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Jimmy Connors: The champion who refused to give up

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© Getty Images

Jimmy Connors: The champion who refused to give up

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Amogh Jain


He was controversial, crazy and remained the bad boy of tennis throughout his career, but no fan can disagree with the tennis Jimmy Connors played. We bring to you the charismatic story of the American which is a testament of unadulterated passion for the game and his unshakable thirst to compete.

“We have seen the likes of Jimmy Connors before, in a boxing ring, usually looking for the knockout punch. Sometimes staggered but always picking themselves up from the canvas before the final bell. "

Competitor. That is the word that describes this man the best. Nothing was dearer to Jimmy Connors than the thrill of competing. He would die on that court before losing. This article is a tribute to Jimmy Connors, the champion who refused to give up. 

It all started when Jimmy was just 2-3 years old. Tennis was in Jimmy's genes. His grandmother passed it on to his mother and his mother to Jimmy. He would train with his mother, Gloria Connors, every single day. She was his coach and friend as well and so she had to juggle between these three caps. It was not an easy task but she balanced them well.

Gloria knew the game and she realized that on a professional tour, it is not your strokes but your mindset that wins you matches. She had started working on this very early in Jimmy's career. She once said: 

"When he was young, if I had a shot I could hit down his throat, I did. And I'd say, 'See, Jimmy, even your mother will do that to you.'" 

Jimmy grew up in East St. Louis, where tennis was never the preferred game. Kids there engaged themselves in playing baseball, basketball and football. Jimmy would play all these sports with his brother but something kept pulling Jimmy back to the tennis court in their backyard. Jimmy has been an outsider ever since. He wouldn't let a single day pass without hitting some tennis balls. Jimmy had fallen in love with the game...

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The turning point in Jimmy's life came in 1970 when he was 18 years old. He was scheduled to play the legendary Roy Emerson in round 1 of Pacific Southwest Open is L.A. Jimmy played the match of his life to pull off the victory in three sets 7-6 6-7 6-4. The world has never been the same for Connors since then. There was a shift in his mentality. A belief sprouted in this young mind. Jimmy could beat the greats of the game and become one himself.

Jimmy won his first tournament, the Jacksonville Open in 1972. Another significant thing happened in 1972- Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was formed. Jimmy refused to join the association and his rivalry with the fellow players, with the media, with the traditions and rules began. Remember, Jimmy was an outsider.

1974 was Jimmy's year. With the young blood boiling, with the competitive juices flowing, with the eye of the tiger, Jimmy Connors marched onto the court and conquered the tennis world. He won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year. Had the French and Italian associations not barred him from competing in their tournaments, Jimmy might as well have won the French Open that year and completed the Grand Slam, the ultimate achievement in the sport. Nevertheless, with a 99-4 win-loss record that year, Jimmy had produced one of the most successful seasons in the history of the sport.

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Jimmy would go on to win 8 Grand Slams in his career and hold the number 1 ranking for a then-record 160 consecutive weeks and 268 weeks in total. He was the year end number 1 for four consecutive years from 1974 through 1978. He still holds three Open-era records to his name: only man to win more than 100 titles (109), to have played 1535 matches and won 1256 of them. Jimmy is the only player to have won the U.S. open on three different surfaces : grass(1974), clay(1976) and hard(1978). His rivalry with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl has produced some of the greatest matches in the sport. Jimmy was the best in the business.

But with fame, came controversies. Many regarded Jimmy as the bad boy of tennis. He was termed disrespectful and uncivil. At the look of it, these people might have been right. There was nothing gracious or mannerly about Jimmy's behavior on court. He would have outpour of emotions, he would shout, he would dance, he would jump, he would do everything that was not accepted by the Wimbledon crowd. In Jimmy's words:

“New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there. Spill your guts at Wimbledon and they make you stop and clean it up."

But that is the beauty of this sport. Even though he was everything that fans at Wimbledon did not accept, they accepted his tennis. Fans connected with his passion. They realised the genius of his game and the tenacity of his will. Fans were gripped by the essence of this man.

 Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe © Getty

Jimmy was a tennis player in his thoughts, in his actions, in his words. Everything he did was for tennis and tennis alone. His single goal in life was to be the best tennis player he can be and everything that came in his way he put it aside. If the traditions at Wimbledon asked him to give a post-match interview after a devastating defeat at the hands of his arch-rival McEnroe, he would walk off the court with no guilt. He was different. All he understood was his tennis and his will to win. When he would raise his finger and shout one more game, it was not to disrespect his opponent, but to motivate himself to win that game. 

Jimmy’s game and his personality complimented each other. His counter-punching style of play was very similar to his aggressive and fearless nature. Not only did he have the best return game on tour but also the quality of his backhand was unmatched. He would take the ball on the rise, something which was widely practiced on the women’s tour, but not on men’s. The reason for this, of course, was the two women who had coached him, his mother and grandmother. They gave Jimmy a different approach to tennis and it was paying off. However, the real differentiating factor was this guy’s essence, his swagger and self- confidence, his stubbornness and unwillingness to accept defeat. Once he walked out onto the tennis court, he was possessed by the court.

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You might think of him as harsh, as one who did not respect the norms, the rules, the misfit, the outsider, but the truth is he was just doing what he knew he could do best and that was to play tennis. He never asked anyone to like him; all he asked for was allowing him to perform his best on court. All he wanted to achieve, he fought for it. He just did what his heart desired and that was to play tennis every single moment. He loved his tennis and he guarded it, don’t we all do that, guarding what we love the most. 

The only thing that meant more to Connors than tennis was his son. When asked what one thing would he like to give his son, he said: “I would give him the ability to go beyond perfection.”

Connors retired in April 1996. We will miss the way he used to throw his racquet in the air, clench his fists and lift them up in victory. We would miss how that warrior on court would turn into a child while holding that trophy in his hands. We would miss how he ruled on the court but was the most humble in victory. The memories of his tennis will continue to inspire us in every domain of our lives. Jimmy Connors is a true champion.

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