Despite his default to Chang, Connors plays a match for the ages

June 02, 1991|By Jim Sarni | Jim Sarni,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

PARIS -- Jimmy Connors lashed a backhand return for th break, and as he walked to his chair for the changeover, everyone at Stade Roland Garros stood up and roared.

The noise didn't cease as Connors got up, poured water over his head to wash away the sweat and the tears, wrapped his face in a towel and returned to the court to serve out the fourth set against Michael Chang.

Connors double-faulted to 15-30, but then ripped a forehand, and you could feel 17,000 hearts riding the ball into the open court. Chang missed a backhand. It was set point. But Connors netted a backhand, and the mournful scream could be heard down to the Seine.

Somehow, Connors' backhand approach at deuce dribbled off the net chord and landed on Chang's side. Another set point, Connors nearly aced, but the ball whispered off the net.

Chang netted the next return.

Fourth set to Connors, match to the ages.

Connors did not win the fifth set and the match. He won the first point of the final set, and then called it quits. The heart was willing, but the body was not. His back had ached from the third set, and he would not be able to walk up the stairs to the locker room without help.

"I'm the last guy who's going to stop a match like that, with 18,000 people rocking like they were," said the 38-year-old Connors.

"I was going to push myself to play the fourth set, no matter what, but to play the fifth set was worthless. If there had been any chance to continue I would have, believe me."

With his 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6 (retired) victory, Chang advanced to the round of 16 with second-seeded Boris Becker, fourth-seeded Andre Agassi and seventh-seeded Guy Forget.

Becker beat Wally Masur 6-3, 6-3, 6-2; Agassi trounced Patrick McEnroe 6-2, 6-2, 6-0; and Forget, the French favorite, eliminated 18-year-old South African qualifier Magnus Ondruska 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

Steffi Graf, Mary Joe Fernandez and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario reached the round of 16 in the women's event.

Graf, a two-time champion, demolished Shaun Stafford 6-0, 6-1; Fernandez, the fourth seed, ousted Finnish qualifier Petra Thoren 6-4, 6-3; and Sanchez, the 1990 champion, flattened Bettina Fulco 6-1, 6-1.

But enough with the numbers. Friday at roarin' Roland Garros was not about numbers. It was about the triumph of the human spirit.

Jimmy Connors has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, all the Grand Slam championships but the French Open, but people may cherish what they watched on the red clay Friday.

"I was run ragged for four hours. My back is stiff, but it was fun," said Connors with a smile that shined as bright as all those trophies.

"I play for the fun of it. The people were stomping and cheering, the stadium was rocking. That is a kick like you can't believe."

Connors, ranked No. 324 after missing most of a year with a wrist injury, was not supposed to win his first round match against Todd Witskin. He was not supposed to beat Ronald Agenor in the second round, in a fifth set no less.

And, of course, Connors had no chance against Chang, who won the French Open in 1989, is 19 and can hit and run forever.

But there was Connors winning the opening set, and up an early break in the second.

Chang came back to win the second set, breaking Connors in the final game, after failing to cash in on two set points in the 10th game.

Connors would cave in now, but he broke in the first game of the third set. Then the back pain started.

Bill Norris, the ATP trainer from Coral Springs, rubbed warm massage cream on his lower back during the 2-1 changeover. Norris offered Connors electrolyte tablets during the next changeover, but Connors didn't want them.

"Jimmy is his own man," said Norris, who has been treating Connors for two decades. "He never believed in taking them."

Connors lost six straight games and the third set, but he did not give up.

"There's enough of the maniac in Jimmy that he believes he can win," Agassi said before the match.

Connors broke Chang in the first game of the fourth set, and the rumble started again in the stadium.

The French fans, who love a good tennis match like they love a good wine, began to nurse Connors through the fourth set.

On every big point, the fans began the rhythmic clapping you might hear at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field when the home fans want a hit.

"I didn't think Jimmy had the energy to win the fourth set," Chang said. "But Jimmy Connors doesn't get tired. His energy comes from other sources. Where, I don't know."

Connors was down 15-40, but held for 2-0. When he connected with a backhand winner to pull out the game, you thought he'd won the match, or the whole tournament, the roar was so loud. Was that the Eiffel Tower in the background, shaking from the vibrations?

Connors held for 3-1. A marvelous drop shot on the line. They were going to have something to talk about in the sidewalk cafes along Saint Germain long into the night.

Connors saved another break point and held for 4-2. "Jim-mee!"

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