In the third profile in our series on the 26 players to rise to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, ATPTour.com looks back on the career of Jimmy Connors. View Full List
First week at No. 1: 29 July 1974
Total weeks at No. 1: 268
Year-End No. 1s: 1974-78
As World No. 1
Jimmy Connors rose to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time at the age of 21 on 29 July 1974, during the best year of his career. In that first stint, when he replaced Australia’s John Newcombe, he spent 160 weeks in top spot — a record for consecutive weeks that was not broken until 26 February 2007, in Roger Federer’s run of 237 straight weeks at No. 1 between 2 February 2004 and 17 August 2008. “There is only one No. 1,” says Connors. “It’s a lonely spot, but it has got the best view of all… Being No. 2 is like being No. 200.” In 1981, Connors, who had not been No. 1 since 9 July 1979, said,
“I’m working hard to be No. 1 in the world this year. I don’t want to hang around, if I can’t be the best in the world. As far as I’m concerned No. 1 is the only number, and for me not to think I can be No. 1 is ridiculous.” The American rose to top spot once more on 13 September 1981, and he concluded nine different periods at the summit with a three-week stint starting on 13 June 1983. He was ranked in the world’s year-end Top 10 on 16 occasions between 1973 and 1988, and his five year-end No. 1 equals those of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Only Pete Sampras (1993-98) has finished a season at the top on more occasions.
Grand Slam Highlights
Connors made his major championship debut in 1970 at the US Open, where on 14 of 22 appearances he made the semi-finals or better. Between 1974 and 1985, the American never lost before the semi-finals, winning on five occasions (1974 on grass, 1976 on clay and in 1978, 1982-83 on hard courts) from seven finals. Beginning in 1974, Connors played in five successive US Open finals, the first man to do so since Bill Tilden, who featured in eight title matches between 1918 and 1925. Connors, who was the first since Fred Perry (1933-34, ’36) to win the US titles on three occasions, also won at Wimbledon in 1974 and 1982, from six finals, and at the 1974 Australian Open. Denied the opportunity to play at 1974 Roland Garros, due to his association with World Team Tennis, Connors is one of six players in the Open Era (since April 1968) to win three or more Grand Slam championships in a calendar year (also Rod Laver in 1969, Mats Wilander in 1988, Federer 2004, 2006-07, Nadal in 2010 and Djokovic in 2011 and 2015. Connors still holds the record for 107 grass-court match wins at Wimbledon between 1972 and 1991 and 98 US Open match wins between 1972 and 1992. He also won 19 doubles titles, including two majors at 1973 Wimbledon and the 1975 US Open (both with Ilie Nastase).
Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
The American made 11 appearances at the season-ending championships, starting with his debut at Barcelona in 1973, when he reached the semi-finals (l. to Nastase). After a three-year absence, Connors returned in the first year the Masters [now named the Nitto ATP Finals] was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, recovering from a loss to Guillermo Vilas during the round-robin stage to beat Bjorn Borg 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in the 1977 final. He advanced to the semi-finals eight times, while his final attempt came in 1987.
Connors, who turned professional in 1972, winning his first tournament in Jacksonville, Florida (d. Graebner), continued at a prodigious pace, earning a men’s record 109th title at Tel Aviv in 1989. To-date, he has also won more singles matches than any other male tennis professional, 1274, although Federer is now closing in with 1,242 victories. Refusing to join the ATP in 1972, Connors and his manager Bill Riordan brought lawsuits against the new union in 1974, when he compiled a sparkling 99-4 record and won 15 tournaments, because of his Roland Garros ban. The lawsuit was dropped shortly after Connors lost to Arthur Ashe, the then ATP President, in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Connors won a record nine hard-court titles in 1973, a mark subsequently equaled by Federer, and won 10-plus trophies on four occasions between 1973-1978. He was a part of the United States Davis Cup winning team in 1981. By the age of 27, critics thought Connors was washed up, but he proved the doubters wrong. After losing in the 1996 Atlanta first round, a 44-year-old Connors was the only player who had been on FedEx ATP Rankings since its inception on 23 August 1973, at No. 1,304.
