Connors, McEnroe and Lendl ignited the circuit in the early 80s until they turned the sporting rivalry into a personal hatred that generated episodes such as the controversial Boca Raton semifinal in 1986 that ended with the disqualification of ‘Jimbo’
Federer Y Nadal they have accustomed us badly. They have built an exemplary world in tennis in which respect, elegance, sportsmanship and permanent recognition by the rival prevail. But there was a time not too distant when the circuit was a kind of jungle in which the best in the world felt the need to hate themselves to offer their best version. It was the ruthless’ 80s, the times when Lendl, McEnroe Y Connors they governed the circuit and infected the rest with their bad fleas and that almost sick desire to crush the rival without showing the slightest indulgence. “If I want a friend, I’ll buy another dog,” Lendl had said when asked about the atmosphere that existed on the circuit, a statement that portrayed the landscape and makes understandable what happened in 1986 when Jimmy Connors received the largest sanction ever imposed on a tennis player.
Ivan lendl, Czech by birth, American by adoption (in 1992 he was granted nationality) he was a kind of uncomfortable intruder when tennis seemed like a heads up between McEnroe and Connors. Borg he had radically cut his career when he was only 26 years old and his departure seemed to turn the circuit into a duopoly of the two Americans. They hated each other deeply. Two types of uncontrollable character; coolest John; more volcanic “Jimbo” Connors. Angry, protesting, cheeky competitors… they found a common enemy as this Ostrava-born boy, with high cheekbones and blank face, progressed to catch up with them.
Lendl was the classic product of a home where sport was a must. It was his mother, a former player, who put a racket in his hand at the age of three and began to subject him to sessions lasting several hours. That Spartan discipline shaped his character and also his game. But Lendl was much more than just a Stakhanovist. For his time he was ahead of the game. He took physical preparation to levels unknown for tennis, began to understand the importance of relying on nutritionists to compose the ideal diet for him, and made rest as essential as training itself.
Ivan Lendl was a freak to his adversaries. A player who played, trained, and spent his little free time raising German Shepherds and reading books about World War II. Added to this was his personality. Surly, dry, serious, unable to smile … his game seemed the right match with his humor. It soon became a rivals demolition machine. And that increased the hatred of his great rivals. Until 1982 things were quiet basically because Lendl couldn’t handle them. Three years he did not beat them: twelve games in a row, nine of them against Connors who seemed to be his kryptonite.
But the situation took a radical turn when Lendl raised the level at the same time that the two American players had already reached their peak. It was a plane that was going to expose them and everything rotted. The matches turned into combats and neither of them wasted the occasion to show the contempt they felt for the other. McEnroe and Connors put their differences aside and focused on the common enemy. In front of the microphones John McEnroe was always much more forceful because perhaps his capacity to hate him was greater. He even said that “I have more talent in my little finger than Lendl in my entire body” and when Lendl finally reached number one in the world he wondered aloud if tennis “wanted a robot at the top of the classification” . Connors was also not generous with Lendl, who was always more sparing with words. He preferred that the destruction take place inside the track. He was capable of crushing any rival in an exhibition tournament; he did not understand the meaning of sporting piety. And much less with them in front.
In 1986 Connors and Lendl met in the semi-finals of Lipton, which was played on the courts of Boca Raton (Florida). Jimbo had a contempt for his rival who had been born six years earlier, at the 1980 Masters at Madison Square Garden in New York. They were playing the last game of the first phase. Both arrived with two victories, already classified for the semifinals, and disputed the first place of their group. The problem is that unexpectedly that meant facing Borg who had been second to the other group. The first set was hotly contested and resolved in favor of Connors in the tie break, but then Lendl lowered his level to give up the second set. The American never forgave him for the behavior he publicly denounced.
When they met in Miami in 1986 they were coming off a series of seven wins in a row by Lendl that seemed to have gotten the hang of Connors after in 1982 and 1983 he knocked him out of the title in the US Open final amid the delirium of the fans who adored the indomitable spirit of “Jimbo”, that more racial tennis that connected with the stands. It was when Connors said that “in New York they love that you spill your guts on the track; at Wimbledon they would stop the game and ask you to clean the court. That is why I adore this city ”.
But three years later things had already changed. Lendl was the best player in the world – although as he made the headline on a “Sports Illustrated” cover, he was “the champion who nobody cares about” and Connors had started down the road to his firing. But he still retained his ability to compete and that hatred for him. who was in front of him was one more incentive. That is why the game on the Boca Raton slopes was of a difficult tension to govern. It fell to the British Jeremy shales act as chair judge and from the beginning the good man understood that the afternoon was going to be hot.
“I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. I can’t see that happy face on the other side of the net “
In the first sets, both players received several warnings: Connors for protesting and Lendl for hitting his rival on a climb to the net. The game, which was played under intense heat, was very strange, irregular, with moments for each of the players that alternated continuous ups and downs. The first four sets (the best of five was played) yielded an equalizer by 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, 2-6. Surprising.
They then reached the fifth and final set. Lendl was ahead with 3-2 and 30-0. In a half climb to the net he volleyed quite long. The linesman and chair judge saw the ball as good, but Connors did not. He protested angrily but the referee told him forcefully that the ball was good. The American went crazy amidst fuss and requested the presence of the almighty Alan Mills, referee of the tournament and one of the great references of this sport (since 1983 he was responsible for Wimbledon), but he refused to participate. The chair umpire remained unchanged and after a few seconds he sanctioned him with a penalty point that meant losing that game (4-2 for Lendl in the third). Connors lost control and Shales had to make the following disciplinary decision: to give up the game for lost with what was already 5-2 down. Lendl, on his side of the court, was jumping little.
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At that moment, Alan Mills and the supervisor appeared on the runway. Kendal Farrar that they asked Connors, almost begged him, to keep playing. But the American had already made the decision not to do it again. The minutes became eternal and finally the referees had no other decision than to give up the game for lost. Connors picked up the things, shook the chair umpire’s hand, and left without looking at Lendl. He left the track amidst a huge ovation from fans who forgave him that kind of thing. Analysts always agreed that their reaction would not have been the same if another player had been in front of them..
That game played for weeks. Connors received the harshest penalty for a tennis player at the time. A fine of $ 5,000 (a ridiculous amount for someone like him) but especially ten weeks without playing tournaments on the ATP circuit. That meant for him not to participate in the next edition of Roland Garros and to arrive very just to prepare for the Wimbledon tournament. True to his character, Connors made a statement in which he thanked those who made the decision to punish him because “they allowed me to play several exhibitions in which I was able to win much more money than I would have gotten in tournaments. I am very grateful to them ”. That’s how those years were, that generation that “Jimbo” portrayed with one of his most famous phrases: “I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. I can’t see that happy face on the other side of the net ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.