The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
59. The Bad Boys of Tennis

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, 1987
The international tennis boom that started in the late-Seventies continued through the 1980s, and professional tennis became as competitive as it had ever been, with many fine players striving to achieve and then hold onto that No. 1 ranking.  Men's tennis was dominated by two men during much of the Eighties -- John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe was the brash, tempestuous young phenom. Connors, hardly the shy and retiring type himself, was the savvy veteran who seemed able to defy the aging process and compete well beyond the age where most pros were worn out. The fierce competition between these two players is now the stuff of legend.
As the decade opened, though, it looked as if Sweden's Bjorn Borg was going to be the dominant tennis player for some time to come. In July 1980, Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown by defeating 21-year-old McEnroe in one of the classic Centre Court duels. McEnroe won the first set 6-1, but Borg rebounded and took the next two. McEnroe won the fourth set after a grueling 34-point tiebreaker. The players had been on the court for three-and-a-half hours, and the feisty McEnroe had reason to hope that his opponent was wearing out. No one knew until after the match that Borg was suffering greatly from a torn stomach muscle. Still, the Swede played what some say was the most brilliant set of his life -- and took the match.
In 1980 Borg won nine of 14 tournaments. He had already won the French Open five times -- he would become the only player to win six -- and the Italian Open twice. Back in 1972, at age 16, he had become the youngest person ever to win Sweden's national championship, and in 1975 he led Sweden to its first Davis Cup victory. Quiet and unassuming off court, Borg kept out of the spotlight as much as possible. On court he was unshakeable -- he played with is i magen, said his fellow Swedes, "ice in the gut." The only prize to so far elude him was the U.S. Open; in September 1980 McEnroe had beaten him in a grueling four-hour match for that trophy. But most of those who followed the game expected Bjorn Borg to dominate for years to come.
So when Borg abruptly announced his retirement from competition in early 1983, the tennis world was stunned. "[H]is departure grants Czechoslovak Ivan Lendl and Americans John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors complete custody of the game," lamented Time Magazine's Tom Callahan. "Lendl is a chilly, self-centered, condescending . . . man with a nice forehand. McEnroe is tennis' current, and quintessential, spoiled brat. Connors is a time-honored boor." But Borg had lost his edge, that steely resolve to win, that implacable drive for perfection, which had been a key element in his success, and he knew it was time to step down.
Undeterred by his defeat at Borg's hands in 1980, McEnroe was back on Wimbledon's Centre Court the following year, beating Borg in four hard-fought sets -- 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4, with tiebreakers in the second and third sets. McEnroe had exploded onto the tennis scene in 1977 as an 18-year-old amateur who qualified for Wimbledon play and went all the way to the semifinals before losing to Jimmy Connors. A lefthander, McEnroe was early on known for his brilliant shotmaking -- and his mercurial temper. Despite his stunning talent, he alienated many tennis fans with temper tantrums and obscene outbursts. (It was at the 1981 Wimbledon that a McEnroe tirade on court forced Lady Diana Spencer to exit the royal box. During the tournament he called one official a fool and another a cheat.) Such behavior resulted in fines and suspensions and even a disqualification at the 1990 Australian Open. And it robbed McEnroe's accomplishments of their luster.
It was at the 1981 Wimbledon semifinals that Jimmy Connors demonstrated that he was a still a force to be reckoned with, winning nine of the first ten games in a match with Borg that the Swede, the eventual winner, admitted he was "lucky to survive." By the time 1983's Wimbledon rolled around, Connors was the reigning men's champion, having beaten McEnroe at 1982's Wimbledon in another of their classic matchups -- 3-6, 6-3, 6-, 7-6, 6-4. McEnroe was the No. 2 seed and Lendl was No. 3. But Connors was knocked out in the fourth round by the big service of South African Kevin Curren. McEnroe defeated Lendl -- who always had trouble on grass and had skipped Wimbledon altogether the year before for that very reason -- and then went on to win the trophy. In 1984 McEnroe and Connors battled it out again on Centre Court, with McEnroe winning decisively in straight sets -- 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.
Like McEnroe a lefthander, Jimmy Connors had turned pro in 1972, winning his first title that same year. (He would set a men's record in 1989 with 109 titles in his career.) His mother, a teaching pro, raised him to be a tennis player; at age eight he played in his first U.S. championship, for boys 11-and-under, in 1961. He earned a reputation as a rebel when he refused to join the Association of Tennis Pros union in 1972 and then sued the ATP for restricting his freedom in the game after he was banned from the French Open in 1974. (Connors dropped the lawsuits in 1975.) Still, 1974 was an incredible year for Connors, who won 14 tournaments, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He became the No. 1 seed in July 1974 and held that ranking for 159 straight weeks. In his early years Connors turned off many tennis fans with his cocky, sometimes vulgar behavior on the court. He refused to play for the Davis Cup and was booed at Wimbledon in 1977 for declining to participate in the Parade of Champions. But by the 1980s he had engineered a complete image overhaul, and became a sentimental favorite because of his never-say-die determination to win. There was no greater evidence of this drive than his victory over Sweden's Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round of the 1987 Wimbledon tourney. Pernfors won the first two sets handily (6-1, 6-1) and was ahead in the third 4-1. Though suffering from a leg injury, Connors rallied to take 18 of the next 25 games and win the match. Connors went on to lose in the semifinals to Pat Cash, who would win the title that year over Ivan Lendl. He would return to Wimbledon four more times. In 1992, at age 41, he achieved a remarkable No. 83 ranking, with a 17-15 match record.
McEnroe would win four U.S. Opens and three Wimbledons (1981, 1983, 1984). While other American pros (like Connors) shunned playing for the Davis Cup, McEnroe was instrumental in the U.S. team's 1978 victory -- and four more Cups through 1992. His amazing four set triumph over Sweden's Mats Wilander that lasted six-and-a-half hours in a 1982 quarterfinal, and his defeat of Yannick Noah in that same year to lead the U.S. to victory over France, will long be remembered. McEnroe was the game's No. 1 seed for four years until his U.S. Open defeat at the hands of Ivan Lendl in 1985. In his rivalry with Connors he won 31 matches and lost 20. (He wasn't so lucky with Lendl, winning 15 and losing 21.) In 1984 he won 13 of 15 singles tournaments. In his career he won 82 tourneys, third behind Connors (109) and Lendl (92.)
In 1985 the unseeded West German Boris Becker seemed to come out of nowhere and win Wimbledon -- at 17, the youngest player ever to do so. Becker proved he was no fluke in 1986, winning Wimbledon again, defeating Ivan Lendl handily in straight sets. He would lose in 1988 to Stefan Edberg and then capture his third Wimbledon crown in 1989, having his revenge against Edberg with a straight-sets win. Becker would be on the losing end on Centre Court twice more, in 1990 and 1991, but clearly he was the dominant male player of the late '80s. By 1987 pundits were wondering where the future American tennis aces were. In 1980, six American men had been ranked in the Top Ten; in 1987 there were only two -- McEnroe and Connors, and their best days were behind them. The situation was so dire that the United States Tennis Association formed a panel to figure out how to develop new stars, with ideas ranging from academic scholarships to a national scouting program.
By 1989 however, Americans had something to cheer about in the form of young Michael Chang, a native of Hoboken, NJ, who beat Lendl and Edberg to win the French Open -- a rare feat for an American tennis player. (His victory proved hard for McEnroe, who had never won on French clay, to swallow.) Chang's startling victory as an upstart, so reminiscent of McEnroe's sudden appearance on the pro tennis scene, showed that America would always be able to produce its fair share of tennis stars. (Pete Sampras would dominate men's tennis in the 1990s.) But whether there would ever be two rivals so unpredictable -- and so fun to watch -- as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, was something else entirely.

