In the memorable summer of 1974, a beleaguered Richard M Nixon resigned in disgrace as President of the United States. Tim Henman was born. And two prodigious American players who were fast approaching their primes walked away with the top honours at the All England Club while they were engaged to be married. Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert – displaying outstanding two-handed backhands, extraordinary court sense, and unwavering determination – stamped their authority sweepingly on the lawns of Wimbledon, winning the world’s most prestigious titles as the tennis world marveled at it all.
As Evert recently recalled: “It was a total fairy-tale. Jimmy and I were two young kids having a good time with no pressure on us, getting a lot of good press. It was a very exciting time for both of us. To win Wimbledon and have along someone you love is almost too good to be true.”
Both Evert, 19, and Connors, 21, negotiated their victories with striking similarity. Evert was seeded second after reaching the final the previous year. But she nearly lost in her opening contest against the tenacious Australian Lesley Hunt. The battle was halted by darkness at 9-9 in that final set after two hours and 40 minutes.
“I went back to my hotel that night and watched the replay of that match with Jimmy on BBC,” Evert says. “He told me I had to approach the net on Lesley’s backhand, which she always chipped. That was the last thing I wanted to do but I listened to Jimmy’s good advice.
When we resumed the match the next day I came in on her backhand on the first point and it worked. I won the match pretty quickly [8-6, 5-7,11-9]. Jimmy was great at getting me motivated.”
Evert glided through the rest of the tournament without losing a set, erasing the Australian Kerry Melville Reid in the semi-finals before crushing the Russian Olga Morozova (the woman she had defeated to claim her first major title a month earlier at Roland Garros) 6-0, 6-4 in the final.
Connors, the No3 seed, had a precariously close call. In the second round against Australia’s formidable Phil Dent, the man the left-handed American had beaten for his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open six months earlier, Connors served at 5-6, 0-30 in the fifth set. At 15-30, he released a deep second serve that both players believed was long. The apparent double fault was not called. Connors escaped with a 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 10-8 victory. He went five sets again with 1973 Wimbledon winner Jan Kodes, but routed 39-year-old Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
Both Evert and Connors had much good fortune. In her case, Morozova had removed Billie Jean King and Melville Reid had toppled former and future champion Evonne Goolagong in the quarter-finals. As Evert graciously concedes: “I really shouldn’t have won Wimbledon that year because I wasn’t the best grass court player in the tournament. I didn’t feel threatened at all playing Olga and Kerry, but Evonne and Billie Jean definitely would have beaten me that year had I played them. It all turned out nicely for me.”
Connors would have been hard pressed to overcome either top-seeded John Newcombe or No4 seed Stan Smith, two superb practitioners of the serve-and-volley game. Newcombe was hoping to secure a fourth singles crown on the Centre Court while Smith, who had stopped Connors the week before Wimbledon at Nottingham, was seeking a second title. However, Newcombe and Smith (who had a match point) were both victims of the evergreen Rosewall.
When Connors beat Rosewall, Evert was seated near a renowned figure, but did not realise it. “Here was this woman wearing a turban, sitting next to Gloria Connors, Jimmy’s mother. I didn’t know who she was but I found out a couple of years later that it was Ava Gardner.”
Pancho Segura, who was coaching Connors at the time, believes Wimbledon 1974 was a pivotal moment for his pupil. Connors was a supremely confident player from that moment on and won three of the four majors that season. As Segura recollects: “Wimbledon was the beginning of Jimmy’s greatness and from there on he became a marquee name. He had one of the greatest returns of serve ever. His first serve return was even better than Mr Agassi’s. Jimbo could get more first serve returns back into play than anybody I have ever seen.”
In any event, Evert and Connors danced to “The Girl That I Marry” at the Wimbledon Champions’ Dinner that year. They planned to tie the knot that November, but broke off their engagement the month before and never did marry. “We were entirely too young to get married,” Evert says now. “We hadn’t had any life experiences. We would never have seen each other. It was more important to both of us to try to be No 1 in the world rather than to sacrifice for each other. It would never have worked, but we have had a great relationship through the years.”
Evert married the British Davis Cup player John Lloyd in 1979. They divorced nine years later. She has been married to former US Olympic skier Andy Mill since 1988 and they are the proud parents of three sons (ages eight, 10 and 12). Connors married the former Playboy Playmate of the Year Patti McGuire in 1979. They have a 24-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter.
Both champions were fittingly rewarded for their enduring devotion to the sport. Evert celebrated seven years as the greatest woman player in tennis while Connors spent five years in a row at No1 in the world. She won 18 majors including six US Opens and a record seven French Open Championships. Connors collected eight majors, capturing the US Open five times on three different surfaces.
However, the good fortune shared by both Americans when they won Wimbledon in 1974 as “The Lovebird Double” evaporated. She reached 10 Wimbledon finals but came away with only three titles. He appeared in six finals, taking the tournament twice.
Connors once said he much preferred the exhilarated US Open audiences to those at Wimbledon. “I love the US Open,” he said, “with the fans going crazy. But at Wimbledon the fans seem to be sitting on their hands. That is not my kind of atmosphere.”
And yet, he could not deny that Wimbledon is his sport’s showcase event. During an interview at the 1974 US Open, I told Connors that Arthur Ashe had said that as an American, he would rather win the US Open than any other tournament. Connors replied disdainfully, “Why would Arthur say that? Because I won Wimbledon? Everybody says Wimbledon is the biggest title in the world. Then I win it, and everybody tears it down. Even if I hadn’t won it I would still say Wimbledon is the biggest tournament. If Arthur had won Wimbledon, ask him which title he thinks is the biggest.”
Ironically, Ashe did rule on the Centre Court the following year, upending Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final with a masterful tactical display. It was Ashe’s lone career triumph over Connors, who would not acknowledge the depth of his disappointment. Connors said: “I walked in here with my head held high and I leave the same way.”
Over the next six years, Connors was always a serious contender, but Bjorn Borg knocked him out of the tournament four times and John McEnroe stopped him once. Evert lost to Martina Navratilova seven times between 1978 and 1988, falling five times in the finals against her gifted left-handed rival. In 1982, Connors beat McEnroe in a stirring five-set final. Not since Bill Tilden won Wimbledon in 1921 and 1930 had a men’s champion returned to the summit after such a hiatus. On that occasion, Connors roused the fans with his inimitable brand of all-consuming intensity. As Segura says: “I wish Roger Federer had some of Connors’ killer instinct, because if he did he could become one of the greatest ever.”
Connors and Evert were both inducted at the US Open Court of Champions last September. He said then: “I loved everything about the tennis – the training, the exercise, the sacrifice.”
But most of all, I liked coming out and performing in front of 25,000 people. Some people say I needed that. I didn’t. I needed the tennis. The tennis was what I was all about – my pride and my performance.”
As Evert reflects on her singularly consistent career, she asserts: “I was very proud of what I accomplished and I loved Wimbledon. It was the most challenging and elusive of the majors for me since it was played on grass. There were two or three Wimbledons that I should have won that I did not manage to win, but in 1974 I really got some good breaks and it was thrilling.”
Original article appeared in The Independent Newspaper June 19, 2004 Issue