What does a tennis crowd want most?

What they want is spectacle. What they want is the best that you have to offer, no questions asked. They want to see you bleed for victory and leave it all out there in defeat. In 1991, that’s what Jimmy Connors did at the U.S. Open.

I am referring to the excellent documentary recently aired on ESPN as part of the 30 for 30 series, which is definitely worth checking out as a whole if you haven’t (the episodes about Michael Jordan, the University of Miami, and Bo Jackson are particularly notable, among others). In this documentary, titled “This is What They Want,” we meet James Scott Connors, who in 1991 was an aging (he was 39) and polarizing legend, an afterthought who had perhaps hung on one season too many and was struggling to, as he said, “go out on his terms.”

Needing a wild card to get into the draw, Connors started slowly against Patrick McEnroe but managed to pull off a five-set stunner, setting the New York crowd alight with his late-night heroics. I was one year old in 1991, but I attended a match at this year’s Open that gave me a hint of what this must have been like (It was the Gaël Monfils-John Isner match that caught some attention here).

Remember that most tennis players lose pretty much all their effectiveness around the age of 30; a guy like Andre Agassi is the exception that proves the rule. At that age, ground strokes lose their pop, you aren’t quite as mobile, quite as willing to come in and get the short ball, and the grind of the tour, mentioned earlier, takes more out of you.

So of course, Connors survived that five-setter and dispatched his next two opponents, one of them the tenth seed in the tournament, in straight sets. The crowd, and the country, absolutely went bonkers. The focus of the piece is the relationship between the crowd and Mr. Connors. It was nothing short of rapture. Seriously, it’s worth checking out. And Connors, ever the showman, ever the self-promoter, was the center of attention for a country that normally does not pay much attention to what was, and to some degree, still is, perceived as a genteel, “country club” sport.

Jimmy Connors took down close friend Aaron Krickstein in 1991 and hasn't spoken to him since.

Jimmy Connors beat close friend Aaron Krickstein in 1991 and hasn’t spoken to him since.

One thing stands out above all the others. Well, two, actually. One is the look of unmitigated boyish excitement on Connors’ face as he rises to take the court in his fourth-round match against Aaron Krickstein.

Connors’ playing career was largely before my time, but that look defines him intimately even though I never saw him play. He was simply a world-class gamer, someone who lived for the moment and never went away easily. He thrived in the deafening noise the fans were producing, what the Open is famous for.

The man who methodically dispatched him in the semifinals, Jim Courier, said he was uneasy about the crowd-Connors relationship right up until he shook his hand at the end of the match. It’s thrilling to watch.

The other thing is how he wasn’t, and isn’t, always a good guy. Connors himself makes much of “that’s just who I am,” and other truisms that are hard to argue with. We’re a culture that obsesses over the kind of competitiveness that made guys like Michael Jordan and Pete Rose (to whom Connors is compared) some of the most revered athletes in their respective games. Connors seems totally deserving of the comparison to Rose. His hustle and “never-say-die” attitude go in the plus column for sure. Maybe some aspects of his hypercompetitiveness would, too.

But where the line gets drawn, at least for me, is in the fact that, according to the documentary, he hasn’t spoken to Krickstein, his fourth-round opponent and previously a close friend of his, since then. When asked about it, Connors says something along the lines of, “To think that I would apologize [about the match] is just crazy.”

 

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I suppose he wouldn’t be who he is if he’d responded normally there, but still, he completely missed the point. No apology was necessary, now or ever. Sure, he’d probably say there was no reason for the lack of contact. But as the victor of that match, the ball was in his court to speak to him again, to show him it wasn’t personal, that the game is the game and life is life.

Failing to adequately draw the line between on and off the court is a mistake many athletes make, and maybe it’s the price of what makes them great in the first place. As Connors said in the film, “the line is there to be crossed.” It’s just sad to see it crossed at the price of basic decency. That being said, watch the documentary. You won’t regret it.

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