If you are an American tennis fan of a certain age — old enough to have watched the U.S. Open on CBS television before the network ceded broadcast rights to ESPN a few years ago, and old enough to have endured a long rain delay during a CBS broadcast on Labor Day weekend — you have been educated on a specific moment in U.S. Open history.
That moment: Jimmy Connors’ run to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals at age 39.
It was virtually impossible for me to grow up as an American tennis fan in the 1990s — as I went to high school and college — and not be told every year, during a rain delay on CBS at the National Tennis Center, of how Jimbo cursed and raged and stomped and scrambled and labored and reveled and rallied his way to a win over Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round of that 1991 tournament. For roughly two decades, a rain delay at the U.S. Open during a CBS broadcast meant one of two historical recollections: Jimmy in 1991, and Super Saturday — September 8, 1984 — one of the great individual days in tennis history.
If you’re an American tennis fan who has graduated from college, you might not recall the Krickstein match so much as the single sight of Connors pumping both fists in front of a roaring crowd after winning a highlight-reel point in the next match of that 1991 U.S. Open against Paul Haarhuis. You remember that point — the one in which Connors chased down a series of overhead smashes before ripping a backhand winner down the line. It is ingrained into the American tennis fan’s memory.
The swaggering, strutting, swearing Connors — fierce but foul-mouthed, forceful and full of fortitude but also a jerk — was impossible to ignore in the late summer of 1991.
“THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT!”
Whether Connors was playing to the cameras or tearing into a chair umpire, the highly theatrical nature of his 1991 run in New York left an indelible imprint.
This must have been a one-of-a-kind moment from an American singles player in the Open Era, right?
Martina Navratilova, by then an American citizen, made a Wimbledon final in 1994 at 37 but had stopped playing singles before she turned 39. Chris Evert didn’t get that far. Venus Williams is “only” 38, not yet able to make a big run at 39… though she could soon pull it off.
Well, that closes the book on the history of American singles players making remarkable runs at 39, right?
Billie Jean King wears many hats as a giant figure in tennis history. Great champion, doubles dynamo, a public figure who wrestled with her sexuality, an activist, a person unafraid to speak on issues of the day — she was Martina Navratilova before Martina Navratilova became a well-known public figure in her own right. King was also an entrepreneur and promoter of the Virginia Slims Tennis Tour, a story told in the 2017 movie, “Battle Of The Sexes.” She was both an evangelist for women’s tennis in public spaces and a backroom fighter for the game and gender pay equity at tournaments. Most of all, though, King is remembered for her match with Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome in September of 1973. Though not a Wimbledon final or a U.S. Open semifinal, it was actually far more important in a larger cultural sense. Thrashing Riggs before a riveted national audience inspired countless numbers of young women and girls in their sporting careers. Her win didn’t eradicate sexism or dramatically reduce the boorish workplace behavior depicted on the TV show “Mad Men,” but it represented a moment when women gained a little more leverage in the national tug of war over gender roles, identities and stereotypes.
Yes, today we still live in an ugly world of #MeToo and #TimesUp and all sorts of very ugly realities about powerful men abusing, harassing, silencing, and subjugating women (and more, and then some). Yet, in bars and living rooms across America 45 years ago, King allowed American women to see — a little more clearly if not completely — what was possible in their lives. Winning a regular tour event or Wimbledon singles didn’t carry that same cultural weight. The Battle of the Sexes — in many ways a stupid, tacky, carnival-like event with ample dimensions of farce and over-the-top excess — nevertheless became a big vehicle for cultural change. Her association with that event in 1973 will likely be the first sentence in the New York Times obituary of King on the day when she passes away. It will likely be the first sentence a TV newscaster utters when word of her death — whenever it happens — hits the airwaves.
Yet, for all that Billie Jean King is and has been as a tennis champion and a transformative cultural figure — in her sport and far beyond it — just how many people under age 45 know that in 1983 — eight years before Jimmy Connors in New York — BJK went all the way to the semifinals of Wimbledon at 39? You would have to have studied tennis history or watched NBC Sports very intently to remember that point about King. The woman who last won a Wimbledon singles title in 1975 — and who recovered from an injury in 1981 at age 37 — offered one more luminous on-court memory before ending her Wimbledon career and, months later, her singles career at the end of 1983.
If anything about King’s run to the 1983 Wimbledon women’s singles semifinals was surprising, it was how smooth the journey was until 18-year-old Andrea Jeager — whose promising career was cut short by injury less than two full years later — routed her in the semis. King won five matches to make the semis. Four of those wins were in straights, and no, the draw wasn’t easy on paper. King had to turn back seventh-seeded Wendy Turnbull — a singles finalist at three of the four majors — in the fourth round.
A surprise within the surprisingly straightforward run to the semis was that King’s only hugely difficult match among the five before her arrival in the last four was a clash with a 19-year-old who had abruptly discontinued her collegiate career months earlier. Beth Herr was a former World No. 1 junior player who then won the 1983 NCAA women’s singles national championship at the University of Virginia. She was a freshman, but that didn’t keep her in school. (She waited until after her playing days were over to resume her collegiate studies and get a degree.) Herr went straight into the pro game. She didn’t have a massively successful career, but not a terrible one, either. She lasted on tour until 1990. She played over 160 matches and won over 70 of them. Herr had nothing to lose when she faced King in the second round of Wimbledon in 1983. The teenager — 20 years younger than the opponent across the net — won a first-set tiebreaker and was in position to enable her younger, fresher legs to carry her. They did take her to 6-6 in the third set, but King’s experience won out and captured the match, 8-6 in the final stanza. King did not lose a set in any of her next three matches.
It is fascinating how some stories get shared by television/broadcast media while others don’t receive nearly as much play. Between Jimmy Connors in 1991 and the Battle of the Sexes in 1973, it is very easy to lose track of a 39-year-old American’s run to a major semifinal… in 1983. It is not the greatest thing Billie Jean King has ever done… but it certainly rates as a comparatively overlooked moment in American tennis history.