Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

Excerpt of Top 100 greatest days in New York City sports by Stuart Miller:

Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different places, yet he’s best remembered for a tournament in which he didn’t even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and as the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit. This aging inspiration captivated even the most casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his classic American blend of tenacity and showmanship.

That tournament, Connors said later, was “the most memorable 11 days of my career. Better than the titles.”

And he gave his growing legion of fans not one but three classic matches.

So which is your favorite? Bet you can’t choose just one.

You could select the first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe on August 27.

Because it seemed incredible that Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. Connors had played and lost three matches in 1990 before submitting to wrist surgery. He’d plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991 owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in the third round of Wimbledon; he was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his “home court.”

Jimmy-Connors 1991 US Open Tennis

Because he beat a McEnroe. Sure, Patrick, ranked just 35th, lacked the skill and artistic temperament of his famous older brother, but he was an Australian Open semifinalist and had beaten Boris Becker that summer.

Because this was the first time we saw Connors’s vibrant Estusa racket flashing through the night, proclaiming the return of the king.

Because he overcame the greatest deficit of all, dropping the first two sets to the steady McEnroe 6–4, 7–6, then falling behind 0–3 in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi), and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game there’d be perhaps 6,000 loyalists from the original sellout crowd. According to Joel Drucker’s biography-memoir Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, even Connors’s staunchest supporter, his mother and first teacher Gloria, turned away from the television.

Then, at 0–40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. And once he did, McEnroe could not finish off tennis’s Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans that remained. Connors held, saved two more break points at 2–3, won five of six games for the third set, then snared the fourth set 6–2 and finished McEnroe off 6–4 in the fifth. The 4-hour-18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m. “The crowd won it for me,” Connors said. “The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick.”
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