Each week, Baseline will take a look at a player who has thrived at one of the stops on the ATP and WTA tours during their career. (Photos: Getty Images)
From becoming the first male player to crack the century mark in singles titles to maintaining a spot in the top 10—peaking at No. 1—for more than a decade, Jimmy Connors is one tennis’ greatest champions.
And his record at the US Open as one of the tournament’s most prolific and beloved champions only adds to his legacy.
Over the course of his playing days, the Belleville, Ill., native was often embraced by the fans as if he was a native New Yorker, with the crowd inspiring him when he was backed into a corner, often lifting him to victory. After reaching the quarterfinals there for the first time in 1973, he followed that up with the title in ’74, one of three majors he won that year in one of the most dominant seasons in men’s tennis. Though he didn’t have the biggest serve at the time, he was able to take control of a point with his return and readiness to push forward.
A year after winning three majors, his title defenses ended in those respective finals, including in New York the first year the tournament was held on clay. He bounced back in 1976 to capture his first Grand Slam title on the surface, beating the two-time French Open winner Bjorn Borg in the final.
Reaching the championship match for the fourth year in a row in 1977, Connors couldn’t overcome another clay-court great, Guillermo Vilas. When the tournament moved from its longtime home to the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows the next year, Connors re-entered the winner’s circle on yet another new surface for the event, hard courts. His final-round victory over Borg made him the first player to capture a major on three different surfaces.
Another brash American, native New Yorker John McEnroe, reigned over the event for the next three years, with Connors’ finals streak coming to an end.
Going without a victory at any Slam for three years, Connors ended the drought in 1982 at Wimbledon, then followed it up with a win in New York, topping Ivan Lendl in the final. When the two met again in the 1983 championship match, Connors defeated the-then Czech in four sets and established a new standard for the game as he became the first man to win 100 tournaments.
That would be his last final in New York. However, in 1991, it seemed as if he had one more championship run left in him. Entering the tournament as a 38-year-old wild card with a ranking in the triple digits and coming off a career-threatening wrist injury, Connors captivated the world with an improbable run to the semifinals. Feeding off the crowd like never before, the American battled through two five-setters and thrashed the defending champion Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals, before another young countryman, Jim Courier, stopped him in the final four. His win against marathon man Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round was a staple of replays for years during rain delays.
Connors made one more appearance in the singles draw in New York, falling in the second round in ‘92. Still, he finished his time on the court there with an 82 percent winning percentage.
Off the court, he still had more to give. Fifteen years after his last semifinal run, Connors made a deep run at the tournament—this time in the coach’s box. In his first stint on the sidelines, Connors helped 2003 champion Andy Roddick advance to the finals, where Roger Federer stopped him.
Though he didn’t solve the puzzle in New York as a coach, his time there as a player and one of the tournament’s greatest champions has left a lasting impression on the sport.