JP Pelosi on how left-handed genius conquered the U.S. Open.
A recent article in Scientific American suggested left-handed people are more creative. Studies have led scientists to believe that lefties can process language, spatial relations, and emotions in more diverse and potentially inventive ways than their right-handed counterparts. This presumably helps left-handers outwit right-handers on the tennis court, too.
But what happens when lefty faces lefty?
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were two of the game’s most creative minds. When they met in the U.S. Open semi-final on September 6, 1980, it was the greatest display of left-handed prowess ever seen in the men’s game—a match both men later claimed as their favourite to The New York Times. Each fostered his own version of genius, which when pitted against the other, locked, like the horns of butting rams. They mentally bore into one another, attempting to unravel a mirrored image across the net, and in a sense, conquer their own inhibitions. It’s one thing to outrun a Grand Slam field loaded with right-handers, after all, but an entirely different proposition to meet your nemesis in the semis without an ace up your sleeve—the rarity of your left-handedness!
And so, while their meeting was spectacular, it was also awkward, like Superman confronting the mortal version of himself: Special powers suddenly nullified, and the limits of potential quashed into a level plain. The question for each, then, was how to beat a brick wall?
McEnroe wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Serious, that he always saw things mathematically. Down a set and facing a 3-2 deficit in the fourth against Connors, he’d undoubtedly calculated the slim chances of clawing back. But while McEnroe was a prolific on-court strategist, he was also fueled by a simmering rage, which allowed him to not only exhaust tension, but propel through any obstacle. He would call upon that fire in the late summer of ’80, knowing unequivocally that his left-handed arsenal would not be enough—especially not after revealing much of it to Connors in the same match a year earlier.
Connors was also more experienced. And yet, something scuttled his offense that day. He was up on his toes, attacking—always attacking—but with no restraint when the moment called for it. He was overzealous on his forehand return, and undisciplined on his backhand pass. Subsequently, most rallies died early, gasping for air. McEnroe sensed this anxiety, and disjointedness, and reveled in the self-destruction of his rival. But then again, he too was prone to self-inflicted wounds.
McEnroe saw his opponent’s head dip, as if some metaphysical aspect—or kryptonite!—overpowered him, and Connors couldn’t summon the magic he’d yielded so many times before to withstand it. Because here, in McEnroe, was a younger version of himself, equally as aggressive and similarly defiant. What technique or angle could he possibly conjure, as the fourth set began to slip from his grasp? Yes, he had overcome McEnroe’s early blood rush, and now controlled the duel. But as is commonly the case in tennis, the mid-game differential can weigh more heavily on the protagonist.
And so, at love-thirty in sixth game of the fourth set, McEnroe capitalized. He awaited Connors serve with low sway, tiring, and yet sifting through his capacity for a speck of inspiration. Connors, too, seemed worn, or at least uncomfortable as he prepared to serve. He tucked his bearded chin into his breast. He wiped his brow and bounced the ball methodically. McEnroe’s eyes sharpened, sensing a momentum shift—the prospect of ascension. Connors’ serve unfolded and swerved to the middle, and McEnroe dug it out awkwardly, perhaps expectedly, given the tremendous depth he achieved on the move. Following a couple of windmill forehands, each man lunging, McEnroe lobbed the ball desperately to the backhand side. While low and within reach, Connors jerked his racket back, certain the shot was long. But it fell, and feathered impossibly down to the baseline. Connors’ head cast back in disbelief, his arms flapping by his side like a man who’d scaled the jailhouse wall only to see sharks circle the water below. McEnroe, breathless, had found something. The wind swept up at the back of his curly main. The tide had turned. Like his left-handed idol, Rod Laver, McEnroe’s counter-punch was quick and subtle.
At double break-point, Connors tugged nervously at his shirt, then his shorts, stuffing balls into his pocket, then bouncing them on his racket. He might have wished for sudden rain to delay the next point. But he hardened for a moment with a clever serve and volley that wrong-footed his compatriot—a glimmer, as McEnroe tightened. It felt like an eternity before Connors next service. It was well-placed though, and McEnroe parried it long, whacked his racket into the green cement, and began an agitated soliloquy which concluded with a shaking head, as such utterances often did. He dropped into he receiving stance like a rag doll, loosely again, somewhat dejected. Connors fidgeted at the other end. Neither man’s demeanor revealed what was to come: A swashbuckling exchange of glorious forehands and leaping backhands, each repelled by scrambling defense, culminating with a scorching Connors backhand to the baseline. It was a moment of pure inspiration, and the crowd erupted.
