Connors didn’t come from the traditional tennis background. While the sport was dominated by country club folks with a lot of money and monocles by the box load, Connors was the outlier. A kid from East St.Louis that was coached by his demanding, task-master of a mom, Connors not only made it when he wasn’t supposed to, but excelled.
ESPN’s latest 30 for 30, directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, focused on Connors’ run at the 1991 U.S Open. At 39-years-old, Connors was ranked #174 heading into the tournament. Basically, this was going to be it. One more Open in the limelight, a first round exit and one final tear laden goodbye to the fans was all that was expected of Jimbo as he walked onto the court to face Patrick McEnroe in the first round.
The best moments of the film focused on Connors’ relationship with his fellow pros. His rivalry with John McEnroe, Patrick’s brother, was legendary for its combustibility. Throughout the film, references to ‘punching that guy in the face’ were made by both men. If McEnroe was the petulant manchild with once in a lifetime talent, Connors was the villain. He was likened to Pete Rose by several observers and it was easy to see why. There was no sympathy for his opponent. Friends off the court became enemies when they lined up on the other side of the net.
He was also an innovator. The T2000 Wilson racket was a hideous monstrosity that featured wire wound around the steel frame to make string loops. It was considered unusable compared to the classic wooden frames until Connors adopted it as his stick of choice and kept winning.
Patrick McEnroe jumped out to a two set lead and had a break in the third set. And then, a dubious call made by the umpire led to one of Connors’ infamous tirades. Done not only to show his disdain for the call, but to get the crowd on his side and in turn, mentally wound his opponent. Connors refused to let play continue, leaving McEnroe standing at the service line in horror as the New York crowd erupted before his eyes. This was what Jimmy Connors did.
He beat McEnroe and cruised into the fourth round where he would play his friend Aaron ‘Marathon Man’ Krickstein. They were polar opposites in every sense. Krickstein was a Bollettieri disciple, young and considered one of the nicer players on the tour.
For me, Krickstein was the star of This Is What They Want. He was candid, genuine and honest. Though the match was played 14 years ago it felt as though Krickstein was still fighting those demons. He described how he felt during a Connors tirade in the fifth set, when Krickstein was serving for the match at 5-3. “It was Jimmy being Jimmy.”
As much as the film was about Connors, and his genuine commitment to being brutish, Krickstein was terrific. We learned that Connors never reached out to his friend after that match. To this day they still haven’t spoken. That is both sad and heartbreaking at the same time. Connors was as insufferable as the best of them, but part of that felt like an act. Revelations like this one proved that it wasn’t. He was who he was, to a painful fault at times.
Connors prevailed in the fifth set tiebreak, continuing a stunning run that eventually ended in the semifinals, when Jim Courier laid a thorough beatdown on him in straight sets.
In the end Connors got his moment. Two weeks in Flushing Meadows that will not be remembered for its eventual champion, Stefan Edberg, but for the aging legend that refused to lose.
At his best, Jimmy Connors was a lovable fighter, much like we see in Rafael Nadal today. At his worst, Connors was an athletic clown that had few, if any, redeeming qualities. The film captured both extremes thanks to a commitment to the entire story. For that, Koppelman and Levien should be applauded.