Jimmy Connors Documentary: Did He Go Too Far to Be Great?

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COMMENTARY | The other night, I caught the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary on Jimmy Connors and his memorable run at the 1991 U.S. Open, entitled "This Is What They Want."

It was a fascinating analysis of the finest hour for one of the great players in tennis history. It also reinforced something pretty obvious about his approach to the game, something I never saw as detrimental.

Connors was consumed with winning and would do anything within his power to win a match. And he didn't care a lick what anybody thought about the way he did it.

I'm a longtime fan of Jimmy Connors, and I've always looked at this central focus as the driving force behind his success. This wasn't a guy blessed with an abundance of tennis talent or supreme physical gifts compared to his contemporaries. He won because of an immense will to be better than his opponent on a given day. No one ever played with more grit and determination. No one was more captivating on the court. No male player won more titles (110) or stayed in the top 10 longer (16 years).

From my perspective, Jimmy Connors played for love. I would think fans like me who followed him throughout his career felt he played so long for love of the game, especially at age 39 in that '91 Open. But those contemporaries who speak in this documentary indicate it was more for love of Jimmy Connors. He was about the show. He was about the spotlight.

They contend his will to win also included gamesmanship that at times went above and beyond fair play.

One thing that can't be denied is Connors provided as much great tennis and great theater as any one player ever has. If he wanted to be the whole show, more often than not he succeeded. His astounding sequence of matches through the '91 Open was of a microcosm of a career full of thrills. Jimmy Connors didn't win that Open. He merely transcended it.

The documentary title, "This Is What They Want," echoes what Connors shouted to a TV camera microphone at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., as he entered a fifth-set tiebreaker against good friend Aaron Krickstein on a warm, Labor Day afternoon in that '91 Open. That Labor Day also happened to be his 39th birthday.

He turned apparent sure defeat into stunning victory that day. Along the way, he intimidated the umpire, incited the crowd and dragged between points in what Krickstein said in the documentary were deliberate maneuvers to get into his head. It worked. The loss apparently had a terrible effect on Krickstein's career going forward and also affected their friendship, a sad commentary on what can happen when the will to win reaches immense proportions.

Jimmy Connors was the first real bad boy in tennis, a player who defied authority, who used rudeness and vulgarity to gain an edge. He also was the best male tennis player in the world in 1974 at age 22, winning three of the four grand slam events. He would stay on top for three years. He would go on to be a top 10 player for 16 years and win more tournaments than any other male player ever has.

He was great at 22 and he knew it. And according to references made in the ESPN film as well as reviews and comments about his recently released book, "The Outsider," he hasn't been humbled since. Patrick McEnroe, also stunned by Connors in five-sets during that '91 Open run, contended in the documentary that Jimmy had few friends and countless haters among players on tour, primary because of the way he acted among them. It appears his deliberate maneuvers and that search for an edge extended off the court as well.

Of course, Connors denies none of it in the documentary. He refuses to apologize for any of it as well. He admits to loving being the villain. He was there to win and he did. That's what mattered. Whatever people felt about him, he became an iconic figure, often bigger than the tournaments he played. He created the stuff of legend, such as "the miracle point" in that '91 Open, the famous four lob, crushing cross-court forehand and winning runner in the quarterfinals against Paul Haarhuis. It may be the greatest point in tennis history.

The documentary is a hard look at a complex individual who took a route to success most people wouldn't choose. Jimmy Connors is a genuine renegade who is comfortable in the path that attitude took him. I'm not sure judging it as good or bad, right or wrong, really matters. In the end, no one will forget him. As long as there is tennis, clips of that '91 Open will be replayed again and again.

He got exactly what he wanted out of the game. How many other players can honestly say that?

Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime tennis follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards.

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