In 1970, Connors recorded his first significant victory in the first round of the “Pacific Southwest Open” in Los Angeles, defeating Roy Emerson.
In 1971, Connors won the “National Collegiate Athletic Association singles title as a Freshman while attending the University of California, Los Angeles and attaining All-American status. He turned professional in 1972 and won his first tournament at Jacksonville.
Connors was acquiring a reputation as a maverick in 1972 when he refused to join the newly formed Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the union that was embraced by most male professional players, in order to play in and dominate a series of smaller tournaments organized by Bill Riordan, his manager and a clever promoter. However, Connors played in other tournaments and made his first big splash by winning the 1973 U.S. Pro Singles, his first significant title, toppling Arthur Ashe in a five-set final, 6–3, 4–6, 6–4, 3–6, 6–2.
In 1974, Connors was by far the most dominant player. He had a stunning 99–4 record that year and won 15 tournaments, including all the Grand Slam singles titles except the French Open. The French Open did not allow Connors to participate due to his association with World Team Tennis (WTT). However, he won the Australian Open, defeating Phil Dent in four sets. He also beat Ken Rosewall in straight sets in the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open. His exclusion from the French Open may have prevented him from becoming the first man player since Rod Laver to win all four Major singles titles in a calendar year.
Connors reached the final of the US Open in five straight years from 1974 through 1978, winning three times with each win being on a different surface (1974 on grass, 1976 on clay and 1978 on hard). He reached the final of Wimbledon four out of five years during his peak (1974, 1975, 1977 and 1978). Despite not being allowed to play in the French Open in his prime, he was still able to reach the semifinals four times in his later years.
In the open era, Connors is one of only six men to win three or more Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year. Others include: Rod Laver who won the Grand Slam in 1969; Mats Wilander won the Australian, French and US Open in 1988; Roger Federer won the Australian, Wimbledon and US Open in 2004, 2006 and 2007; Rafael Nadal won the French, Wimbledon, and US Open in 2010; and Novak Djokovic won the Australian, Wimbledon, and US Open in 2011.
Connors reached the world no. 1 ranking on July 29, 1974 and held it for 160 consecutive weeks (a record until it was surpassed by Roger Federer on February 26, 2007). He was considered the year-end no. 1 player from 1974 through 1978 and held the world no. 1 ranking for a total of 268 weeks during his career.
Contemporaries and rivalries
- During his best years of 1974 through 1978, Connors was challenged the most by Borg, with twelve matches on tour during that time frame. Borg won only four of those meetings, but two of those wins were in the Wimbledon finals of 1977 and 1978. Connors lost his stranglehold on the top ranking to Borg in early 1979 and wound up with an official tour record of 8-15 against Borg. Although Borg is four years younger and won the last ten times they met, Connors won most exhibitions and senior tour matches against Borg, putting Connors ahead of Borg in overall wins (see Borg-Connors rivalry). Head to head in major championship finals, they split their four meetings, Borg winning two Wimbledons (1977 & 1978) and Connors winning two US Opens (1976 & 1978).
- Nastase was another rival in Connors’ prime, with Connors winning five of their eight meetings from 1974 through 1978. Interestingly, they only met once in 1974, which was Connors’ best year. The two would team up to win the doubles championships at the 1973 Wimbledon and the 1975 US Open.
- As the world no. 1, Connors went 7-2 against Orantes, but Orantes beat Connors in the final of the 1975 US Open. Connors was 2-2 against Vilas during those years, but Vilas won the 1977 US Open final against Connors.
- In 1975, Connors won two highly-touted “Challenge Matches”, both arranged by the Riordan company and televised nationally by CBS Sports from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. The first match, in February and billed as $100,000 ($431,911 today) winner-takes-all, was against Laver. Connors won that match, 6–4, 6–2, 3–6, 7–5. In April, Connors met Newcombe in a match billed as a $250,000 winner-takes-all. Connors won the match, 6–3, 4–6, 6–2, 6–4. Connors ended his business relationship with Riordan later in 1975. Connors played Newcombe in only two tour events from 1974 to 1978, with Newcombe winning the 1975 Australian Open and Connors taking the 1978 Sydney Indoor. Connors won all three meetings with Rod Laver in tour events.
