Novak Djokovic just completing a 2 sets to love comeback in the US Open semifinal makes writing this a bit surreal. I think comebacks from 2 sets down are one of the most unique events in all of the sporting world. Jimmy Connors turned the momentum of one such comeback into an indelible memory for all tennis fans.
1991 and Early Magic
Prior to the US Open, Jimmy Connors had already put forth an interesting set of results in 1991. He won a 5 set match at the French Open versus Ronald Agenor and then lost a 5 set tilt with Michael Chang. At Wimbledon, Jimmy beat Aaron Krickstein before losing to Derrick Rostagno. In both Paris and London, Connors reached the round of 32. Not bad for a 38 year old man coming back from one year off due to wrist surgery.
My Memories of Jimmy’s US Open Run
Jimmy Connors drew the 1991 Australian Open semifinalist Patrick McEnroe in the first round. This was not an ideal draw, and the seeds in Jimmy’s quarter of the draw were Karel Novacek, Andre Agassi, Petr Korda and Boris Becker. Connors was slated to possibly face the 10th seeded Novacek in the 3rd round.
Connors d. Patrick McEnroe 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4
The first two sets saw similar players scrap on the court. Connors came up short in two close sets and looked to be in serious trouble. My parents insisted I needed sleep before school in the morning when the second set ended. I told my parents, “I’m going to be upset if I wake up and Jimmy has come back to win.” My parents won the argument. Sure enough sometime in my sleeping hours, my older brother woke me up to tell me Connors had won. This has to be the most famous come from behind match in US Open history. Also, Agassi and Korda lost in the first round.
Connors d. Michiel Schapers 6-2, 6-3, 6-2
I vowed to watch this night match from start to finish no matter what time school came the next day. Fortunately, this was a one sided affair. The crowd was strongly behind Connors before the match began, and Schapers did not have the game to trouble Jimmy. This match felt like a victory lap. An easy night match victory had me excited to see where this run was headed. The electricity from the crowd, even on television during a one-sided match, was captivating.
Connors d. Karel Novacek 6-1, 6-4, 6-3
Jimmy facing the #10 seed and a daytime match had me worried. How would Jimmy handle the heat and a top 10 seed? Instead, he made Novacek look bad. Jimmy bested the heat and Novacek with ease. Plus, #1 seed Boris Becker was beaten in the 3rd round. I started thinking Connors could reach the semifinal round because Connors had handled Krickstein so easily at Wimbledon just 2 months earlier.
Connors d. Aaron Krickstein 3-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6
Krickstein put forth a great effort at the 1991 US Open himself. He beat Andre Agassi in straight sets to open the tournament. He had also reached the US Open quarterfinal round in 1988 and 1990 and reached the semifinal round in 1989. He had a habit of digging deep and winning long matches in New York. Krickstein was one of my favorite players to watch at the US Open because he always seemed to pull off a win or push a top guy to the limit. Still, I was firmly in the Connors camp.
Any thoughts of an easy Labor Day win evaporated in the first set. Krickstein looked cool, he was hitting his forehand well, and he was riding momentum from his first round drubbing of Andre Agassi. I recall the second set being a back and forth affair. The tiebreaker in the second set was full of tension. Both guys had chances, but a controversial exchange with the umpire fueled Connors as he won the set and leveled the match. In 1990, John McEnroe had been defaulted from the Australian Open for an outburst over officiating. During the exchange, I was concerned that Connors might get defaulted. Connors avoided certain magic words, but I was a bit surprised that no warnings were issued. Krickstein and Connors made short work of the 3rd and 4th sets with each taking one set in a one-sided manner.
Connors seemed to rest in the 3rd, but opened the 5th set by coming to the net a little too predictably and fell behind. Jimmy came back from 2-5 down to force a 5th set tiebreaker. I remember my adrenaline flowing from just watching the 5th set and was amazed at how well Connors kept his nerve to finish the match. The love affair with the crowd was at what seemed to be a maximum level. It did not hurt that it was both Labor Day and Jimmy’s 39th birthday.
Connors d. Paul Haarhuis 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2
Connors was facing a player who had posted big wins at the US Open over John McEnroe in 1989 and #1 seed Boris Becker earlier at the 1991 event. I remember Haarhuis playing John McEnroe in 1989 with shoes that were falling apart due to having no sponsorship deal. 2 years later he entered his match with Connors as the favorite to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. Haarhuis had a big forehand, a strong serve and more firepower than Krickstein or Patrick McEnroe. For most of 2 sets, it looked like Connors was just up against too much firepower.
The entire match shifted on a single point. Connors threw up 4 lobs and then hit a screaming backhand winner on the full run to level the second set. I as a tennis player and fan feel privileged to have watched that point as it happened. The love affair between Jimmy Connors and the crowd indeed topped even the conclusion of the Krickstein match. Connors took control of the match and reached a Grand Slam semifinal at the age of 39.
Jim Courier d. Connors 6-3, 6-3, 6-2
The 4th seed and reigning French Open champion was the wrong type of player for a 39 year old to beat. Courier had more power than Haarhuis. He was more consistent than Krickstein. He was as fit as any man on tour. He also liked to grind and fight. I remember an early point in the match in which Connors seemingly had the point won with a lob and Courier ran the lob down and took the point. Connors had very few options in how to attack a player 18 years younger than him playing as well as Courier was. Courier would reach higher places in 1992 and 1993, but Courier was playing incredibly well in 1991 and had not dropped a set in reaching his first US Open final (Stefan Edberg changed that factoid by demolishing Courier in the final).
I felt sad at the result, but also felt that Jimbo had won every match in which he had a realistic chance to win. As much as Edberg owned Courier in the final, I think the contrast in match-ups between Connors and Edberg might have given Jimmy a chance to make his return of serve and passing shots a factor had he drawn the Swede in the semifinal round. Courier was too consistent and did not give Jimmy any sort of a target.
This of course was not the end of Jimmy capturing some imagination in New York. Jimmy won a straight sets first round match in 1992 on his 40th birthday. He also stormed through the first set and took a break lead in the 2nd set before succumbing to Ivan Lendl in the 1992 2nd round. I am glad I saw those two night matches in 1992. Jimmy Connors helped get me into playing and following tennis and few athletes in any sport have been able to make the crowd react the way Jimmy did.
It has been 20 years since his magical run and a lot of memorable things have happened in New York. Pete Sampras overcame illness in 1996 and won as a going away gift in 2002. Roger Federer won 5 consecutive titles. Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Rafa Nadal were warriors in their title runs. Andy Roddick won from two sets down in the 2003 semifinal before taking the title. Andre Agassi had a lot of moments. Marat Safin and Stefan Edberg put on jaw dropping displays in one-sided final victories. Still, nothing has recaptured the imagination of the live crowd the way Jimmy Connors did in 1991.