19. Jimmy Connors defies Father Time, September 2, 1991, Louis Armstrong Stadium

Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different places, yet he’s best remembered for a tournament in which he didn’t even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and as the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit. This aging inspiration captivated even the most casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his classic American blend of tenacity and showmanship.

            That tournament, Connors said later, was “the most memorable 11 days of my career. Better than the titles.”

            And he gave his growing legion of fans not one but three classic matches.

            So which is your favorite? Bet you can’t choose just one.

            You could select the first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe on August 27.

            Because it seemed incredible that Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. Connors had played and lost three matches in 1990 before submitting to wrist surgery. He’d plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991 owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in the third round of Wimbledon; he was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his “home court.”

            Because he beat a McEnroe. Sure, Patrick, ranked just 35th, lacked the skill and artistic temperament of his famous older brother, but he was an Australian Open semifinalist and had beaten Boris Becker that summer.

            Because this was the first time we saw Connors’s vibrant Estusa racket flashing through the night, proclaiming the return of the king.

            Because he overcame the greatest deficit of all, dropping the first two sets to the steady McEnroe 6–4, 7–6, then falling behind 0–3 in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi), and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game there’d be perhaps 6,000 loyalists from the original sellout crowd. According to Joel Drucker’s biography-memoir Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, even Connors’s staunchest supporter, his mother and first teacher Gloria, turned away from the television.

            Then, at 0–40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. And once he did, McEnroe could not finish off tennis’s Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans that remained. Connors held, saved two more break points at 2–3, won five of six games for the third set, then snared the fourth set 6–2 and finished McEnroe off 6–4 in the fifth. The 4-hour-18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m. “The crowd won it for me,” Connors said. “The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick.”

            You could choose the fourth-round marathon against Aaron Krickstein on September 2.

            With three wins already notched, Connors had people paying attention—Becker stopped practicing to come over and congratulate him after the McEnroe match; defending champion Pete Sampras’s third-round press conference included a run of 12 out of 16 questions about Connors before Sampras snapped that he wanted questions about his own tennis; Nuprin rushed its new Connors commercial onto the air; and even Ted Koppel explored the Connors phenomenon on Nightline.

            The fans greeted Connors, 39 on this day, with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Connors soaked up the spotlight’s warmth and converted it to energy and power. He had always used the crowd better than any other player, first when they booed the strident young outcast and then, after 1978, when he started earning respect and adoration. And no crowd connected better with Connors than the New York crowd, which fed off his working-class humor, his defiant stances, his drive, his urgency.

            Never before had Connors so perfectly played and played to his audience, exulting, exhorting, slapping his thigh, pumping his pelvis, thrusting his fist, for 4 hours and 42 minutes. Although he also still resorted to base tactics—calling an umpire “an abortion”—he mostly oozed charm, even as he used the ovations as a stalling tactic to catch his breath and psych out Krickstein. At one point he directly addressed the nation, turning to a courtside television camera and boasting, “This is what they come for. This is what they want.”

            Although he’d fallen further behind against McEnroe, beating Krickstein was no simple task. Krickstein, who had idolized Connors growing up and become a friend and occasional hitting partner, was fresh off a win over 1990 finalist Andre Agassi.

            Connors lost the first set, then clawed back to win the second in a tiebreaker. Worn down, he tanked the third, 6–1, while waiting for his second wind, which enabled him to win the fourth. In the fifth set, after a 17-minute, 23-point game, Connors found himself trailing 5–2. Then he crushed Krickstein with another miraculous comeback, winning one game with a touch backhand volley and another with an overhead, while Krickstein remained pinned to the baseline, unable to slow the attack.

            Tennis writer Peter Bodo was in the press box near Arthur Ashe, who had once loathed Connors for his refusal to join the players’ union, his selfish unwillingness to play for America’s Davis Cup team, and his on-court behavior. Witnessing Connors’s voodoo magic, Bodo asked Ashe if he thought Connors was still an asshole. Ashe paused, then replied, “Yes. But he’s my favorite asshole.”

