Ashe v Connors: Remembering a true American epic

Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors shake hands after the match in 1975. Picture: Getty
Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors shake hands after the match in 1975. Picture: Getty
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CATCHING up with John McEnroe’s old doubles partner Peter Fleming last week, I was reminded that the 1980 Wimbledon men’s singles final between Johnny Mac, the man with the shortest fuse in the history of everything, and Bjorn Borg, possessor of the longest, had been one of those matches in which everyone remembers what they were doing as it played out.

Isn’t that a contradiction? How can a match be something everyone remembers if I need reminding about it? Well, that’s tennis as far as I’m concerned. Rather than “I was there” or “I saw it”, your correspondent would be forced to admit: “It was on television but I couldn’t watch. I repeatedly wimped out, willingly tidied my bedroom, returned for a couple of points, did some sunbathing, came back, felt sick, disappeared again.”

Arthur Ashe celebrates his 1975 Wimbledon triumph over compatriot Jimmy Connors. Picture: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty

Arthur Ashe celebrates his 1975 Wimbledon triumph over compatriot Jimmy Connors. Picture: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty

Tennis is the greatest sport in the world and also the most excruciating, stretching out my large intestine like net-cord. I can’t wait for it to come round then wish it had never started. Wimbledon is bad enough watching from behind the sofa and I don’t know how the spectators do it, especially those women of a certain age with their pac-a-macs and their hot flushes and their Tupperware, because the tension must be unbearable. I mean, Cliff Richard could start singing at any minute.

Thus when Clive James, doyen of goggle-box critics, who admired the veteran commentator Dan Maskell’s sheer longevity, hailed Borg v McEnroe as the greatest match since Henry VIII commanded Maskell to play a couple of sets with him, I was happy to concur without having had to sit through too many of those brilliant, gut-churning rallies.

Nelson Mandela remembered where he was for that final and told McEnroe when they met. It couldn’t have been anywhere other than Robben Island where he was allowed to follow its thundering progress on the prison radio. What about the final five years earlier? Same place for Mandela, although history doesn’t record if he got to listen to that one. You hope he did for its deep and lasting significance, the new champion declaring his ambition one fine day to meet the incarcerated civil rights leader. The feeling must have been mutual.

Arthur Ashe was the first black player to win the men’s singles, remains the only one to do it, and to emerge victorious he had to beat Jimmy Connors. This match wasn’t anywhere near the greatest or the best final, but you know my views on such matters. Of all the ones I wished I could have stuck around for, this was it – the most unwatchably hypnotic of them all. Thankfully this is the 40th anniversary year so there are documentaries like Friday’s Arthur Ashe: More Than a Champion and books like Peter Bodo’s Ashe vs Connors (Aurum Press) to confirm this wasn’t just a match, and a grudge match at that, but a true American epic.

Connors married a Playboy model while Ashe dedicated himself to social activism

The ’75 final was such a terrifying prospect because Connors might have won and we didn’t want that. Not after, in the previous final, he’d prevented Ken Rosewall from finally triumphing at Wimbledon by absolutely thrashing the great Aussie stylist, an act of blasphemy akin to peeing in the trophy and keeping back a dribble for the front row’s Tupperware. Not after he’d got to snog Chrissie Evert.

It was a final of violent opposites, not least tennis’s past versus its future. Here was youth versus serenity, loutishness versus good manners, a bad haircut (Prince Valiant lankness having replaced something even worse, a squaddie’s bowl-cut) versus a cool afro to match that of Gil Scott-Heron. And of course black versus white.

Connors grunted but was never a grunt. That is, he emitted a horrible noise before striking the ball – Clive James reckoned bamboozled opponents tried to return his grunts rather than his shots – but he was never a soldier. Ashe had been in the US Army and walked like it, ramrod straight. Connors was Wimbledon’s first grunter, first sloucher, first scuffer. (Quick, get referee Alan Mills on court now!). He was the first showman of tennis’s open era and he believed the world was his for the taking.

Not quite, Jimbo, not in ’75. Against the sport’s first yob stood the last gentleman, a patriot dedicated to the Davis Cup who wore his competition jacket at the final, which probably wound up Connors who’d already filed a defamation lawsuit against Ashe for questioning his allegiance to the flag (Connors had recently missed the Davis Cup for the lucre of a Las Vegas exhibition match). The defending champ actually hit Ashe with two lawsuits, the other addressed to him in his role as president of the players’ union from which Connors rebelled, ensuring manager Bill Riordan was a busy man in the lead-up to the final. Even more so when Connors suffered a knee injury and, according to the player, Riordan sprinted to the nearest bookmaker’s to place a whopping bet on Ashe. There’s loyalty for you.

We know Arthur’s “Most like to meet… ” For Jimbo it was Dean Martin. Ashe was a great reader; Connors boasted he’s never read a book in his life. Ashe travelled the world, taking it all in; Connors almost caused an international incident in Ecuador during another exhibition match with his crude antics. And at Wimbledon the scholar beat the crotch-hugger in four sets.

You’d have to say they continued down wildly divergent paths after that. Connors married a Playboy model while Ashe dedicated himself to social activism and writing a three-volume history of the African-American athlete.

Then, around the time Connors was failing an audition to become host of the TV game show Wheel of Fortune, Ashe contracted HIV, most likely through a blood transfusion during previous heart surgery. He died in 1993.

In the great American epic, there was the odd similarity between the two men. Ashe was obviously a tennis outsider but Connors considered himself one, too. And both were raised under the strong influence of a single parent. Ashe was brought up by his father to always call “in” an opponent’s return landing near a line, even if it was out. The young Jimbo was coached by his mother who urged: “Knock the ball down my throat.”

Connors made it easy for us to cast him as the bad guy and revelled in the role. But later he got me to quite like him and view his schlock as characterful when compared with the new brat McEnroe and the automatons who followed. Tennis – a fantastic, maddening sport. And what a match that was in ’75. So they tell me, anyway.