x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tennis: No old pals act for Jimmy Connors

American stands by claims that the Big Four are soft, unlike in his day, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

There was no love lost between Jimmy Connors, right, and John McEnroe.
There was no love lost between Jimmy Connors, right, and John McEnroe.

The rivalry between the Big Four of men's tennis - Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal - is often described as the best that the sport has ever witnessed. Paeans have been written about it.

Jimmy Connors, however, begs to differ, and not unexpectedly, sees the rivalry a bit differently.

"I've been criticised for saying it, but the rivalries are soft," he told ESPN.

"I can only compare it to what I did. To me, they were real, not only on the court, but off the court, too. I don't see Mac [John McEnroe] coming up and putting his arm around me and consoling me."

Connors and McEnroe probably would not do that even now. And it has been 22 years since they last squared off against each other on the ATP Tour - in 1991 at Basel. Connors was 39 at the time and a year later, he left the game without officially announcing his retirement.

During his 20 years on the pro tour, Connors never failed to shock or entertain. He was the game's most provocative superstar.

"I spilt my blood and guts out there," he once claimed. And last week, while promoting his memoir, The Outsider, the American said he was driven by "the two Rs" - rage and revenge.

For those who know him, Connors's views on the Big Four might not come as a surprise.

His rivalry with McEnroe has been well documented; in 1974, he warned Bjorn Borg that he would "follow him to the end of the earth"; after winning the 1974 US Open, Connors famously growled, "Get me [Rod] Laver".

Connors discusses many such incidents in his memoirs, but for the first time, he reveals an event that probably defined the person he became.

Growing up in a tough neighbourhood of East St Louis, Connors was eight when he saw his mother Gloria being brutally assaulted at a public tennis court after she asked some local hooligans to turn down their radio while they were playing.

She was badly hurt and lost several teeth, but was back at the same court next day with her kids.

"I tell that story because of the feeling that I had ... it gave me something," Connors said last week. "I grew up and it was something that always stuck in my mind."

That memory galvanised Connors through his playing days. It perhaps forged that indomitable spirit, the brashness that tennis fans yearn for today.

arizvi@thenational.ae