And the winners are...
Wimbledon-Men's Singles:
1980-Bjorn Borg
1981-John McEnroe
1982-Jimmy Connors
1983-John McEnroe
1984-John McEnroe
1985-Boris Becker
1986-Boris Becker
1987-Pat Cash
1988-Stefan Edberg
1989-Boris Becker

Wimbledon-Women's Singles: 1980-Evonne Goolagong Cawley
1981-Chris Evert Lloyd
1982-Martina Navratilova
1983-Martina Navratilova
1984-Martina Navratilova
1985-Martina Navratilova
1986-Martina Navratilova
1987-Martina Navratilova
1988-Steffi Graf
1989-Steffi Graf

U.S. Open-Men's Singles:
1980-John McEnroe
1981-JimmyConnors
1982-Jimmy Connors
1983-John McEnroe
1984-John McEnroe
1985-Ivan Lendl
1986-Ivan Lendl
1987-Ivan Lendl
1988-Mats Wilander
1989-Boris Becker

U.S. Open Women's Singles:
1980-Chris Evert Lloyd
1981-Tracy Austin
1982-Chris Evert Lloyd
1983-Martina Navratilova
1984-Martina Navratilova
1985-Hana Mandlikova
1986-Martina Navratilova
1987-Martina Navratilova
1988-Steffi Graf
1989-Steffi Graf


John McEnroe at Wimbledon, 1980


REFERENCES

Newsweek, 13 July 1981
Reader's Digest, June 1981, June 1982
Time, 12 July 1982, 7 February 1983, 11 July 1983, 6 July 1986, 29 June 1987, 18 July 1988, 26 June 1989
U.S. News & World Report, 29 June 1987