“I hate to lose more than I love to win.” How Jimmy Connors refused to go away

[Image credit: Wikimedia Commons]

We live in an era where three men – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – are rewriting tennis history as they dominate the sport in a manner that is completely unprecedented. Between the trio, they have won 56 Grand Slam titles. Yet there was a time where three other men might well have done the same.

Two Americans – Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe – and one Swede, the eponymous Björn Borg, were constantly in the limelight as the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s. In total, they won 26 Grand Slam titles between them, but it may have been so many more. This week, we look at the third of the three men, Jimmy Connors, and how his refusal to give up the fight against two such impressive foes defined his success.

Playing with a left-handed style – just like McEnroe – Connors mopped up titles looking like a Rubber Soul era Beatle with his mop-top. Below that haircut existed a fiery temper and this was never better evidenced than when dealing with the srurly McEnroe. Both Americans went at it in this famous clash in 1982:

Connors won eight Grand Slam titles in his career, including five U.S. Open titles, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open, but it is worth noting that he was banned from the French Open from the year he broke through on the ATP Tour (1974) due to his association with World Team Tennis until later in his career when he chose not to participate anyway. He played in just two Australian Open tournaments in his career, too, winning it in 1974 – along with the other Slams he played- and reached the final in 1975. In 1974, he had a 20-0 record in Grand Slams, the best there has ever been.

In total, Jimmy Connors was world number one for an incredible 268, including a consecutive period of dominance from 1974 to 1977 that spanned 160 weeks.

Connors was such a stalwart of the game that from his breakthrough year in 1974 when he won all three Slams he participated in, it would be 17 years later at the ripe old age of 39 that he took part in his final semi-final, at the U.S. Open in 1991. He was approaching 39 years old, the same age that Federer will be this summer.

Only six men in history have won three Slams in a year, and Connors is one of them, whereas Borg and McEnroe never achieved that staggering feat. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are three of the others, which also include Mats Wilander and Rod Laver. With 109 ranking titles in all, Jimmy Connors won 1,274 of the 1,556 matches he played, an awesome record that will live forever.

Winning on the way up is always easier than on the way down, however, and while Connors won Wimbledon in 1974, it would take him eight years to repeat the trick. When he did so, it was in a five-set epic against his old adversary, John McEnroe, Connors winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 on Independence Day – the 4th of July, 1982. 

It is often said about Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic that we will never see their like again. That may be true, but nor will we see Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. The first great Open era of champions gave us many memories and created the first ‘Holy Trinity’ of the sport that allowed others such as the newest names on the tour to come through with a fanbase around the world.

Jimmy Connors rightly goes down in tennis history as a legend, having retired aged 43 in 1996 as a new era came through. That’s the one we’ll look at next here on Calvin Ayre, as we look at the careers of the American sharpshooters – ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.

When Jimmy Connors was asked what made him such a champion, his response was an example of what makes a sporting great.

“I hate to lose more than I love to win.”