' ' Cinema Romantico: 30 For 30: This Is What They Want

Saturday, November 02, 2013

30 For 30: This Is What They Want

Often films in ESPN’s lauded “30 for 30” documentary series have been too meek in putting their primary subjects through the ringer in an effort to appease and/or lionize them, which merely make for fan-friendly greatest hits compilations rather than box sets that truly dig around in the past, present and future to capture an entire life. “Jordan Rides The Bus”, for instance, chronicling Michael Jordan’s ill-fated stint as a minor league baseball player came across like a biographer too in awe of its own subject to ask the tough questions. The recent “Nine for 1X” doc about Mary Decker Slaney – an American middle distance runner I greatly admire – skimped on her ass-hattery toward Zola Budd after their infamous collision at the 1984 Olympics and completely disregarded her doping controversy at the 1996 Olympic Trials. What did Lester Bangs say in “Almost Famous”? Ah yes, “If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.”

“This Is What They Want” - which debuted this past Tuesday - is honest and unmerciful. And perhaps it is honest and unmerciful because its subject, tennis legend Jimmy Connors, was honest and unmerciful. It’s not simply that so many talking heads interviewed refer to Connors as an “asshole”, it’s that Connors refers to himself as an “asshole”. But, he amends, pointing right at the camera, at us, “a happy asshole.” He was also, however, one helluva a tennis player, which even those who consider him an asshole – tennis greats like John McEnroe and tennis commentators like Mary Carrillo – consider to be an absolute truth. He was anti-establishment – perhaps, in a way, to a greater extreme than even the notoriously foul-mouthed McEnroe – in a sport that gives off such a distinct of air of establishment.

Connors’ whole story is seen through the prism of the 1991 U.S. open when, at the (for-a-tennis-player) ancient age of 39 he entered as a wild card and made an improbable run to the semi-finals. One of the film’s neatest observations, one I had never much considered, is regarding the U.S. Open itself. “It’s America’s Grand Slam,” says ESPN commentator Chris Fowler, “but it’s New York’s tournament.” I loved that, and it’s true. The weird weather, the jetliners streaking the sky above the courts, the matches that last late into the night/morning so that the two blend into some never-ending Lou Reed song dressed up in natty, sweat-strewn tennis shirts and Rafael Nadal-esque headbands with Maria Sharapova shrieks for backing vocals. Thus, it seems so fitting that Conners would make his last stand in The City That Never Sleeps, since coincidentally he didn’t sleep after his two-sets-down comeback against Patrick McEnroe (John’s Brother) in his first match lasting deep into the night/morning.

The film follows Connors’ charge, the stakes and emotion escalating with each match, until he is conquered in the semis by Jim Courier while looking like every one of his 39 years. Not that it matters by that point. “One last time,” says longtime sportswriter Mike Lupica in quoting someone else. That’s what Connors got, and what we wish all our favorite sports stars would get before the end – one last time to show what they once were and to be that way again. They mention the actual winner of the tournament, but it doesn’t matter. Connors was the people’s champion – the irascible, unlikable Connors somehow became lovable if only for a fortnight.

Not that he wasn’t still irascible and unlikable, hollering at officials and displaying mind-games for tactics that while effective still paint his ethics as questionable. Perhaps what I found most fascinating about “This Is What They Want” was Aaron Krickstein, Connors’ opponent in the fourth-round match that Fowler termed “the summit.” In an epic five-set slugfest, the wunder-thirtysomething outlasted Krickstein, barely, employing all amount of psychological trickery, berating officials and earning the crowd’s noisy adoration.

The film tags itself, however, with a brief what-became-of Krickstein (who is interviewed throughout) segment, and Krickstein is honest in admitting both the match’s long-lasting emotional effect and how his life in general has not gone quite the way he has wanted since leaving tennis. It’s quietly heartbreaking. And then the kicker. He admits Connors, once a friend, has never talked to him since that day in 1991. We see various talking heads being told this too, and their reaction is similar to yours – “Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!” And Connors does not mince words when pressed, saying that for him to reach out to Krickstein "just wouldn't be me." It’s a painful and painfully true insight into the mind of what made Connors such a mad genius.

One of the last shots shows Connors re-taking that same US Open court so many years later, this time the stands devoid of the cheering throng. It is incredibly perfect. He urged the crowd on and it replied in kind. He gave them what they wanted, yes, but for Connors to go where he did for so long was not so much a product of those people but his ability to isolate himself from everyone and go to a place understood only by him.

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