Summer of ’91

Sep 8, 2011 by

It began and ended for me over a two week period in late August 1991.  The 20th anniversary of the apex of my engagement with men’s professional tennis abruptly concluded all too soon.  Those two weeks also symbolized an end to a summer that shaped and influenced pop culture for my generation.  On a New York September afternoon in 1991, Jim Courier ended one of the all-time top exciting tournament runs, when he dismissed Jimmy Connor 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 in the semi-final of the US Open.  I am often conflicted with the thought that tennis and summer will never mean as much for me quite like it did in 1991.

Jimmy Connors was a player of my parents’ era.  As an avid follower of men’s professional tennis, even as a youngster, I knew everything about the Iconic American tennis player.  I knew he won 8 career grand slam titles, had long stints ranked number one in the world, one of the first on tour to use a two-handed backhand, his stick of choice was Wilson’s T2000, dated Chris Evert, and married a Playboy model.  I cheered for him like any sports fan would, begging and pleading for one last glimpse of his greatness.   Connors entered the 1991 US Open as an afterthought.  He played sparingly in 1991, retiring against Michael Chang in the third round of the French Open, bounced from Wimbledon before the second week, and played only four matches prior to the US Open.  In 1990, Connors managed only to play three matches over the course of the year due to a major wrist injury.  His career seemed all but finished.  I had no use for Connors, he had not been a factor in a major since my grade school days and I was much more interested keeping tabs on players from my generation; Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, and Boris Becker.  Connors, 39 years of age, was considered a fossil, afterall age 30 was over-the-hill for tennis professionals.   He was washed up, a has-been, a pleasant memory, and a lunatic for trying to compete against players half his age.  No one on the planet felt Connors had anything left in the tank.  Everyone was wrong.

I cared for little in 1991.  All my energy and efforts in life were dialed in to three categories; girls, sports, and music.  That summer, my father sent me off to work at his companies’ distribution center, preparing clothes for shipment to TJ Maxx stores throughout the Midwest.  The remainder of my summer was spent on tennis and basketball courts. Our cars were filled with the sounds of new and interesting music.  Though my friends and I often thought about and discussed girls, none of us extended meaningful attempts to change our fate in hopes of dating them.  As we sat each day between pickup games that summer, we were positive girls would eventually show up to watch us play.  They never did.  We were completely delusional.

Jimmy Connors was more relevant to Gen Xer’s than one might think at first glance.  He possessed traits and characteristics of those of who grew up in times of divorced homes and microwaved dinners.  We were a generation that spawned ESPN and MTV.  Republican administrations dominated the era’s political landscape.  Raised by his mother and grandmother, Connors had no relationship with his father.   He kicked the asses of elitist country club juniors.  He was unlike the stoic European tennis pro and owned the attitude of John McEnroe before McEnroe.  He was fiery and temperamental.  At times,  he was overly sensitive to crowds that turned against him.  He shouted obscenities towards fans and even flipped them off.  He was a loner, different from his peers, and beat his own drum. He never wanted to be someone else or cater to the ideals of others.  Connors was Midwestern and so was I.  He was not considered hugely talented nor was I.  He survived three decades of wear and tear of the ATP Tour, I survived high school.

Boy’s high school tennis in the state of Indiana begins a week before the start of school.  My brother, an incoming freshman, and I would leave practice for home, mom would have dinner ready, and then we both would tune in for the night session coverage of the US Open on the USA Network.

I recall the two weeks of the Connors’ run vividly, this coming from someone who remembers nothing prior to 1986 or any details of the last week.   I remember it was a night match, and I had no real anticipation or excitement.  I even finished up homework.   Connors first round match was against John’s little brother, Patrick McEnroe.   McEnroe won the first set with ease and won a tie break in the second.  I drifted to sleep.  I woke to what sounded like someone screaming directly in my ear.  It was the New York crowd witnessing a Jimmy Connors “turn back the clock” night.  It was past midnight, and everyone in the stands had to be drunk.  All tennis fan etiquette was thrown out the window.  Patrick McEnroe, a native New Yorker, might as well have been raised in Boston and sporting Red Sox apparel.  Connors won the next two sets to push it to decisive fifth set.  McEnroe was toast and he knew it.  I couldn’t wait to get to tennis practice the next day.

