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January 16, 1981: the day Jimmy Connors called Ivan Lendl a chicken, a nickname that the Czech would bear until his first Grand Slam title in 1984

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1981 to witness how Jimmy Connors accused Ivan Lendl of tanking and called him chicken for losing a match on purpose.

Ivan Lendl 1984 Ivan Lendl 1984Ivan Lendl 1984

What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history

On this day, January 16, 1981, at the Masters Cup, Jimmy Connors defeated Ivan Lendl in the last match of the round-robin (7-6, 6-1). The winner of the match was to play Bjorn Borg in the semi-finals, which both players knew – and as a consequence, Connors accused Lendl of tanking to avoid the Swedish terror and called him a chicken.

The players : Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl

• Jimmy Connors, still one of the best in 1981

Jimmy Connors, born 1952, was one of the greatest tennis players of his time. Coached by his mother Gloria, Connors was one of the first few players to hit the ball flat and mainly from the baseline.

Hitting the ball on the rise, his game would be very influential for future generations of tennis players. “Jimbo” turned pro in 1972 and became world No 1 by 1974. In fact, that year he won three out of the four Grand Slam tournaments, though he was not permitted to participate in Roland-Garros, the fourth one, due to a lawsuit he filed against the ATP. Connors stayed at the top spot of the ATP Ranking for a then record 160 weeks in a row, from 1974 to 1977.

He had claimed five Grand Slams titles at that point: the Australian Open (1974), Wimbledon (1974) and the US Open (1974, 1976, 1978). In 1980, Connors didn’t perform as well as in his peak years. He hadn’t reached a Grand Slam final since his 1978 US Open title, yet he was still ranked No 3 in the world. 

Ivan Lendl, into the Big Four, but not that big yet

Ivan Lendl was born in 1960. After turning professional in 1978, he became one of the four best players in the world in 1980, along with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. He had claimed nine ATP titles already, seven of them in 1980, including the Barcelona Open, where he defeated Guillermo Vilas on clay (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1), and the Basel Indoor Championships, where he beat Borg in the final (6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 0-6, 6-4).

The place : Madison Square Garden, New York

Founded in 1970, the year-end Masters Cup was the final showdown between the eight best players in the world. Held in a different location every year at the start, it temporarily settled at the Madison Square Garden, in New York, in 1977. In the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, the Masters Cup became more than just a tennis tournament – it was a spectacle. In this first edition, tickets were sold out well in advance, with more than 18,500 spectators packing the stands. The tournament director, Ray Benton, had moved the event to January, in order to avoid competition with American football, and, before the upcoming Super Bowl, the Tennis Masters Cup was the main sports event in the United States that week.

The facts : “Chicken”

In 1980, the format of the Masters Cup, held at the Madison Square Garden in January 1981, was already creating controversy before the last match of the round-robin between Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl began. The last matches of  Group 1 had been a huge disappointment to the public, as Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, who had played an epic match-up won 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 by the Swede, were both routed on the following day by Gene Mayer and Jose Luis Clerc. 

“I wasn’t into it,” admitted McEnroe, who was already out of the tournament after his loss against Borg. He said he had simply run out of fuel: ”I was trying my best, but I had nothing to give.’

The big news, for the players of Group 2, was that after Borg’s loss to Mayer the Swede ended up second in his group. It meant that the winner of the last round-robin match would have to face the Swedish legend in the semi-finals, whereas the loser would play against Mayer – and the two players fighting for the lead of Group 2 were Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.

It probably didn’t help that they had to wait until the end of the grinding marathon between Guillermo Vilas and Harold Solomon (won by Solomon, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5) and that they commenced play at 11 pm. After blowing two set points, Lendl didn’t seem to be trying to win anymore. He lost the tie-break 7-1, and he won only 6 points in the first five games of the second set, which he lost 6-1. According to Sports Illustrated, “Lendl took the full plunge, spraying balls into the far reaches of Gotham”. 

Connors gave him the coldest handshake and afterwards, in a TV interview, he called Lendl “chicken”, accusing him of tanking to avoid facing Bjorn Borg in the semi-finals.

“I don’t understand how a player with his talent and future could act like that,” he added. “I don’t think the fans enjoy something like that.”

In the press conference, when asked if he thought Lendl had lost the second set on purpose, Connors said he wasn’t going to answer the question, while nodding his head affirmatively, according to The New York Times.

“I changed my tactics the other night and it didn’t work,” Lendl told the press, although few people believed him. “It happens sometimes.”

What happened next? Lendl would win eight Slams

Ivan Lendl’s alleged strategic loss would work in his favour: in the semi-finals, the Czech would easily defeat Gene Mayer (6-3, 6-4), while Jimmy Connors would fall to Bjorn Borg (6-4, 6-7, 6-3). However, in the final, Borg would destroy Lendl in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

When asked why he played better in the final against Lendl than in the last match of the round-robin which he had lost against Mayer, Borg would simply respond: “Because it was the final.”

Although Borg’s response could be seen as a joke, controversies would often arise in the Masters Cup as, due to its round-robin format, players could sometimes benefit from a loss. 

For several years, Lendl would be followed by the “chicken” nickname that Connors gave him – especially after he lost his first four Grand Slam finals, including two at the US Open against Connors himself. He would finally meet with triumph at Roland-Garros, in 1984, coming back from two sets down to win one of the most famous tennis matches of all-time against John McEnroe (3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5). 

Ivan Lendl at the US Open in 1986

Lendl would then definitely brush off Connors’s comment and no one would ever call him chicken as he would claim three titles at Roland-Garros by the end of his career (1984, 1986, 1987), but also three consecutive titles at the US Open (1985-1987), where he would appear in the final eight years in a row between 1982 and 1989. Lendl would last succeed at the Australian Open, which he would win twice after it switched from grass to hard court (in 1989 and 1990). The Czech would never manage to win at Wimbledon where his game was not as effective, although he would still reach the final there in 1986 (defeated by Boris Becker, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5) and 1987 (lost to Pat Cash, 7-6, 6-2, 7-5). In 1992, after a five-year procedure, he would obtain US citizenship.  At the end of his career, in 1994, the newly credentialed American would wrap up his career having spent 270 weeks at No 1 (topping Connors’ record of 268). He finished with 94 ATP titles to his name.

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