Almost 39, ranked 174th in the world, recovering from a wrist injury... When Jimmy Connors arrived at the US Open 1991, it was without any great ambition. His goal? To pass a couple of rounds and leave with the honours a tournament that offered him the greatest emotions of his career. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. To the greatest pleasure of Flushing Meadows' spectators.
«You're a bum, a bullcrap, you can’t do that to me it’s my birthday! Get out. Get out of the chair!» It was the 2nd of September 1991, the second round of the US Open, and Jimmy Connors was celebrating his 39th anniversary. The age of reason for one of the most whimsical and colourful figures of modern tennis? Not really. As in his heydays, when he succeeded a smash in the tiebreak of the second set, Connors thought to be the victim of poor arbitration and decided to take it all out on the umpire, David Littlefield. "I clearly saw the ball outside," answered the official, not very confident. Connors went berserk: "You saw it clearly? Yeah right!” In an astounding uproar, the umpire then gave the point to his opponent and compatriot of the day, Aaron Krickstein, fifteen years his junior. The next one, Connors won it at the net and, and as a provocation, celebrated by pointing his racquet towards the umpire, as if he was shooting at a game bird. The stadium was on fire. Krickstein had to do something. “Connors was playing in his living room" in the words of Henri Leconte. On each of his first serves, girls were screaming: "I love you Jimbo." The atmosphere became surreal for a tennis match. Jimmy Connors had captured the stage of the US Open as the showman he's always been.
"Twenty years ago, he confessed after the tournament, it was me against everybody. And I loved it! But today, things have become more balanced. The public and me grew up together; they always come to see me play. I used to love for them to hate me, now I'm even happier that they love me. I wouldn’t be able to fight against 20,000 people alone anymore!" Icing on the cake, the match had to be decided in the tiebreak of the fifth set - one of the many peculiarities of the American Grand Slam. Before starting, Connors sat at the baseline, taking time to breath, turned to a television camera around the court and said: "That's why they came. That's what they want." After 4 hours 42 minutes of combat and intense show, Connors was in quarterfinals. At the end of the game, there wasn’t any empty seat in the Louis Armstrong court, which just started to sing a long and exciting "happy birthday" to its star. Even John McEnroe came to congratulate his long-time rival. A handshake to which Connors added, shirtless, in the middle of the dressing room, "You know John, I had nothing else to do today. So playing three hours, four or twelve, it didn’t really matter to me."
« Use and abuse me! »
To take the measure of Connors' feat, we must go back a few months. During the summer of 1990, he was close to a forced retirement, betrayed by a faulty wrist that forced him to have surgery. In the columns of French newspaper L'Equipe, he remembered the painful announcement: "I got injured in February 1990, I was told: 'Take six days of rest, then six weeks, then six months... After six months, I had only played two tournaments. It was a disaster. Then one of my surgeons in Santa Barbara told me, 'You have to enter the hospital in two days. I don't know what you have, but we'll see when we open. But surely you won't play tennis anymore..." I was heartbroken." Meanwhile, the competition in the tennis world had intensified. There were the four young American aces (Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang); a duo of attackers (Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker), supporting roles of choice such as Henri Leconte and Thomas Muster and a few legends from the past, like Mats Wilander for example. And Jimmy Connors.
To pay tribute to the latter, the organisers of the US Open offered him a wild card for this 1991 edition, but Connors wasn't really feeling great. His body and mind were fragile. "Why do I still play at 39? He wondered a week before the start of the tournament. I could answer with the classic 'I love the game and I still make money' but the real answer is that I don't know. This is probably pride and love for the show,” he said. And then theorized "But if McEnroe and me still make the headlines, it means something. If I'm still able, and 'Mac' with me, to set fire to the tournament to raise the level of popularity of tennis to the one I took it to a few years ago, then Use and abuse me!" A few days later, ranked 174th worldwide, Connors was facing Patrick McEnroe, brother of John, in his first match of the competition. Led two sets to none, 3-0 and 0-40 on his serve, he managed an incredible comeback for a victory in five sets with the sole force of his forceps. The public was thrilled. "Jimmy managed to use the crowd. If I had been in the stands, I would have supported him too", said Patrick McEnroe after the match. And his brother to add: "Patrick has awakened the beast."
« The best eleven days of my career»
Jimmy Connors admitted it a few weeks later, he thought that he would play at home in Flushing Meadows and maybe pass a round or two. But he played five: after Patrick McEnroe and the incredible match against Aaron Krickstein, "Jimbo" reached the semi-finals, where against another American, Jim Courier, he eventually lost in three straight sets. But the defeat didn't matter, Connors, the bad boy of the courts, had redeemed himself. His successive rebirths, which were as many victories on sports death, were now more important than his misbehaviour. "I am no longer a bad example for kids, people from 7 to 77 love me now! He laughed. But one day, fans will try to push me, and I know that I won't be able to answer to their call. It will be over."
Except that Connors was never able to actually say goodbye to tennis. He's probably the only top player to have never announced his retirement officially. From 1993 to 1996, without playing any full season, he appeared sporadically in small tournaments. In 1995, at the Halle tournament, he won his last two official matches before considering a come back on the German grass in 1997, to bid his farewell at 45. But he never went. For fear of ridicule, perhaps, or to leave the memory of a wonderful final round. "I had the eleven best days of my life at this 1991 US Open. Better than my titles. It's not even comparable. I wouldn’t trade a single second of this tournament against all the titles in the world." Anyway, who would have offered that? Because as summarized by Pete Sampras: "This tournament, Jimmy took him by the horns. And made it his own."