In Rosemont, Illinois in 1982, Jimmy Connors, enraged over his opponent's antics, climbed over the net in the middle of a game (something that almost never happens) while wagging his finger at John McEnroe, which he continued doing until he got right in his face. Johnny Mac pushed him away, after which three officials stepped in to break them up, which didn't stop them from continuing to curse at each other. This wasn't even a regular ATP tour event. With Connors and McEnroe, who brought pugilism and contempt to the tennis court, it was always personal.
Flash ahead to 2010, When Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic to win the US Open tennis championship. The two shared a long embrace at the net, with Djokovic verbally consoling the Spaniard. Their rivalry was intense, yet genteel; gentleman's tennis. But between McEnroe vs. Connors, there were no words of consolation, just the most perfunctory of handshakes, and minimal eye contact. McEnroe has said that it felt like his rival was trying to crush his hand when they were forced to shake.
The two Americans disliked each other from the get-go, beginning when Johnny Mac, an amateur, got to Wimbledon as an 18-year-old arriviste. The lowly qualifier, still in high school, made it all the way to the semi-finals, where Connors, who was at the top of the tennis world at the time, defeated him in four sets. Connors, who sensed that there was a new kid on the block, shunned the younger player in the locker room. When they eventually began exchanging words, on the court, they weren't pleasantries. "Shut your mouth and play," was one of the nicer things Connors said to "McNasty," at Wimbledon in 1980. He'd tell Mac to "fuck off," as he once did at the French Open.
One could make the case that the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is the greatest in the history of men's tennis. They've squared off 59 times in their careers, and Nadal has 30 wins to Djokovic's 29. Thirteen of those matches were in Grand Slam matchups. I'd argue that, while theirs is the most prolific rivalry of all time, McEnroe vs. Connors is the most important one, and by far the most entertaining. The two played 34 times between 1977 and 1991, and their head-to-head was 20–14, favoring McEnroe.
While Djokovic and Nadal have provided many hours of fine tennis action over the years, it was McEnroe and Connors who changed the sport in a number of fundamental ways. Just like Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, they disliked each other, and it was that personal animosity that cranked that rivalry up to the next level. The only chance tennis fans have (and a very slim one) of seeing such sparks fly now would be if loose-cannon Nick Kyrgios, who has as much raw talent as any player ever to play the game, could get his act together and regularly challenge Novak Djokovic. If we get lucky, we'll see a precursor of what this could look like at the upcoming Wimbledon championship.
With McEnroe and Connors, it was brat vs. brat. McEnroe was privileged, attending a posh private high school in New York and training at the exclusive Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. Harry Hopman, the successful captain-coach of 22 Australian Davis Cup teams from 1939 to 1967, was his coach. Connors had fewer material advantages. His coaches, from a young age, were his mother and grandmother, in East St. Louis, Illinois. His mom instilled in him a killer instinct and a taste for combat, describing tennis as being like a boxing match—a sport in which you don't hit each other physically, but rather attack the opponent's morale. Both players were stars in college tennis, with McEnroe leading Stanford to the national championship as the nation's number one collegiate player.
On the court with McEnroe and Connors, it was rude versus crude. Line calls McEnroe disliked set him off. It was the resulting temper tantrums that then set Connors off, as they were a distraction to him, and an intimidation of the umpires regarding future line calls. Australian standout, Pat Cash, claimed that McEnroe's outbursts were a conscious strategy, rather than spontaneous combustion, and that they constituted "cheating." "I'm sick of you behaving like a child," Connors said to McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon semi-finals. "You're the mental age of my five-year-old son. Now shut up!" The two most notorious of McEnroe's meltdowns are his screaming, "You cannot be serious. Chalk flew up!" at the chair umpire at Wimbledon in 1981 (chalk did fly up), and his demand to the chair umpire, in 1984, at the Swedish Open: "Answer the question. The question, jerk!"
Connors specialized in another sort of bad behavior that reflected his more hardscrabble tennis upbringing—one that didn't involve any country clubs. He'd stuff balls down his shorts, make gestures with the racquet handle and his mouth, and put his racquet between his legs with the handle protruding. Grabbing his crotch was another one of Jimmy's moves, and it could mean almost anything. Off the court, he wouldn't stay in the same hotels as the other players.
The McEnroe-Connors 14-year duel revolutionized American tennis. McEnroe was a genius with a racquet in his hand. On the baseline he'd hit shots with impossible angles, and at the net his touch was otherworldly. He played with such skill, flair and imagination that people couldn’t figure out how he did it. Connors was a baseline warrior; a chaos-loving street fighter who knew how to get the crowd going for him, even (much to McEnroe's chagrin) when he played McEnroe in McEnroe's own backyard, New York City. He was Joe Frazier, always charging ahead, to McEnroe's Ali, dancing and feinting and looking for the right spot to attack.
Connors-McEnroe matchups were gladiatorial, so they appealed to the masses. It was the crude brawler who lived to smash the ball as hard as he could every time against the aesthete who cherished the beauty of angles, and who'd later go on to open a NYC art gallery. They both expressed, without inhibition, all their rage, pain and frustrations. Their matches weren't just tennis at the highest level. They were sports plus theater.
Spectators noticed that tennis had become much more than two guys hitting balls at each other. The two American players began to attract the "beer-drinker" fans—those who’d previously stuck to baseball, football and basketball. Media photos of them were as common as any movie star. Young kids started playing the game. It became difficult to get on many public courts. Sponsors noticed and entered the arena with advertising contracts.
The McEnroe-Connors era was the time of tennis' greatest popularity in the US. The sport hasn’t recovered from losing them.