Overall ATP Singles Match Win-Loss Record: 1274-283
Overall ATP Singles Titles/Finals Record: 109-54
No love was lost between Connors and John McEnroe, but ultimately they both respected each other and, against Borg, developed terrific rivalries during an era when the sport boomed. Connors won eight of his 12 meetings against Borg, who triumphed in the 1977 and 1978 Wimbledon finals. Connors, who beat Borg at the 1976 and 1978 US Opens, ended up with an 8-15 record against the Swede. Connors played the role of spoiler in 1980 to McEnroe and Borg, who were battling for World No. 1. Connors had a winning record against McEnroe, until the younger American won 12 of their last 14 meetings (McEnroe led 20-14 overall). The 29-year-old Connors beat McEnroe over five sets in the 1982 Wimbledon final, one of three wins in nine major meetings. Connors also had significant rivalries against Nastase, early in his career, and later with Ivan Lendl. “I had true rivalries,” said Connors. “Not only did I want to beat my opponent, but I didn’t want to let him up, either. I had a rivalry with Mac, Lendl, Borg. Everybody knew there was tension between us, on court and off. That’s what’s really ingrained in my mind: ‘This is real. This isn’t a soft rivalry.’ There were no hugs and kisses.”
Taught by his mother, Gloria, and ‘two-moms’ grandmother, Bertha, Connors is one of the most significant players in the sport’s history. As an electric, fiery, outspoken, but utterly competitive player, his fighting spirit is perhaps only matched today by Nadal. His on-court antics often got the crowd involved, but his prowess wasn’t questioned. His return was considered the best on the circuit, and, having learned to hit the ball on the rise, his flat two-handed backhand from the baseline countered the serve-volleyers of the 1970s and 1980s. Because of his career longevity and his rivalry with Borg and McEnroe, the trio were able to transcend the sport and draw in new audiences and greater purses. In retirement, he became an astute commentator and tried his hand at coaching, first with Andy Roddick between 2006 and 2008, then short spells with Maria Sharapova (2013) and Eugenie Bouchard (2015).
Troubled by a deteriorated left wrist in 1990, he dropped to No. 936 in the FedEx ATP Rankings before undergoing surgery. He returned in 1991 to play 14 tournaments, climaxing in his 14th US Open semi-final, where he celebrated his 39th birthday with a tumultuous fourth-round victory over Aaron Krickstein, soaring from 2-5 in the fifth set to win 3-6, 7-6(8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(4). Connors, who won 10 of 11 matches on his birthday at the US Open, famously remarked at 6-6 in the decider, “This is what they paid for. This is what they want.” He then continued his magical run by battling back from a set and a break down against Paul Haarhuis, but lost to Jim Courier, becoming the oldest semi-finalist since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall lost the title match to none other than Connors himself 17 years before. He was subsequently named as the ATP Comeback Player of the Year for 1991. “If you took the 10 greatest moments or points in US Open history, six or seven of them would be his, and three or four would be at the 1991 Open,” said McEnroe. Highlights of the Krickstein match are reshown each year at Flushing Meadows, venue of the US Open, and it cemented Connors’ reputation as the people’s champion in New York.
McEnroe on Connors
“One of the things I respected about Connors was that one second he would be spewing a four-letter word, the next second he would do something that had people falling off the aisles. Yet he never seemed to lose his concentration.”
Connors on Connors
“Tennis was never work for me; tennis was fun. And the tougher the battle, and the longer the match, the more fun I had.”
Journalist/Broadcaster Graeme Agars on Connors
Connors was the ultimate showman on court, delivering not only a fierce, never-give-an-inch playing performance, but he also knew better than most how to get a crowd involved in a match and how to perform on ‘stage’. That showman approach was part of the reason that Connors used the unorthodox Wilson T2000 metal framed racquet, with the stringing wound around the outside of the exposed steel frame. The racquet had a tiny head and a sweet spot the size of a pea, but Connors knew how to use it to great effect during the early to middle stages of his glittering career. Even though he could have gained more power with other racquets on the market, Connors stuck with the T2000 for a long time. When asked in a press conference why he used the racquet, he explained “because I like the way the light shines off the frame when I play at night.” At another press conference, at the US Open in New York, he once explained he was running out of the racquets because they were well out of production and hard to find. This sparked an amazing response from his fans who sent in dozens of the racquets to keep their idol well supplied.