As the 2017 U.S. Open draws closer to championship weekend, the time feels ripe to dig up a story from the archives of one of tennis's legendary performances. The year is 1991 and Boris Becker is the #1 ranked player in the world. He is joined by Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the top 10. Jimmy Connors, a 39-year-old 8-time Grand Slam champion, was falling behind the ranks of younger top players. Nearing retirement his glory days were over he must have thought. He was simply too old to compete on the big stage. On top of all of that he had reconstructive surgery in the autumn of 1990 to correct a long standing wrist problem and spent 16 weeks in a cast. Heading into the 91' Open, Connors was ranked 174 in the world and was granted entry only as a wild-card.
Right out of the gate Connors found himself down two sets, 0-3 and Love-40 in the first round to Patrick McEnroe. Disappointed Connors fans must have thought he's done, he doesn't have it anymore. Meanwhile, Jimmy was thinking "this could be my last U.S. Open" and he certainly didn't want to go out in the first round", and I didn't want to go out losing in straight sets. So, I was willing to try to do anything to prolong the match to keep it going." In the blink of an eye his game lifted, his attitude lifted and the crowd began to get into the match. Connors took the third set and the fist pump was drawn from his holster. He won 5 games in a row and won the fourth set 6-2. He was on a roll now. It was after midnight but the remaining fans didn't care. They were sticking around for the conclusion of the match no matter how long it took or how late it became.
At 5-4 in the fifth set Connors would serve for the match. With a well placed slice serve to the McEnroe backhand and a return that sailed wide off the court Connors sealed his victory 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 and celebrated with his signature display...defiantly pointing to all four corners of the court in a pelvis-thrusting frenzy. The match lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes and ended at 1:35 in the morning. "If there is one thing I've learned you never think you've got Jimmy Connors beat until they say game, set and match," Patrick expressed some years later in an interview with CBS. "Jimmy used the crowds adrenaline. I don't think it was a question of them being against me. If I were in the stands I probably would have been cheering for him, too."
"That was the beginning of things falling in place for me, "Connors proclaimed. He went on to win his 2nd and 3rd round matches in straight sets and got some rest. This led to a Labor Day fourth-rounder on his 39th birthday vs a hungry 24-year-old Aaron Kirckstein. By this time his feats were the subject of a "Nightline" feature by ABC's Ted Koppel. He had become the hottest ticket in town and the tennis community was standing at full attention. Before the match the crowd sang Happy Birthday to the "old man" as he called himself and the action got underway. Connors found himself behind and fighting an uphill battle yet again after losing the first set. The second set went to a tie-breaker. At 7-7 Jimmy attacked the net after hitting a beautifully placed approach shot to the backhand of his opponent. Krickstein responded with a lob which came barreling back off a blazing overhead smash making its mark near the line and out of Krickstein's reach. There was no call on the court despite some question that it might have been wide. In this intensely pressurized moment the chair umpire called an overrule in Krickstein's favor stating the ball was wide and Connors erupted into a rage. "Bullcrap!" he yelled at David Littlefield. "Get out of the chair. Get your ass out of the chair! You're a bum! I'm out here playing my butt off at 39 years old and you're doing that?"
In his book 'Jimmy Connors Saved My Life' Joel Drucker writes, "So often Connors was above the law. In New York that year, Connors was the law." Now down 7-8, the crowd was booing vehemently in disapproval of Littlefield's overrule. No matter, Jimmy stayed positive and kept with his game plan by attacking the net. Krickstein gave a weak reply and he put away a volley to fight off a crucial set point. With the support of the crowd in his back pocket and a barrage of rants aimed at the chair umpire Connors found his winning formula. In the end the match lasted 5 sets and Jimmy came out on top against all odds. The final score was 3-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6.
In a nocturnal quarterfinals against Paul Haarhuis, a man that had beaten the number one seed Boris Becker in the previous round, Connors punctuated his 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory with one of the most electrifying points in Open history. On the brink of despair, desperately needing to cash in a break point as he trailed 5-4 in the second set, a retreating Connors tossed up four consecutive lobs (an artful weapon in his arsenal that few have done better). Haarhuis, stubbornly refusing to let the ball bounce, answered with four returnable overheads. Connors lined up the fourth one to crush a cross-court forehand, and after a lunging Haarhuis managed a backhand volley, Connors raced inside the baseline for a low, textbook backhand winner down the line. The crowds reaction was spine tingling.
In the world of tennis the fist pump has become little more than a joke, lamely unveiled two hundred times a match by some players. "Connors' version," writes Bruce Jenkins of Sports Illustrated magazine, "came from the streets, from deep in the soul, at just the right times, and even the Connors-haters (a dwindling group, but still in evidence) had to admire the raw passion of it all." This was was one of those times. Its a scene etched indelibly in my mind of a showman inviting his fans to share his moment of glory and celebration with him. To be a part of the spectacle. It's simply an unforgettable image. Later that set during the tiebreaker, looking into the camera and panting heavily Connors declared, "Is this what they paid for? This is what they want."
To make a long story short Connors was vanquished in the semis by the number four seed, 21-year-old Jim Courier. "That was the great anti climax," noted longtime journalist and tennis historian Steve Flink, "that Jimmy never got into that match. It wasn't even competitive. Age finally caught up to him. It's remarkable, though: last year at Wimbledon, Jimmy told me, "That was the best 11 days of my life.' And I know he meant it." No he did not win the tournament that year but, he had laid it all on the line and in so doing won the hearts and admiration of fans around the world.