The majority of U.S. Open champions have been right-handed, including the most recent, Novak Djokovic. In fact, of the last 25 U.S. Open champs, only one has been left-handed—Rafael Nadal in 2010. It’s a trend likely to continue this year with Nadal’s absence from the tournament due to knee soreness. But between 1974 and 1984, a left-hander—John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, or Manuel Orantes—won eleven straight times. There was no such run prior to ’74, nor since. It was truly the Age of Left-Handed Enlightenment.
McEnroe had a look of disdain. Time to act. He cut Connors’ tightly wound serve with a simply conceived but elegantly executed forehand, which popped up short, enticingly one would think, but not so for Connors who sent it too far once more. The next rally, by contrast, was long and rhythmic, with each man equal to the other’s offense, and perhaps unprepared to push the point. It ended with Connors erring on a volley. And now the crowd sensed the tipping point.
Able to leap tall buildings is a single bound…
Another rapid exchange followed—a decisive one—in which both players scurried about, this time more earnestly, determined to bust through that wall. Connors had the upper hand, but once again, flustered by McEnroe’s persistence, nudged the ball wide. Connors stared at the line, desperate for an overrule, or perhaps he was just paralysed by the reality of his undoing. The set was now tied, 3-3, and the contest had turned in a second. With momentum on his side, McEnroe would eventually level at two sets apiece.
Into the final stanza: McEnroe’s mistakes undermined his surge. But Connors, as tenacious as he was impatient, squandered every opportunity. It seemed impossible that the lean and athletic Connors with his preppy haircut and General Zod beard could be rattled by the young, brash Superbrat, whose erratic emotion was a glaring achilles heel. But perhaps the bullish Connors could not move past the similarities he shared with his opponent. He was more gritty, but not superior. At least not in this instance.
Consider three of the greatest men’s players of the modern era: Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl, and Bjorn Borg—all right-handers. Depending on who you talk to, any of these men could be No.1 on the all-time list, and yet, none of them were immune to left-handed mastery. Borg, the smoothest and most seamless hitter to ever play, was disarmed by McEnroe; Connors undermined Lendl’s relentless power; and, only Nadal has proven capable of unnerving the sublime, Roger Federer. Of the true greats, perhaps only Pete Sampras was left to his own devices. But had he a left-handed foil—a McEnroe, Connors, or say Nadal—would the the titles have stacked up?
Left-handed and superhuman…
Suddenly Connors slashed a forehand winner off the tape beyond McEnroe, and the elation shook from his toes up, this time into that famous double finger thrust. The crowd roared—was he back? McEnroe looked disgusted, as if the very idea of winning a point in such fashion was cheap and contemptible—a sleight against his angst-ridden artistry. Back and forth they went, more big serves and giant returns. Four hours had passed and yet, somehow, McEnroe’s serve seemed to hasten. Finally, Connors broke with a blistering return—onto the toes again, pelvis forward, fists up in triumph. Five all! There appeared no way out of this torturous labyrinth. The crowd rose as one, stunned and jubilant. This was New York, after all, where people go bloodshot for nights like this.
Soon, McEnroe appeared to wither. He leaned against the ropes like a lumbering heavyweight into the final round. Connors had rediscovered his touch and confidence. But, of course, McEnroe was never an easy out, and Connors painfully kept missing what commentator Pat Summerall would call “sitters”. Sitters wide, long, and into the net. And because McEnroe botched fewer of them, a differential was slowly appearing.
Connors fought to the end, but by that stage, the inherent evenness between the two began to ripple. Connors imploded. In the blink of an eye, McEnroe had braved the onslaught, and leapt ahead in the fifth set tie-break, 6-3. By virtue of his steely resolve, and maybe even bitter dislike of Connors, he was the last mind standing.
McEnroe shook Connors’ hand with a fast grip and stoned-face. Each man clutched his racket in his left hand, and headed to his respective chair like executives in a boardroom. But not before a brief salute to the crowd from McEnroe. The puzzle was solved for now, but they would meet again. There was no question of that, Jimmy.
JP Pelosi is a sports writer and the editor of Why Football Is Cool, a blog about pro football trends, ideas and culture. He has written for The Globe and Mail, The Virginian Pilot, Inside Hoops, The Bleacher Report and Technorati’s football blog The Gridiron Grind.