ESPN 30 for 30: This is What They Want (2013)

Directed by Brian Koppleman & Brian Levien

Tennis has long been a sport of privilege. Played on the restricted grounds of country clubs across the nation. The proper gentlemen’s sport. I myself never played the game until a bout a $20 racket in college and played on the courts available on campus. It is a tough game, one that demands precision, endurance, power and finesse. Jimmy Connors was not from privilege, and he was most certainly not a gentleman. He was, however, a superb tennis player, one that sporadically dominated the sport and left anyone he encountered in his competitive wake.

In 1991, at the age of 39, seemingly ancient in a sport where teenagers and twentysomethings tend to reign, Jimmy Connors did something nobody saw coming. He made it to the semifinals of the US Open, surprising each opponent he ultimately beat along the way. Such a polarizing character of the game, he brought thousands to the sport and shone a bright light on the sport that summer with his unexpected Cinderella run. People who never watched the sport, never played the sport, rallied behind this enormous personality on the court and cheered him to victory, with noticeable contributions in both emotion and sonic persuasion.

Where the 30 for 30 series tends to fall on its face is when it wants to be nothing more than a recap highlight show of the event the installment is covering. Luckily for us, Koppleman and Levien do not fall into that hole and manage to intercut the tense and exciting match footage with compelling interviews and testimonies of personal experience. The editing is quick and slick, molding topics together with ease. Connors remains as energetic and controversial as ever. When I was growing up, it was Tiger Woods bringing something new and exciting to a game of high societal history. The game of golf was a white gentleman’s game. Tiger was black. Heck, he wasn’t even black, he was Asian too, bringing an energy of youth, and with it throngs of new, young fans of the game. The two have quite a bit in common.

However, Connors was always controversial, Tiger only became that after his secrets got out. Connors competitive spirit was alienating to his opponents. The sports, given, are different. While both are individual sports, tennis is 1 on 1, quite different than golf can be, where you are competing against many more in a tournament. How Connors acted on the court fired up crowds. His antics inspired fear in his opponents and even the judges. For that he should be applauded for being such a powerful influence over his atmosphere, to bring the venue to his side as an added skill or talent to win the match. His behavior with Aaron Kirkstein, and his behavior with the judges is inexcusable however. It may be one thing to gain the support of the crowd, to fire them up to be on your side, but there is no need to embarrass the judges for the sake of personal gain, there is no need throw tantrums like a 2 year old to get your way.

But worse, there is no need to get what you need out of a “friend” like Kirkstein, someone willing to call you a “friend”, and then leave him behind in the dust never to speak to him again. That fact and that fact alone is what makes Connors the giant asshole Patrick McEnroe claims him to be. He is competitive. He wants to win. His antics were immature. While it was inspiring to see an old man make a run like he did in the US Open, to get the crowd on his side, seeing what he did and how he did it, I’m not a fan.

*** – Good

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