This was 'The Greatest Tennis Point of All Time'
Updated: Jul 17
“People don’t seem to understand that it’s a damn war out there”
Haarhuis sliced the first serve to the deuce court out wide, but Connors had picked it up early and lunged a double-fisted backhand winner straight down the line. The crowd erupted with Connors, punching the air as he danced to the ad court, eyes bulging. Look at the way Rafa punches the air now in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY.
As Bruce Jenkins wrote in 2011 about the fist-pump, “Connors’ version came from the streets, from deep in the soul, at just the right times, and even the Connors-haters (a dwindling group, but still in evidence) had to admire the raw passion of it all.”
Read that again Nick and Bernie. The raw passion of it all.
Connors had somehow managed to beat Aaron Krickstein the day round in a match famous for a 2-5 fifth set comeback as well as some disgraceful language directed towards a hapless Chair Umpire David Littlefield.
“Get out of the chair. Get your ass out of the chair! You’re a bum! I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old and you’re doing that?”
Down a break at 5-4 in the second set, Connors was running out of time. It was break point, but it felt like match point as well. Get it back to 5-5 and the match was on. If Haarhuis (who had beaten Boris Becker earlier in the tournament) escapes with a 2 sets to love lead, the fairytale is over.
The Dutchman gets a good first serve in and Connors returns too short, Haarhuis aggressively approaching down-the-line. A stranded Connors could only lunge with a desperate lob to keep the ball alive, gifting Haarhuis a regulation smash.
“Pretty whippy forehand, huh?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll fold just like the rest of them. Don’t worry,”
Inexplicably, the Dutchman smashes it back to Connors instead of the open court.
Maybe it was the lights, maybe it was the pro-Connors crowd, maybe it was just him tightening up at the importance of this point. A US Open quarterfinal match against 20,000 fans and an opponent with a ridiculous yellow racquet who wouldn’t go away. Yes Jimbo was still in it, so he scrambled back another lob, still barely alive in the point, but still in it.
Another smash, this time again back to Connors, as though saying, you’ve had your day in the sun. And another lob, with the crowd gasping louder with each Connors retrieval, but this one a bit deeper.
Connors knew it – keep the ball going, keep it up high and force Haarhuis to put it away, keep the point going so the crowd could get into it, give Haarhuis a chance to think about how important this point is. A chance to choke.
Another smash. Another lob. More screaming.
All of a sudden you can see Haarhuis look shaky, his footwork for the last smash leaden. He hadn’t been able to put the ball away on his first three overheads and this one was higher and deeper, much harder to judge in the New York lights. And this one went to Connors forehand, but it didn’t have the penetration. It gave Connors an opening, even from metres behind the baseline.
He punched the ball crosscourt to Haarhuis who was now stranded and could only dig out a short backhand volley. Connors was already moving forward, sensing opportunity. By this time the crowd noise had reached an almighty crescendo, the gasps which followed each of the 4 lobs and smashes now drowned out by the din.
From behind him, every spectator has risen to their feet in expectation. And then it happens – the most famous passing shot in history is past Haarhuis who can only lunge helplessly. The race to the net has taken Connors to his service line, and he realises the enormity of it.
He salutes with the crowd as one – a double-fisted pump as everyone in the crowd is on their feet, in perfect unison.
New York hadn’t always loved Connors, he was the anti-hero of the 70’s, the brashness of the ‘Belleville Basher’ a rude generation change from the gentlemanly Stan Smith. Think Lleyton Hewitt at the start of his career, in contrast to the politeness of Pat Rafter. Imagine a cocky Nick Kyrgios with GRAND SLAM TITLES to his name at the age of 22. And ranked number 1 in the world, a French Open away from winning a Grand Slam in 1974.
“I psyched myself up into a state where I felt something close to hatred towards my opponent, a state where I detested the idea of someone making his name at the expense of Jimmy Connors.”
Everyone in the stadium knows it now – including Haarhuis. The momentum shift, the crowd, the turning point cannot be denied. It’s only 5-5, but they might as well be shaking hands at the net. “The point” has electrified not only the match but the entire tournament. The entire sport. It said, “I’m down and out but I’m not done yet!”
EVERYONE KNOWS THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY HE IS GOING TO LOSE NOW.
I was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee watching the match at Mike DePalmer’s house with the Vols team, which included Chris Woodruff (who went on to become a top 20 player). The teenage Woodruff had practised with Connors that summer in California as Connors had recovered from injuries which had seen his ranking slide to 174.
What was practising with Connors like, I wondered. “Just all business” he replied.
“I hate to see the happiness on their faces when they beat me”
Watching the video after he celebrates with the 2 fisted salute to the crowd, notice the linesman who is directly in front of him, only a couple of feet from Connors. While the entire stadium has erupted to their feet, he sits calmly.
But if you look closely his eyes look like they’re about to explode.