John Mcenroe (right) and Jimmy Connor. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Joel Drucker: Throwback Thursday - The Painter and the Puncher

Did you say you wanted a rivalry? Care to see two dogs fighting for the same bone? Did you want both great tennis and over-the-top emotion? On all counts, it doesn’t get much better than Jimmy Connors versus John McEnroe.

Thirty-seven years ago today, these two met in Dallas at the WCT Finals. If at the time, the WCT Finals wasn’t quite as prestigious as it had been five years earlier, it remained a valued prize. In 1979 at this event, McEnroe had earned his first fully completed match win over Connors, going on to beat Bjorn Borg in the finals. In the 1980 final, McEnroe picked up where he left off, winning the first set, 6-2. But true to form, the persistent Connors fought back to take the second in a tiebreaker and then, quite surprisingly, rolled through the next two, 6-1, 6-2.

The record will show that they met 34 times, McEnroe winning 20 across a 15-year rivalry that saw periods of dominance, parity and surprise.

But the statistical recount hardly does justice to what Connors-McEnroe was all about. As a start, it was a generational rivalry, Connors just over six years older than McEnroe. The first time these two lefties played one another had come in the 1977 Wimbledon semis. Connors was ranked number one in the world. McEnroe was just 18, a qualifier gone supernova. Having never met Connors, McEnroe approached him prior to their match – at which point Connors didn’t even look at McEnroe. But even that first time, McEnroe extended Connors to four sets.

It was also a stylistic rivalry, McEnroe’s great serve, volleys and ability to take pace off the ball, contrasted with Connors’ forceful return and power groundstrokes. If McEnroe could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee akin to Muhammad Ali, then Connors was Joe Frazier, digging in for one punch after another. Woven into this were matters of social class and style. McEnroe was the street-smart but privileged New Yorker who fancied himself an artist. Connors’ sensibility was more blue-collar, drawing inspiration from boxing.

Connors has often said that McEnroe was his greatest rival. McEnroe sees his peers differently, in many cases citing Borg, in others, Connors. Borg and Connors represent two aspects of McEnroe’s competitive sensibilities. Versus Borg – the ultra-cool Swede who McEnroe had admired since childhood – it was largely a matter of execution. There was Borg, standing several feet behind the baseline to return serve, seeking to return proficiently enough to derail McEnroe’s serve-volley game. Many times, the contrast made for sublime tennis. And given Borg’s demeanor, it came off rather impersonal, at once distance but cordial. These two liked each other.

The flavor differed versus Connors. Connors preferred returning serve either on or inside the baseline. Instead of Borg’s poker face, Connors favored a squint, perhaps a snarl, the implication to McEnroe being that you might have the best serve and volley in tennis, but I am going to take this return and throttle it down your prep schoolboy throat. Can you deliver? To McEnroe’s credit, he mostly did. Still, while Borg took McEnroe to a form of tennis heaven, Connors took him to a vastly different neighborhood. So there it was, the painter and the puncher, two dogs who fought for the same bone -- and ended up creating masterpieces.

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