I thought tennis was a game for pampered wimps, until the day I saw Jimmy Connors play, on a school trip to a local tennis tournament. With a mile-high chip on his shoulder, and groundstrokes to thump the opposition with, Jimbo left an indelible impression on my cocky, working class sensibilities and pretty much changed the direction of my life.
The most striking aspect of the Jimmy Connors ground stroke game was the height of the ball as it crossed the net. Almost every ball that left Jimmy’s racket (at the baseline) traveled within a few inches of the net cord, which was (and is) a risky way to play tennis.
But in some ways this weakness of the Jimmy Connors ground strokes was also an enduring strength.
Because Jimmy was applying the same hitting formula to each groundstroke, with little by way of variation or complication. This repetition of a simple stroke, hit at roughly the same height above the net on the majority of forehands and backhands, meant there was less to go wrong than for a more elaborate technical strokes like, say, Rafa’s forehand.
Much was made of the pace of the ball leaving Jimmy Connors’ racket on his groundstrokes. But this was owed to the direct route through contact that the racket head was made to take, rather than some superior quirk of technique. If we used a different yardstick and compared the speed of Jimmy’s racket head (rather than the speed of the ball that leaves it) to that of Nadal or Djokovic, there would be no comparison. Against these two players, the Connors groundstroke swings would appear tame, particularly on the forehand. But this too has positive influences: would Connors have played (relatively) injury-free into his forties if he’d used more violent, potentially joint-wearing power swings?
I doubt it.
Jimmy would pierce the defenses of the vast majority of players with direct hitting and his hustler’s game plan. However, problems arose when he came up against the likes of Lendl and Borg, who could match his aggression, cover the baseline like true athletes and, if necessary, wait for the one ball that would surely sail long or catch the top of the net. When Jimmy was on fire he could hit Borg with a bagel set, but this white heat is hard to sustain for an entire match and the consistency of topspun power was already in the ascendancy.
When I was at the French Open one time, a serve from Jimmy’s opponent hit Connors plum in the nuts. Quick to garner the attentions of the crowd, Jimmy made good play out of the incident and as Jimbo was hamming it up, an American (in reference to his manhood) shouted from the back of Phillipe Chatrier Court.
‘Is it still there, Jimmy?’
Connors pulled open the top of his shorts and looked inside.
‘Yeah. It’s still there. But it’s kind of all messed up,’ came his grinning reply.
Knowing how to play to the crowd and get them on his side was something Jimmy became a master at in his career, although the way he would win the affections of the crowd had subtle differences in each country. In France and mainland Europe, he was prone to sexual innuendo, whereas in England his play acting was more muted, and his aggression was given an amiable dressing to suit British politeness and the all-whites rule. However, in America Jimbo’s aggression was allowed to come fully to the boil and the language that occasionally rose up from the court was often something courtside parents would want their kids repeating.
Perhaps the feature that defined the Connors’ game was superb footwork and rarely would you see Jimmy need to improvise or hit off balance… and if he was forced to lunge, particularly on his return of serve, he’d still manage a perfect contact. Oh, and the famous fist-pump and snarling wind-up were never far away.