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When Jimmy Connors played Roland-Garros with no preparation

When Jimmy Connors played Roland-Garros with no preparation

What if Roger Federer arrived, like he said, at Roland-Garros, without having played a single official preparation tournament ? 30 years ago, another monument of tennis took the same risk, almost at the same age, before reaching the quarter-finals.


Roger Federer’s choice to skip the Monte-Carlo/Madrid/Rome trio is a « luxury ». Everyone knows that the rules punish any top player who don’t take part in a Masters 1000 with a score of zero points…unless said player has taken part in more than 600 ATP matches, is older than 30 and has spent at least 12 years on the circuit. Three requirements easily fulfilled by Roger Federer. This « joker » laid out after an exceptional first term is meant to enable his to rest a little before the start of the tournaments played on grass. An unprecedented strategy for the Swiss, which has been approved by Roland-Garros’ director, Guy Forget : « He’ll arrive here like he did at the Australian Open, with a great fitness level. The choice of not playing until Roland-Garros makes sense when you look at what he has just achieved. He’s produced some great tennis, he’s got his game plan, and his confidence is high. »


Maybe the ex-French number 1 remembers that in his time, Jimmy Connors had used the same strategy with success ? In 1987, while the rules were far more permissive than nowadays, the American had chosen to arrive directly in Paris, without stopping in Italy, Spain, Germany, or Monaco…Before Roland-Garros, Connors’ last match was a quarter-final in Tokyo, played on a hard-court, in the middle of April. At 34 and 8 months (Federer is currently 35), Connors wasn’t exactly hoping to win the title in Paris, but wanted to get in shape before Wimbledon, a far more realistic goal for him than Roland-Garros. The same philosophy, and the same detachment, at least on the outside. « Come what may, said the American star, who arrived in Paris diminished by stomach aches. It’s my daughter’s fault, she passed me a parasite… » Well, well, doesn’t that remind us of the bath Daddy Federer gave his twins last year, which resulted in his knee injury ?


A beer during the press conference


But it’s mainly for their absolute love of tennis, that Connors and Federer are so similar. In front of a journalist which asked him, during the first week of this 1987 Roland-Garros if it was his last season, Connors got annoyed : « Give me your number. I promise that when I decide to retire, I’ll give you a call, and the scoop will be all yours. » What kept him going after having won more than 100 titles on the main circuit ? Just like Federer… « I love tennis. I don’t necessarily love the travels, and everything around it. But the game, then, yes. I love the atmosphere, the adrenaline rush, just before a match, which makes me a little nervous. » However, the comparison ends when Connors plays his best part, the provocative champion who’s capable of showing up at a press conference with a beer in hand (which Federer will probably never do), to celebrate his victory in the second round against the German Michael Westphal, after having spent more than 4 hours on the court : « I don’t feel old. I could discourage any opponent. Even the youngsters are struggling to take me off the court. When I lose, I never tell myself that it’s because I’m 34 years old. »


That year, and despite a « slightly cold weather for his old bones », Jimmy Connors managed to reach the quarter-finals, where his bête noire, Boris Becker, defeated him in three sets. And on his way to the quarter-final, apart from his marathon-like duel against Westphal, Connors surprised everyone by crushing a young 17 year-old argentine clay specialist, Franco Davin (6/3 6/1 6/2). And what about Wimbledon, then ? One month later, after playing a final at the Queen’s, Connors had enough energy left to reach the semi-finals for the eleventh and last time of his career, only to be defeated by the future winner Pat Cash. Enough to make any of Roger’s fan impatient to compare the « Master »’s results in 2017 to what the « Lion »had achieved in 1987. And seeing if, just like with Jimmy in 1987, journalists will dare to speak about retirement with Roger Federer. In July 1987’s edition of Tennis Magazine, the caption under a picture of Jimmy Connors reads : « Jimmy Connors is having fun and entertaining the crowd. He amazes us. And when we saw him leave the Central court, after being defeated by Becker, on Wednesday, June 3rd, at 4:11pm, we were scared to think that his furtive gesture towards the stands might have been his farewell. » Five years later, at 39, the American star was still jumping around on that same court against Michael Stich…Federer’s goodbyes might last a few years as well.


By Julien Pichené