- 10 Jan 2021
What happened exactly
On this day, January 10, 1982, in the final of the Michelob Light Challenge, an exhibition tournament held in Chicago, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe had one of their most infamous clashes. In the fifth set Connors, irritated by McEnroe’s delay tactics, even stepped across the net and confronted his opponent. At the end of a high-level match, Connors prevailed, 6-7, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.
Jimmy Connors, born in 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, but 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 of the ATP Rankings for a record of 160 weeks in a row, from 1974 to 1977. Losing his throne to Bjorn Borg on August 23, 1977, for just one week, he then reclaimed it for another 84 weeks, until the spring of 1979. He had won five Grand Slam titles by that point: the Australian Open (1974), Wimbledon (1974) and the US Open (1974, 1976, 1978). Since 1979, Connors was not performing as well as in his peak years. He had not reached a Grand Slam final since his 1978 US Open title, but he was still ranked No 3 in the world. His young rival McEnroe had even provocatively declared that he would have liked to see how it was to play against Connors “in his prime”.
John McEnroe, born in 1959, had been world No 1 since August 1981, after he claimed his first Wimbledon crown, defeating the Swede legend Bjorn Borg in the final (4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4). The southpaw from New York had amazed the tennis world since his first steps on the tour, in 1977, when at the age of 17, showing up at Wimbledon as an amateur, he made his way out of the qualifications and into the semi-finals.
“Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve that he liked to follow at the net. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3). He also made quite a sensation by edging Bjorn Borg (7/5 4/6 6/2 7/6) to win the WTC Finals. In 1980, he played his most famous match in the Wimbledon final, where he lost in five sets against Borg, after winning an outstanding tie-break in the fourth set (18-16). In September, he managed to defend his title at the US Open, edging Borg in the final (7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4). In 1981, after his first triumph at the All England Club, McEnroe claimed the US Open crown for a third time, edging Bjorn Borg once again in what would later be remembered as the last appearance of the Swede in a Grand Slam tournament (4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3).
Both players were known for their shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. They were sometimes vulgar —Connors giving the finger to a linesman or putting his racket between his legs in a crude manner. Their constant quarreling with the officials made them famous in a gentleman’s sport. There was something personal in their rivalry, with the two players genuinely disliking each other and being more than just tennis opponents, openly and sometimes violently arguing on court. It made all of their legendary encounters popcorn worthy.
This clash between Connors and McEnroe happened in the final of the Michelob Light Challenge, an exhibition tournament held in Chicago, where eight players had been invited.
On that day, January 10, 1982, in Rosemont, Illinois, their clash took an unexpected turn, featuring, as Connors would say a few weeks later: “everything — great tennis, controversy, comedy and even death.”
First, the level of play was great, and fans who came to see beautiful tennis couldn’t complain. Connors prevailed in five sets, 6-7, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, executing beautifully his signature passing shots against the best serve-and-volley player in the world. However, the Michelob final became memorable for a different reason: the number of arguments that occurred between the players and the officials. Both Connors and McEnroe were warned and received penalty points, but tension peaked in the fifth set, when Jimbo apparently got fed up with his opponent’s delay tactics and abusive language. Connors stepped across the net to confront McEnroe, and, if no one could hear what he actually told him while sticking a finger to his face like a father telling off his child, one could guess that it wasn’t very polite either. McEnroe pushed him back. The two players were ”about a whisker apart,” in Connors’ words, before being restrained by officials.
‘I think we both have the same attitudes,” Connors said, comparing McEnroe and himself, according to The New York Times. ”He’s aggressive, I’m aggressive. We both stick up for our rights. But I stick up for my rights in a different way. If I feel like I’m in the right, I’ll step up. I want some respect, not sloughing off. But there are certain limits.”
A few weeks later, McEnroe would take his revenge against Connors in the final of the US Pro Indoor, in New York, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Connors would then prevail in the Wimbledon final (3–6, 6–3, 6–7, 7–6, 6–4), claiming his first Grand Slam title since the 1978 (he would finish with eight Slam titles), the first step of a journey that would lead him to reclaim the world No 1 spot in September.
John McEnroe would hold seven Grand Slam titles at the end of his own career. In 1984, his greatest year, he would win Wimbledon and the US Open, and would be very close to winning Roland-Garros before blowing a two-set lead against Ivan Lendl in one of the most famous matches in tennis history.