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No — Jimmy Connors did not win 109 cheap and easy tennis titles

Mert Ertunga

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

It is important that, when considering Jimmy Connors’ 109 singles titles, one does not fall into the trap of just thinking of the top three or four players and say Federer faced much tougher competition (just because of Novak and Rafa).

Connors faced, in my opinion, much deeper fields than Federer, Djokovic and Rafa face today. One can see that if you look at the top 20 rankings – especially 5 to 20 – in the early-to-mid-1970s versus the last 10 years’ worth of No. 5 to No. 20 rankings.

In the early 1970s, men’s tennis showcased an even playing field with phenomenal depth: Stan Smith, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Manuel Orantes, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase, Jan Kodes, Tom Okker, Andres Gimeno, and Guillermo Vilas (top five at the end of 1974), to name a few who vied for the elite titles and ranking spots.

This is the milieu into which Connors landed in 1974. He entered the top 10 in 1973 (Borg the top 20 that year) and climbed to number three by the end of the season.

Connors went 93-4 and won 15 titles in 1974. McEnroe was 82-3 in 1984, 0.006 percent better by winning percentage. (Side note: In 1984, McEnroe went 22-1 against top-10 players.) Bjorn Borg was 84-6 in 1979. Federer was 81-4 in 2005, 92-5 in 2006 (12 titles). Djokovic was 82-6 with 11 titles in 2015. Djokovic went 31-5 against top-10 players that year.

Due to his participation in World Team Tennis, Jimmy Connors was not allowed to play Roland Garros in 1974. He would have been the clear favorite had he played. He beat Bjorn Borg in their only encounter on clay that year, after defeating Manuel Orantes in the semis at that same tournament. In fact, Connors beat Borg three times on clay from 1974-1976, twice at the U.S. Open.

Since the 1950s only two Americans won majors. Connors rejuvenated American tennis.

Some randomly looked-up Connors titles from the early 1970s:

1973 Johannesburg title: Tom Okker (No. 4) in the semis, Arthur Ashe in the finals.

1973 Quebec title: Marty Riessen and Mark Cox (top-20 players, but okay, this is a weak run to the title, just like some that Roger had I am sure).

1973 Los Angeles: Stan Smith, Raul Ramirez, Tom Okker.

1973 Boston: Stan Smith, Dick Stockton, Cliff Richey, Arthur Ashe (no rankings indicated on the ATP site, which can be misleading of course). These are all excellent players at the time, and Connors had to beat them all to win the title. So, when someone looks at this on the ATP website, unless he or she knows these four names above, he/she will brush it off as an “easy title,” whereas it is at least the equivalent of the run that Nick made to win this week.

1974 London: Jauffret, Solomon, Okker, Gottfried. Solomon shows No. 15 but he is probably higher than that. Gottfried shows 37, and he is definitely higher than that, on his way to becoming top-10 player for a few years in the ’70s.

1974 U.S. Open: Jan Kodes, Alex Metreveli, Tanner, Rosewall.

1974 Wimbledon: Panatta, Fillol, Kodes, Dick Stockton, Rosewall. (Rosewall was ranked 109, but he played only seven tournaments – thus, his low ranking at the time of Wimbledon, which was his second tournament of the year). Two of Rosewall’s seven tournaments in 1974 were Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where he lost in the finals to…

Jimmy Connors.

Top-ranked male player for Turkey (1988, 1990) Member of Turkish Davis Cup team (1990-91). Davis Cup Captain, Turkey (1993). Played satellites and challengers (1988-91) Played NCAA Div 1 Tennis (3-time all-Sun Belt Conference Team) Tennis professional and coach (1991-2008) Writer for Tenis Dunyasi (largest monthly tennis publication for Turkey) since 2013 Personal tennis site: www.mertovstennisdesk.com

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    skip1515

    March 4, 2019 at 10:46 am

    I could not agree more re the quality of wins in Connors’ cv. The real problem, such as it is, is with folks who follow tennis who believe all that’s happened of value began when they, themselves, started watching the game.

    • Avatar

      Mert Ertunga

      March 4, 2019 at 2:15 pm

      Very good point Skip. There is also the lack of emotional bond between a whole generation of tennis watchers today and the older champions. They may have never seen Connors play or simply do not care to have his name (or other ‘ancient’ players’ names) added to the mix of their favorite players. Even perceptions about Sampras, Becker, and Edberg suffer from this same syndrome.

  2. Avatar

    Alain Castonguay

    March 5, 2019 at 9:56 am

    I’m 56 y-o, and I follow tennis since 1975, so I remind a lot of players names, even if they haven’t won major titles.
    After Federer won his 99th title in Basel, I’ve checked Connors titles on ATP website.
    Connors did a lot for his sport in his early years by playing a lot of matches all around the continent, even in Quebec City where I live.
    I’ve noticed some of his titles, from 1972 to 1975, during which he played 4 matches or less to win the event.
    I’ve also pick a couple of events where he won 5 matches but against nobody ranked in top 30 at this time.
    In the list I’ve made below, with the runner-up (RUP), HR means highest ranking, because ranking system was not available weekly in early 1970’s.
    So, we can discuss that his wins in Birmingham & Salt Lake City, both in 1974, were against good players (Sandy Mayer and Vitas Gerulaitis), but they had a lower ranking back then.
    Apart those 2 titles, for all 11 other titles, from my point of view, we can considered these ones as smaller events than ATP 250 event today.
    From 1976, the field he had to confront was much stronger with a lot of players from Europe, South Africa and Australia playing in America.
    Jimmy Connors is a giant of the sport, no dispute.
    But we can say that some of his earlier titles (a total of 41 from 1972 to 1975) were obtained while facing a very small amount of good players.