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78. Connors dropped Riordan and eventually the lawsuits, although according to the official film produced by Wimbledon 1975, his $2 million suit against Ashe was still outstanding when the two met in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
At Wimbledon in 1977, he refused to participate in a parade of former champions to celebrate the tournament’s centenary, choosing instead to practice in the grounds with Ilie Nastase while the parade took place. He was booed when he played his first round match the next day. Reaching the final, he lost in five
sets to Borg, who a month later was able briefly to interrupt Connors’s long hold on the world no. 1 ranking. Connors also irritated sponsors and tennis officials by shunning the end-of-year Masters championship from 1974 through 1976. However, he entered this round-robin competition in 1977 when it moved to New York City. Although Connors lost a celebrated late-night match to Vilas, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, he took the title by defeating Borg in the final, 6–4, 1–6, 6–4.
- Connors’ best win during 1979-81 was the 1980 WCT Finals, when he defeated the defending champion, John McEnroe. McEnroe and Borg were battling for the top spot in those years, while Connors played the role of the spoiler. However, in 1982, at age 29, Connors was back in the Wimbledon singles final, where he faced McEnroe, who by then was established firmly as the world’s top player. Connors recovered from being three points away from defeat in a fourth-set tie-break (at 3–4) to win the match, 3–6, 6–3, 6–7(2), 7–6(5), 6–4, and claim his second Wimbledon title, eight years after his first. Although Connors’ tour record against McEnroe is 14-20, McEnroe is six years younger than Connors and had a losing record against Connors until he won 12 out of their last 14 meetings. Head to head in major championship finals, they split their two meetings, Connors winning the 1982 Wimbledon and McEnroe winning the 1984 Wimbledon.
- Connors defeated another of the next generation of tennis stars, Ivan Lendl, in the 1982 U.S. Open final and soon regained the world no. 1 ranking. Connors has a tour record of 13-22 against Lendl, but Lendl is seven years younger than Connors and had a losing record against Connors until he won their last seventeen matches from 1984 through 1992, after Connors’ prime. Head to head in major championship finals, Connors took both meetings, winning the 1982 and 1983 U.S. Opens. A low point in Connors’ career occurred on February 21, 1986, when he was defaulted trailing 2-5 in the fifth set of a semifinal match against Lendl at the Lipton International Players Championships in Boca Raton, Florida after being angered by the officiating. He paid a $20,000 fine and accepted a ten-week suspension from the professional tour, starting March 30. He was forced to miss the French Open. He subsequently lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the third round at the US Open, a tournament where he had reached at least the semifinals for twelve consecutive years.
At the 1989 US Open, Connors defeated the third seed (and future two-time champion), Stefan Edberg, in straight sets in the fourth round and pushed sixth-seeded Andre Agassi to five sets in a quarterfinal.
His career seemed to be at an end in 1990, when he played only three tournament matches (and lost all three), dropping to no. 936 in the world rankings. However, after surgery on his deteriorating left wrist, he came back to play 14 tournaments in 1991. An ailing back forced him to retire from a five-sets match in the third round of the French Open against Michael Chang, the 1989 champion. Ironically, Connors walked off the court after hitting a winner against Chang.
The defining moment of Connors’ later career came when he made an improbable run to the 1991 US Open semifinals at the age of 39. On his birthday, he defeated 24-year-old Aaron Krickstein, 3–6, 7–6 (10-8), 1–6, 6–3, 7–6(4), in 4 hours and 41 minutes, coming back from a 2–5 deficit in the final set. Connors then defeated Paul Haarhuis in the quarterfinals before suffering a defeat to Jim Courier.
Connors participated in his last major tournament in the 1992 US Open, where he beat Jaime Oncins, 6–1, 6–2, 6–3, in the first round, before losing to Lendl (then ranked no. 7), 6–3, 3–6, 2–6, 0–6, in the second round.
