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In the Zone with John McEnroe

claudia celestial girlAnalyst IOctober 7, 2009

Jun-Jul 1984:  John McEnroe of the USA celebrates during the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon in London. \ Mandatory Credit: Steve  Powell/Allsport

In this series, we’ve had 15 attempts to describe a sporting experience, a state of mind, conventionally known as ‘The Zone’. In this installment we will discuss The Zone in the context of the 1984 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners.

Here’s a definition of The Zone proposed in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist.

Flow’ is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity., 'Flow' is a positive psychology concept. Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the zone, or in the groove. [Wikipedia]

Here’s a correlated definition that we’ll look at extensively here: 'Beat Down.'

Beat Down v. (1): The act of receiving a serious butt whoopin at the hands of a person or group of persons. [The Urban dictionary]

In 1984, Jimmy Conners ought to have been a fading star of the sport. The height of his career was a decade earlier: July, 1974, through August, 1977. [Jimbo held the top ranking for 160 consecutive weeks in his prime]. But five years later, in 1982, at age 29, Conners was still winning Grand Slams. In 1982, he defeated John McEnroe in a hard fought, bitter, Wimbledon final.

In 1984, Jimmy was 31 and McEnroe was 25, and they would go head to head once again to contest the Wimbledon final.

In defining the positive psychology concept ‘Flow,’ Dr. Csíkszentmihályi identified the following factors as accompanying the experience.

‘Flow’ factor 1: Balance between ability level and challenge (the challenge level and skill level should both be high).


Because of the overall quality of performance of both players exhibited in the lead up to the final, the 1984 match was highly anticipated, and was expected to be close.

Far from fading, Jimmy Conners at 31, meeting rival John McEnroe in the final of Wimbledon can be compared to Andre Agassi winning his final Grand Slam title in the Australian Open in 2003 at the age of 33, or Pete Sampras winning his final (and 14th Grand Slam) in the USO at age 31 in 2002. His skill level was high, his experience and maturity were optimum, and he was fully capable of challenging McEnroe to the fullest extent.

Jimmy C. and Johnny Mac were separated by seven years in age, making their rivalry more akin to Roger Federer (currently 28) and Rafael Nadal (currently 23) than that of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who were separated in age by only one year. Nonetheless, the two men fought nine Grand Slam matches (compare with Rafa and Roger who have contested seven matches so far, or Andre and Pete who contested nine) and at the time of this match, Conners led their overall h2h 11-8, and on grass was 4-2.

Corollary v. (2): To receive a BEAT DOWN would be equivalent to getting "pounded into the ground" by someone who doesn't like you. [The Urban dictionary]

As tennis rivalries go, the McEnroe/Conners rivalry is among tennis' best (or most notorious).

Both of these men were extremely competitive, they were two of the most competitive and emotional champions the sport has ever known. Whereas McEnroe's rivalry with Bjorn Borg could be characterized as 'fire and ice,' his rivalry with Conners was more like two kindred spirits, perhaps 'bourbon and scotch,' or even 'scotch and vinegar.'  McEnroe has been quite clear (in recent remarks in the commentary booth) that his rivalry with Borg was friendly, but that with Connors was ... less so.

Of his own competitive nature Connors has said, "If I won, I won, and if I lost, well, I didn't take it so well." He has also famously said, “I didn’t lose, I just ran out of time.”

It’s worth it here to set the stage for this contest, as the match itself would hold little drama. Instead there is this delicious irony, that the match would become a quintessential example of that ‘Positive Psychology’ known as The Zone, where Conners, but more especially McEnroe, were notorious for drawing strength from negative energy.

McEnroe would sometimes get to feeling victimized by a bad call, or audience reaction, and would channel the negative feelings into competitive fire.

Conners was also a master at turning seeming disadvantage into a competitive edge, only Conners was just plain obnoxious at times, a true maverick, a non-conformist, someone who didn’t play the conventional tennis game, and who didn’t let his technical unconventionalities get in the way of winning.

During the early part of his career, Connors frequently argued with umpires, linesmen, the players union, Davis Cup officials and other players. As for John McEnroe, his diatribes were legendary.

The following two videos capture the quintessential Johnny Mac. In the first (43s), John is disbelieving over a call at Wimbledon, and utters two of his most famous outbursts in quick succession (the third utterance in this diatribe would earn McEnroe a $5 thousand fine in 1982 dollars - quite a bit more when inflation is factored in).

The second video (2009 against Djokovic) captures in 15 seconds, the technical excellence for which McEnroe will forever be known [watch the video at the 3:38 - 3:50 marks]. (In videos from the match itself from 1984, it is hard to see the ball).


The Match begins.

‘Flow’ factor 2: Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
‘Flow’ factor 3: A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.