            As the crowd screamed and shrieked at previously unimagined decibel levels, Connors finally flattened Krickstein 7–4 in the fifth set tiebreaker. When Jimbo finally pulled it out, the stands—still full this time—echoed with thousands of fans singing a “Happy Birthday” encore. Even nemesis John McEnroe was impressed enough to search out Connors in the locker room to congratulate him. “I’ve just got to go in there and touch him and see if he bleeds,” McEnroe said.

            Or finally, you could select Connors’s win over Paul Haarhuis in the quarterfinals on September 5.

            Well, not the entire match, but one point. Fast-forward through the first set, with Connors looking his age and Haarhuis winning 6–4; fast-forward through most of the second too. Stop right after Haarhuis broke Connors for a 5–4 lead. There was no way Connors could endure another five-setter, so if he couldn’t solve Haarhuis here, it would be all over. Haarhuis grabbed a 30–15 lead. Two points for the set.

            Connors snatched two quick points and then, after stoking the crowd, pulled off his final miracle on break point. Back in his prime in 1978, Connors had pulled off perhaps the greatest shot in Open history, up 6–5 in the fifth set against Adriano Panatta, running down a ball past the doubles alley, and hitting a one-handed backhand around the net-post for a winner. Now, as an old man, he managed to win what was perhaps the Open’s most memorable rally.

            Haarhuis approached net with a superb deep backhand. Connors flung a lob skyward. Haarhuis slammed an overhead. Connors, back literally against the wall, lofted another backhand lob. Another overhead from Haarhuis smashed to the backhand corner. Connors, refusing to give in, threw up one more lob. The crowd was electrified by his hustle, his perseverance. This time Haarhuis rifled the overhead toward Connors’s forehand. Scampering like a young Michael Chang, he hurled another lob—Connors had turned tennis’s most defensive shot into a statement of aggression and defiance, thrusting his jaw out and saying, “Hit me again, I won’t ever go down.”

            Haarhuis, still not letting the ball bounce, was exhausted, mentally if not physically, by Connors’s display. His last overhead was his weakest, and Connors, the game’s finest opportunist, whacked a crosscourt forehand. Haarhuis reached it, but his backhand volley was weak and Connors raced in, driving a backhand winner up the line. The crowd, on its feet, roared for Connors—for this point, for nearly two decades of unsurpassed thrills. Connors and Haarhuis returned to playing, but the match was essentially over. Connors won that set 7–6 and the next two 6–4, 6–2.

            Although Connors lost to Jim Courier in the semifinals, he was clearly the tournament’s biggest winner—make that 1991’s biggest sports story. In Eliot Berry’s book Tough Draw, he quotes a stranger exclaiming about the Krickstein match: “I never really liked tennis, but I was in a bar yesterday with about a hundred people. And that Connors! We were all cheering.”

            Indeed, the aura surrounding this comeback gave Connors the leverage two years later to launch his “seniors” tour, which lured Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, and others back to competitive play and gave the fans the show everyone wanted—even if it was just for show—for the rest of the decade.

            “F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that there are no second acts in American lives. Jimmy Connors would probably tell Fitzgerald exactly where he could shove that remark,” Drucker once wrote in a magazine piece.

            So there you have it: the first and toughest match, the birthday present when the spotlight shone brightest, or the greatest point.

            The McEnroe match featured the longest road back at a time when no one expected anything, and it served as a reminder that Connors was more than just a great talent and mesmerizing entertainer: he had succeeded so often and for so long because of his intense dedication to the game and to the idea of competing. But for the history books, choose the Krickstein match—although Connors always thrashed Krickstein, this confrontation marked the apex because it put Connors back in the spotlight he loved and because he always preferred facing the pressure of high expectations and somehow exceeding them.

 

New York City sports history, like the city itself, is noisy, self-important and endlessly fascinating. This book ranks the Top 100 greatest days in New York City sports, with essays on each event, but it also chronicles the Top 25 greatest days New York’s teams ever had, the 10 greatest performances by opponents against New York teams and the worst days in New York sports

 

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