Jimmy Connors didn't win the 1991 U.S. Open. He didn't have to. What he did was bigger than that, though.
At the start of the 1991 U.S. Open Jimmy Connors was ranked No. 174 in the world and was a 38-year old "living legend." Tennis players begin to see a decline in their skills by their late twenties (ask Roger Federer about that).
Using that standard, Connors was 10 years past his prime at the start of the U.S. Open that year. In 1990, he had played only three matches because of a wrist injury and surgery, and had lost them all. He had no business doing much more than acting as an ambassador for American tennis, playing in the U.S. Open as a former champion as a wildcard entry.
Yet Jimmy Connors defined the word "ageless" during the 1991 U.S. Open. His performance stirred those in attendance, brought casual fans to their televisions, and re-energized the sport of tennis.
Connors' run began with a rousing comeback against Patrick McEnroe in the first round. Down two sets, and trailing 3-0 in the third set, Connors would not give in. He used determination and gutsy play to outlast McEnroe 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, in a match that lasted over four hours.
Had Jimmy Connors stopped there, winning that one match would have been a noteworthy event. As it turned out, it was just the beginning.
Connors cruised through round two against Michiel Schapers, then defeated the No. 10 seed in the tournament, Karel Novacek in straight sets in round three. All that stood between Connors and the quarterfinals was Aaron Krickstein, another top 10 player in the world rankings.
The match with Krickstein was literally a date with destiny; it was Jimmy Connors' 39th birthday, and it was Labor Day.
Krickstein took the first set, but Connors won the second set in a tiebreaker. Krickstein thoroughly dominated the third set, and the crowd sensed a momentum shift in his favor. Connors would not give in and, as he stormed back to win the fourth set, the crowd rallied behind him.
The momentum shifted back to Krickstein again though, as he took a 5-2 lead in the deciding set. But Jimmy Connors was not done. He rode the energy of the crowd, hit a slew of incredible shots, and won the fifth set in a tiebreaker.
The memorable image of Connors pumping his fist in the midst of that fifth set defined the U.S. Open that year, and landed the birthday boy on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title "The People's Choice." Connors' win over Krickstein sent him to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and made his remaining matches appointment television, even for people with a passing interest in the sport of tennis, like myself.
Jimmy Connors' next opponent was Paul Haarhuis, better known for his play in doubles than in singles. And while Haarhuis won the first set of their match, Connors battled back to win in four sets, sending him to the semifinals, and a match against 1991 French Open champion Jim Courier.
Connors' great run through the 1991 U.S. Open ended unceremoniously in straight sets to Courier, a young, determined American player whose style in a sense mirrored Connors'. And while Courier eventually lost to Stefan Edberg in the final, Connors left an indelible mark on this tournament.
His run through the U.S. Open ranks up there with the best, unexpected performances by great athletes well past their primes, and it will stick with me as a memorable two weeks of tennis that rivals some of the best sporting events I've ever seen.
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