In September 1992, Connors played Martina Navratilova in the third Battle of the Sexes tennis match at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Connors was allowed only one serve per point and Navratilova was allowed to hit into half the doubles court. Connors won, 7–5, 6–2.
However, this would not be the end of his playing career. As late as June 1995, three months shy of his 43rd birthday Connors beat Sébastien Lareau, 6–4, 7–6, and Martin Sinner, 7–6, 6–0, to progress to the quarterfinals of the Halle event in Germany. Connors lost this quarterfinal, 6–7, 3–6 to Marc Rosset. Connors’ last match on the main ATP tour came in April 1996, when he lost, 2–6, 6–3, 1–6, to Richey Reneberg in Atlanta.
Distinctions and honors
Connors won more matches (1,337) than any other male professional tennis player in the open era. His career win-loss record was 1,337–285 for a winning percentage of 82.4. He played 401 tournaments and through many years it was a record until Fabrice Santoro overcame it in 2008.
Connors was the only player to win the US Open on three different surfaces: grass, clay, and hard. Connors was also the first male tennis player to win Grand Slam singles titles on three different surfaces: grass (1974), clay (1976), and hard (1978).
Connors reached the semifinals or better of a tennis major a total of 31 times, a record recently surpassed by Roger Federer. Connors’ achievement is particularly remarkable considering that he entered the Australian Open Men’s Singles only twice and that he did not enter the French Open Men’s Singles for five of his peak career years. Of the 31 major semifinals Connors contested, he managed to win 15 of them and progress to the final. Roger Federer holds the record for most consecutive semifinal appearances at these events.
Connors was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1998 and Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Hall of Fame in 1986.
His on-court antics, designed to get the crowd involved, both helped and hurt his play. Schwartz said, “While tennis fans enjoyed Connors’ gritty style and his never-say-die attitude, they often were shocked by his antics. His sometimes vulgar on-court behavior—like giving the finger to a linesman after disagreeing with a call or strutting about the court with the tennis racket handle between his legs; sometimes he would yank on the handle in a grotesque manner and his fans would go wild or groan in disapproval—did not help his approval rating. During the early part of his career, Connors frequently argued with umpires, linesmen, the players union, Davis Cup officials and other players. He was even booed at Wimbledon – a rare show of disapproval there—for snubbing the Parade of Champions on the first day of the Centenary in 1977.” His brash behavior both on and off the court earned him a reputation as the brat of the tennis world. Tennis commentator Bud Collins nicknamed Connors the “Brash Basher of Belleville” after the St Louis suburb where he grew up. But Connors himself thrived on the energy of the crowd, positive or negative, and manipulated and exploited it to his advantage in many of the greatest matches of his career.
Connors was taught to hit the ball on the rise by his teaching-pro mother, Gloria Connors, a technique he used to defeat the opposition in the early years of his career. Gloria sent her son to Southern California to work with Pancho Segura at the age of 16. Segura advanced Connors’ game of hitting the ball on the rise which enabled Connors to reflect the power and velocity of his opponents back at them. Segura was the master strategist in developing Jimmy’s complete game. In the 1975 Wimbledon final, Arthur Ashe countered this strategy by taking the pace off the ball, giving Connors only soft junk shots (dinks, drop shots, and lobs) to hit.
In an era when the serve and volley was the norm, Björn Borg excepted, Connors was one of the few players to hit the ball flat, low, and predominantly from the baseline. Connors hit his forehand with a continental grip and with little net clearance. Some considered his forehand to be his greatest weakness, especially on extreme pressure points, as it lacked the safety margin of hard forehands hit with topspin. His serve, while accurate and capable, was never a great weapon for him as it did not reach the velocity and power of his opponents.
His lack of a dominating serve and net game, combined with his individualist style and maverick tendencies, meant that he was not as successful in doubles as he was in singles, although he did win Grand Slam titles with Ilie Năstase and Chris Evert, and he accumulated 15 doubles titles during his career.