The First Set

McEnroe opens the match by holding serve to love and then goes on to break Connors in the next game. Connors has to play a very good game to hold serve to 1-3. In the first three games Connors earns a total of two points!

It is an era of 'serve and volley,' yet Connors is one of the few players to consistently hit the ball flat, low, and predominantly from the baseline. His game pre-dated that of Andre Agassi, with the return of serve being his greatest strength. His forehand is perhaps his greatest weakness [see this article from Pete Bodo], as it was typically hit with little net clearance. His serve, while accurate and capable, was never a great weapon for him as it did not reach the velocity and power of his opponents.

But in this set, Connors gets no opportunity to show off any retrieving. It is McEnroe with the big serve, and also the athletic retrieving, holding serve at love. In one of only two rallies, McEnroe executes a fantastic lob that has Connors scrambling (and losing the point). McEnroe breaks again and wins the set 6-1. The whole set takes 21 minutes, and Connors can't really get going.

‘Flow’ factor 4: The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
‘Flow’ factor5: People become absorbed in their activity, action awareness merging.


The Second Set

Connors loses his opening service game in the second set, and is down 0-4 before he holds serve. Everything is going McEnroe's way; even the net-cords turn out in his favor. McEnroe takes the set 6-1.

In this set, Conners changes his tactics and tries to serve and volley, which is not his natural game. He has no greater success than his baseline play. At one point, McEnroe falls down, but Connors is not able to take advantage of even this. Mid-way through the set, the crowd starts to rally behind Connors, encouraging him to do ... something. McEnroe takes the set in a total of 28 minutes. The commentators observe that this is a perfect display of 1984 tennis.

‘Flow’ factor 6: Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.


The Third Set:

In 80 minutes, the whole match is over (on my DVD the whole thing takes less than an hour to watch end to end without commercials). Connors manages to hold serve until 2-2, but McEnroe breaks to take a 4-2 lead, and wins the match as he breaks Connors to love in the final game. McEnroe only gives up ten points on his serve the whole match. Connors keeps trying very hard, but can't do anything.

Corollary v. (3): To deliver a BEAT DOWN would be to verbally berate into submission (publicly); (4) to physically rough up or convincingly administer authority over another person or thing; (5) the exercise of legitimate authority, or rules/procedures, which leave a person or persons in a poor position and often disappointed. [The Urban Dictionary]

This match has been called the most brutal beat down in Wimbledon history. McEnroe managed it without drawing on anger, or resentment of a bad line call. He was a 'gentleman' on the court, exhibiting no 'ill-behavior' in the words of the English commentators (and disappointing his American fans). It was his inner fire that fueled this extraordinary, flawless, performance.

After it was over, match statistics tell more of the story of The Zone.

‘Flow’ factor 7: Concentration, (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).


McEnroe had two unforced errors in the whole match.

Beat Down Verb. (6) To offer a sound drubbing. [The Urban Dictionary].

What is more, McEnroe’s entire 1984 season could be considered in The Zone. As far as winning, and GOAT status in the Open Era, McEnroe's 1984 season is unrivaled. He compiled an 82-3 record (96.4%). The only [man] to come close to matching this record is Roger Federer in 2005, when he amassed an 81-3 record before losing his last match of the year to David Nalbandian. [For comparison, Rafa Nadal went 88-11 in 2008 (88%)]


Conners and McEnroe would go on, in 1984, to contest one other, much more competitive, match together on ‘Super-Saturday’ - the second semi-final of the U.S. Open, in which Conners would take McEnroe to five thrilling sets but ultimately succumb.  McEnroe would go on to defeat Ivan Lendl the next day for the title in what is widely regarded as one of the most challenging weekends in the history of tennis.


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In the Zone Series:

  1. The Introduction
  2. Agustin Calleri [6-2, 7-6]
  3. Phillip Kohlschreiber [6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 6-7(3), 8-6]
  4. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga [7-6(4), 7-6(3), 7-5]
  5. Robin Sodering [6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2)]
  6. Fernando Verdasco [2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4]
  7. Richard Krajicek [7-5, 7-6, 6-4]
  8. Marat Safin [6-4, 6-3, 6-3]
  9. Rafael Nadal [6-1, 6-3, 6-0]  (108 min)
  10. Stefan Edberg [6-3, 6-3, 6-4]
  11. Martina Hingis [6-0, 6-4]
  12. Serena Williams [6-3, 6-2]
  13. Andy Roddick 4-6, 7-6(9-7), 7-6(5)
  14. Boris Becker [0-6, 7-6(1), ... , 6-5]
  15. Mats Wilander [7-5, 6-2, 6-1]
  16. John McEnroe [6-1, -61, 6-2]  (80 min)
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