There is a moment in the 1986 film Stand by Me, the narrator, played by Richard Dreyfuss, asks the question, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?”  I feel this way about my friends of that time.  We were sixteen, dumb, and cocky.  We spent every day with each other and got into more shit than we bargained for.   Not one of us had a date that summer. We were scared Catholic boys who knew little about sex except for what the porn film director wanted us to know from a third generation VHS tape of his film.  It would have been nice to get laid, (or even make out) but what would I have missed out on?  Maybe a girl would have dragged me to her house to hang out, instead of being a passenger in a friend’s car that got its back window shot out by an insane dentist wielding a gun.  Maybe a girl would have insisted I take her to the mall, where I watched her shop for things I could care less about instead of playing hours upon hours of RBI Baseball.  Maybe a girl would have rather me pay for CD’s at the record store, instead of being a decoy for Stu as he marched out with new music underneath his shirt for us to enjoy.  Maybe a girl wouldn’t agree to listen to the poetry of Too Short or NWA blaring from my car (Dad’s car) speakers, instead forcing me to settle on the latest offerings from Gloria Estefan and Roxette.  Maybe a girl would have wanted me to attend a movie, rather than mixing it up on a public court with former NBA alum Walter McCarty.  Maybe a girl would have liked for me to engage in conversations about my feelings or emotions, rather than arguing with my friends about who’s the NBA’s best; Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.  Maybe a girl would have loved for me to hang with her annoying friends, rather than losing another five set marathon against my brother in tennis.  Maybe a girl would think poorly of us, as my friend Tim and I swigged a 15 year old bottle of Peppermint Schnapps that we stole from his parents’ secret stash.  Maybe girls were not for me that particular summer and I was not for them.  Would I go back and change it?  Maybe, maybe not.  Who knows and who really cares.  What I do know though is I am reading way too much Rob Sheffield these days.

Connors next two matches at the Open were all business and devoid of drama.  A straight set victory over Michiel Schapers followed by an unusual walk in the park win over the 11th ranked Karel Novacek of Czechoslovakia.  Aaron Krickstein waited in the round of 16 and changed how we view rain delays at future US Open telecasts forever.

Music was everything to me.  I dated music and eventually married it.  If I had anything to say to anyone, outside the circle of my friends, somebody on an album said it better, so I said nothing.  I just listened.  Growing up in the 80’s we were forced to have terrible taste.  The 80’s ushered in bright colors, big hair, Kurt Russell action films, and synthesizers.  Eddie Van Halen even set aside his guitar on much of 1984, to fuck around with the synth sound.  I sum up the 80’s as the late great Rick James only could, “Cocaine is a helluva drug.” My friends and I were victims.  It was a slow transition.  Then the spring morphed into that particular summer and it was evident to us what we needed to do.  My friends and I destroyed any evidence of albums we had kept of Poison, Def Leppard, and any other awful soulless band of the 80’s.  We grew up musically, and we were better for it.   Contrary to what every music publication states, 1991 was more than Nirvana, countless monumental albums came out at breathtaking pace.   We couldn’t get enough of it.  New sounds filled our skulls.  I was in love.

Listed at 5’10” 155 pounds in every media guide, Connors appeared  6’8” 250 pounds through the eyes of Aaron Krickstein.  Krickstien was the tennis version of Ralph Macchio, he even looked like him. Similar to Macchio’s film career, Krickstein’s best results occurred early in his tennis playing years.   Krickstein became the youngest male player ever to win a pro event at 16 years of age.   The best match of the decade, in terms of sheer excitement and dramatic theatre was set to begin.  The NY tennis fans were in no way going to let anything ruin the party they were about to throw in honor of Connors.  It was a match that featured a fifth set tiebreaker, the equivalent of an extra inning game seven of the World Series.  Connors won the match, even down two sets to one, 3-6, 7-6(8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(4).  Tennis fans were granted their wish and the old man and his yellow racquet marched to the Quarterfinals.