    1972:
    Jacksonville: 4 matches, RUP: Clark Graebner (HR: 45th, Oct. 1973)
    Roanoke: 1 victoire, RUP: Vladimir Zednik (HR: 43rd: July 1978)

    1973
    Roanoke: 3 matches, RUP: Ian Fletcher (56th, June 1974)
    Salt Lake City: 4 matches, RUP: Paul Gerken (35th, Aug. 1973)
    Paramus: 3 matches, RUP: Clark Graebner (HR: 45th, Oct. 1973)

    1974
    Roanoke: 4 matches, RUP: Karl Meiler (32th)
    Little Rock: 4 matches, RUP: Karl Meiler (32th)
    Birmingham: 4 matches, RUP: Sandy Mayer (HR: 7th, Apr. 1982, then 134th)
    Salisbury: 5 matches, RUP: Frew McMillan (78th)
    Salt Lake City: 4 matches, RUP: Vitas Gerulaitis (135th)
    Manchester: 4 matches, RUP: Mike Collins (793e, Feb. 1984)

    1975
    Birmingham: 4 matches, RUP: Billy Martin (HR: 32th, Mar. 1975)
    Boca Raton: 5 matches, RUP: Jurgen Fassbender (50th)

    • Avatar

      Mert Ertunga

      March 5, 2019 at 1:05 pm

      Hi Alain,

      Great information, thank you. I also saw these, and yes I agree with you that most that you listed can be viewed as ‘weak’ titles (subjectively), but not all that you mentioned (subjectively, again). Once again, one has to be careful when looking simply at the ranking numbers of the opponents, which did not reflect necessarily their quality at the time due to reasons I already mentioned in the above article and the other one on Tennis with an Accent published today. (biggest example being Rosewall being ranked outside top 100 when he played Wimbledon final against Connors in 1974, obviously, he was not so in quality, but rather top 5), but that is not the only example, and to be fair, your list does not mention that anyway).

      For instance: You mention 1975 Birmingham, where Connors beat Pavel Slozil, Jeff Austin, Karl Meiler, and Billy Martin. That is more than a solid run to the title for anyone who know those players back then, and I would argue (subjectively of course), a tougher run to the title than Federer had in Halle 2003 for example (Sargsian 61, Vicente 62, ElAynoui 24, Youzhny 29, Kiefer 73).

      I agree, however, that if we were to dissect one by each player’s titles, Federer’s 100 titles supersede Jimmy’s, I am not disputing that (in fact, it was the first condition that I verbalized when beginning our discussion with Matt and Saqib on which this article and the next one published are based). I especially agree with you on your last two sentences, which are proven by the data.

      I am disputing though the general idea that a substantial amount of Connors’s titles were ‘patsy’ titles, or that they were exho-challenger level titles. When compared in its sum, although not at the same plane as we can see, they hold up fairly well against Federer’s, when taking the nuances of the two different eras into account.

  3. Avatar

    Alain Castonguay

    March 5, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    I wouldn’t say that 13 on 109 are a substantial amount of “patsy” titles.
    I do agree that if we check all titles won by Federer, we might find between 6 to 10 of them where he didn’t have to sweat that much.
    But like Matt Zemek often writes, sometimes, you need to be lucky to win a tournament.
    Speaking of Rosewall, at 39 years old and ranked n° 6, before losing 61 60 61 to Connors at US Open 1974 final, the Aussie had to go through John Newcombe (2nd) in SF, after wins versus Vijay Amritraj, Raul Ramirez, Charlie Pasarell, Robert Lutz and Colin Dibley in earlier rounds.
    Connors, then 22 y-o, have beaten Roscoe Tanner (21st), Alex Metreveli (15th), Jan Kodes (13th), John Alexander (22nd), Ove Nils Bengston and Jeff Borowiak.
    I’ve not mentioned in my listing numerous events where Connors had to face a great player in final: in 1972, Guillermo Vilas in Cincinnati or Roscoe Tanner in Albany; in 1973: Arthur Ashe in Colombus and Johannesburg or Tom Okker in Los Angeles; in 1974: Ilie Nastase in Hampton, Bjorn Borg in Indiannapolis; in 1975: Jan Kodes in Hampton, Ken Rosewall in North Conway (following Laver in SF).
    And in 1976, a 90-8 season with 12 titles, the list of runner-ups Connors have beaten to win these events is impressive: Roscoe Tanner (Birmingham), Bjorn Borg (Philadelphia), Ilie Nastase (Hampton), Tanner again (Palm Springs), Ross Case (Denver), Ken Rosewall (Las Vegas), Nastase again (Nottingham), Raul Ramirez (Washington), Wojtek Fibak (Indiannapolis), Ramirez again (North Conway), Borg at US Open, Frew McMillan (Cologne) and Tanner (Wembley).
    Nevertheless, I prefer that discussion on the value of titles than focusing only on grand slams.
    For a while, very few Americans were going to Australian Open.

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