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From bad boy to elder statesman, Jimmy Connors was one of those players who delighted and shocked in equal measure. This fascinating documentary examines his career and legacy within the sport. BT Sport 1, Thur, Feb 21st 7pm
The story is told against the backdrop of his remarkable run to the US Open semi-final in 1991 at the tender age of 39.
Connors was the original bad boy of tennis. Long before John McEnroe claimed to have seen chalk dust or referred to officials as “the pits of the world”, there was Jimmy Connors. Sure, Romanian Ilie ‘Nasty’ Nastase could be a bit of a nuisance for the powers that were, but Connors was different – he wanted to bring the whole system crashing down!
The emergence of Connors and Bjorn Borg onto the scene in the early 1970s, followed by John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl soon afterwards, completely transformed men’s tennis and is still referred to as the first golden era of the game.
They were the product of the major revolution that was the opening of grand slam events to professional players for the first time in 1969. Suddenly, the game was populated by hordes of young, self-made men who, highly competitive and ruthlessly ambitious, would not be denied. Young, brash and precocious, Connors was their standard bearer. It was a rude awakening for the authorities.
Using the 1991 US Open as the jumping off point, This Is What They Want tells the story of Connors’ career from the beginning right up to his Indian summer at Flushing Meadows 26 years ago. He was a maverick from the start and won three grand slam titles in 1974, unceremoniously dispatching pre-open era stalwart Ken Rosewall in the Wimbledon final to claim the world number one spot which he proceeded to hold for a then-record 160 weeks.
Connors also won the Australian and US Opens on the way to eight grand slam singles titles in a career that lasted almost three decades. He only played in the Australian Open in 1974 and ‘75, winning it the first time and reaching the final the following year. He wasn’t permitted to play in the French Open for several of his peak years due to his affiliation to the World Team Tennis franchise. When he finally was allowed to take part from 1979 onwards, he reached the semi-finals four times.
Connors was the first of that series of larger-than-life characters who came to dominate men’s tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s. Along with John McEnroe, Borg, Lendl and one or two others, they assumed the role of love-them-or-hate-them pantomime heroes and villains, cajoling or antagonising spectators and officials alike from the court or, as was usually the case, during the change of ends. Borg was the good guy, while Connors and the rest were the villains, although Connors took on the mantle of ‘naughty but nice’ elder statesman as the years passed and McEnroe was in his ‘Superbrat’ pomp.
They were big personalities and the game needed them badly. It could never have become the marketing phenomenon that it is today without them. Director Brian Koppelman explains the appeal: “This was during the first golden age of professional tennis, the late 70s and early 80s, when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and, of course, Jimmy Connors made the game feel less like a country club pastime and more like a hard-nosed, full contact sport. They made it the marquis event it remains. Each of those three men made an impact on us. Borg for his cool, McEnroe because he was cool and Connors because he just refused to give in to his opponents, the umpires, the tournament referees or, even, to any notion of politeness and civility.”
Connors shook the tennis world once again with his exploits at Flushing Meadows in 1991, a run that he later referred to as "the best eleven days of my tennis career". First up we see him come back from two sets and 3-0 down to beat Patrick McEnroe, brother of the aforementioned John, in the opening round. He then saw off Dutchman Michiel Schapers before beating number ten seed Karel Novacek in round three, without dropping a set in either match.
It was already a remarkable achievement for the wildcard entry who had dropped to 174 in the world rankings. But there was more to come as he followed it up with a famous victory over Aaron Krickstein, nicknamed ‘Marathon Man’ for his staying power in long matches, in an epic five set encounter where he twice fought back from a set down and overturned a 5-2 deficit in the decider before winning it on a tie-break.
He faced another Dutchman, Paul Harhuis, in the quarter-finals. Boosted by a hugely partisan crowd, he won in four sets to reach the semi-finals and a meeting with hard-hitting French Open champion Jim Courier. But it was the end of the road for the veteran as he was soundly beaten in straight sets. However, his achievement had captured the public imagination and cemented his place in the hearts of tennis fans for all time. Sports Illustrated celebrated with a cover shot of a fist-pumping Connors and the caption: ‘The People’s Choice’. It captured the mood perfectly.
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