Now all I wanted to do was play tennis or watch tennis.  I actually tinkered with the idea if I just concentrated on tennis, drop out of school, and go to one of those tennis academies I heard about, I could at least be a doubles specialist on the Tour.  I knew this dream was dead on arrival.  This was no different than me thinking I possessed the smarts to be a surgeon as I rocked a C average and had a PSAT score of most Division 1 college basketball recruits. The reality of not playing tennis for a living still fresh in my mind, I tuned out for awhile and threw on Gish and felt better about myself.  This is what the Jimmy Connors run was doing to people.  It was kind of fucked up.

The quarterfinal match-up was against a German named Paul Haarhuis, who looked eerily similar to my good friend Paul.  Haarhuis was ranked 45 at the time, but most of his success came from favorable doubles results.  Connors had him beat before the USA Network cameras even rolled.  Connors won the match in four sets, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-4, 6-2.  I have nothing more to add on this match, it would be a disservice to anyone reading.  If you witnessed live or watched from home, you know what I am talking about.  Instead click on the YouTube video and watch the point of all points.

The real fun begins at the 1:05 mark-Tennis has never been the same since.

 

Our first match of the year was approaching.  We had a solid team, but we were picked to finish 2nd behind our arch rival Harrison High School.  I was slated for our first match to play number one doubles.  My partner and I easily won our first match and I knew this could end up being a memorable year.  Even if we were not deep enough as a team to move far in the state tournament, I knew my partner and I could be the top doubles pair in the city, potentially making  a run to the state finals.  The next match everything turned for me shattering my confidence and dreams of a special season.  Our number three singles player decided he wanted to play doubles because he was going through some mental strain and stress of singles.  Coach tuned to me and told me I was now going to play three singles for the remainder of the year.  I am tall, slow, with no quality ground strokes for longer rallies in singles.  I sucked at singles.  I sucked all season long.

I stopped watching, I knew what the outcome would be before the first set concluded.  It was a little depressing to see it all end.   Courier was clearly a better tennis player and it showed.  In retrospect,  it was best this way, quick and to the point, without a hint of hope for Connors.  I am not sure how I would feel if Connors had it won and choked it away.  Those type losses are painful and never removed from your conscience.  Connors went as far as he had to, and no one remembers the loss to Courier anyway.  The tournament ended in everyone’s mind after the Haarhuis victory.  By the way, Sweden’s Stefan Edberg won the tournament.

At times, I miss 1991 and what it represented for my friends and I.  We all went off to different places the next year.  The memories are faded but the music adds a hint of brightness to them.  I sometimes tune to the satellite radio station, Lithium, just for a brief moment.  I hear what’s playing and move on to the next channel.

Age can deaden your spirit and outlook on the world.  You peak behind the curtain disappointed in what you uncover.  Your teens and early twenties are replete with everything you experience.  Even during the down and out times.  It cuts your teeth on what you become.  Your soundtrack plays in the background as you overanalyze each experience and figure out the mysteries of relationships. Maybe Jimmy Connors made all this turn on its axis.  I imagine the Jimmy Connors run to the semi-finals that year transcended beyond sports and made people feel something different about themselves, even if the feeling was short lived.  I think back to this time and wondered if Connors made men and women in the twilight of their careers leave for work with new found energy and passion, husbands and wives fuck again, geeky high school boys ask unattainable girls out on dates, college kids see a bright future.  Connors made your friends mattered a little more to you, the music sound better, and the drugs and alcohol taste a little sweeter.  Maybe Connors made us realize age doesn’t really matter after all.  That is why we tune into sports.

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