hitting partner, Chico Hagey, struck a winner. With 150 spectators watching, Connors responded by peeling off his pants and mooning him. Toto, we’re not in Forest Hills anymore. So long, austere Ford rental. Hello, Cadillac Fleetwood limo, loaded with an ice chest that held 55 pounds of steak. Long live the king.
Many a tennis fan has likely seen the point from Connors’ 1991 U.S. Open run, where he threw up four lobs versus Paul Haarhuis and eventually won the point and the match. But by ’91, Connors had won five U.S. Opens, his résumé thoroughly intact. History is read backward, but life is lived forward.
It was all quite different in ’78. Connors had lost the title to Vilas the year before. Borg had beaten him for two straight years at Wimbledon. John McEnroe was coming on the scene. “For Jimmy Connors, this was Armageddon,” Peter Bodo wrote in “Inside Tennis,” a book-length account of the 1978 tennis year.
In the fourth round, Connors was two points away from defeat against Adriano Panatta of Italy. Connors rallied to 5-all, and “threw off his cloak of restraint for the first time during the tournament,” Herbert Warren Wind would write for The New Yorker, “and, from then on, whenever he came up with an exceptional winning shot — and he came up with quite a few — he reverted to his old act: He strutted cockily around the court; he threw punches at the sky effusively; and arching his back and tilting his head far back, he walked along the baseline if he were treading a tightrope. Most times in the past, many of us have felt that Connors’ purpose in parading these antics was to show up his opponent and glorify himself. Not this day. Unmistakably, he was simply exhibiting for himself alone the joy he felt at playing such sensational stuff when nothing less would have done.”
Beat it, patrician tennis. Say hello to tennis populism as we now know it — fist pumps, hip thrusts, our expectation of players that they now be passionate, expressive, interactive.
Soon Panatta served at 5-6, love-40. All three match points, erased. Another was lost. Advantage Panatta. Back to deuce.
With Panatta at the net, Connors lined a forehand passing shot down the line. Panatta read it perfectly, crisply knifing a forehand volley crosscourt at an extremely sharp angle. Running for it, Connors had to ditch his two-handed backhand. Instead, a one-hander. Barely reaching the ball, Connors lined it around the netpost — just inside the baseline for a winner. Exultation. On match point number five, Panatta double-faulted.
This time Connors met with the press — but only briefly, and only to discuss the match.
Connors’ win in the next round over his one-time junior doubles partner, Brian Gottfried, brought him to the semifinals versus McEnroe.
McEnroe was only 19, three months out of college, not yet at his peak. But even though McEnroe was the New York-raised player, Connors was the one who had emerged as the people’s choice, a far more fitting avatar for those jaded cabdrivers and underpaid waitresses than McEnroe, who had attended a private high school, gone to Stanford and had a father who worked at a prominent Manhattan law firm.
Connors won the first two sets, then trailed 5-1 in the third. McEnroe held two set points, but Connors fought them off and then got back on serve at 4-5. On the changeover after he’d earned that break, Connors took a swig of water, rinsed it in his mouth — and spit it at McEnroe’s feet. Connors won the set, 7-5, and the match.
The day after beating McEnroe, Connors played Borg in the final. Uncomfortable amid lights and loud planes and, alas, with a blister on his right thumb, Borg was far away from his tranquil Wimbledon. Connors was unleashed. He went up a set and 5-2, at which point, wrote Bodo, “Connors is still prancing, fixing Borg with a stare as fierce as any volley or smash in this hot, hard world.”
Connors won the second set, 6-2, then the third by the same score to become the first player (and most likely the only one) to win the U.S. Open singles title on three surfaces.
This time, of course, he spoke at length with the news media, which bore the cumulative scar tissue of years of Connors’ churlishness. Questions about Borg’s injury angered Connors. Another reporter noted how Borg didn’t play as well as he had in the Wimbledon final. Connors counterpunched, “Maybe I made him back up a bit and kept him from playing like he did at Wimbledon.”
But the chirping of the media was far less important to Connors now. Besides, New York City was in the middle of a newspaper strike. Far better to communicate directly through the people.
A year earlier at the U.S. Open, Connors had wanted no part of the media or the public.
But on the evening of his redemptive triumph, having raised the trophy aloft, Connors spoke. “It seems every time I come to New York I play my best tennis. Whether you liked me or not, I like you.”
Never again would a New York crowd root against Jimmy Connors.