Commentator Connors talks about players past and present

August 04, 1991|By Mike Penner | Mike Penner,Los Angeles Times

What Jimmy Connors had for lunch Saturday:

Cobb salad.

Turkey club sandwich on white toast.

Iced tea.

Hot-and-spicy opinions on old friends, old enemies, old enemies-turned-friends, new players, new trends, new twists and a certain 38-year-old dog who keeps biting 22-year-old hands in professional tennis tournaments around the globe.

Connors has been supplying commentary all his life; it's only in the past two years that he has been doing it for money, for the television cameras of NBC. "They hired me to be in the booth the same way I played my tennis," Connors said. "Straightforward and honest.

"And I am."

Somewhere Saturday, a good many ears underneath a good many headbands were burning.

"Everybody still plays great tennis," Connors said, "but something is lacking now. We used to have guys like Nastase and McEnroe, the guys with the personalities who were not afraid to say something and smile and show you how they feel. They just don't have that now."

Not from serve-and-volley-and-say-nothing Stefan Edberg, not from God-is-my-doubles-partner Michael Chang, not even from image-is-everything Andre Agassi.

"Image is a lot," Connors admitted, the biggest allowance he has ever granted Agassi, "but the tennis is the main reason people come to see you. If you're saying, 'Image is everything,' and not winning the major tournaments, people will put up with that for a while and then they lose interest. They think, 'What's going on here? We want to see the guy play the tennis and he's not performing to the level he said he would.'

"My grandmother told me, 'You can do anything as long as you back it up.' McEnroe was not afraid to back it up. He said it; he backed it up. Borg, he didn't say anything, but whatever he said, he backed it up. I certainly wasn't shy and I backed it up.

"So, it's a different time."

This is not to suggest, of course, that Borg and McEnroe, contemporaries from the gilded age, are immune from the two-fisted backhand.

Borg, according to Connors, committed the unpardonable sin of quitting too soon, in his mid-20s, in his prime, and thus deprived the sport its version of the Ali-Frazier wars -- Borg-Connors and Borg-McEnroe.

Worse yet, when Borg attempted his Spitzian comeback this spring, "he came out with the same hairdo with the same kind of racket he had in the '70s. It was almost like he wanted to turn the clock back eight or nine years. And if he wanted to do that, he should've stayed in the game.

"I've talked to Mac in the last year or so about that and if two people ever had a gripe over why somebody got out of the game, it's he and I. Just because of what we had and the kind of matches that we played. [Borg] wants to explain to his fans why he wants to come back. Explain to me and Mac why he left. That's what I want to know.

"I'm not his keeper. I'm sure he had a lot of things on his mind at the time. But now, don't come back and say, 'I miss the game' and all that. I say, if you miss it, how come you didn't miss it the last eight years, when you were still young enough to go out and play it?"

Connors and McEnroe talk about a lot of things, now that the calendar reads 1991 and not 1981. "We've become quite good friends in the last few years," Connors said. "At the beginning, we were at constant war, on and off the court. When you have two guys with the same attitude competing against each other )) at such a high level, it's very difficult to be friends. But that's changed."

Even if McEnroe hasn't. His kick-spit-and-default act last week against Derrick Rostagno drew a tsk, tsk, tsk from Connors, who saw the advantage in sanitizing a superbrat reputation -- e.g., high-paying jobs in the lucrative field of sports broadcasting -- long before Mac had a clue.

"I saw that," Connors said of the Rostagno incident. "It wasn't too good. Actually, Wimbledon wasn't too good, either. I think Mac's a little bit frustrated because he doesn't have his game at the level he wants. I think he still feels he can compete, but he doesn't want to pay the price to go out and work at it and do it. He gets a little frustrated.

"When you get to a certain age, you've got to be the best you can. Always. When you're younger, you can get by with a lot. Mac was so good and so talented, he didn't have to be at his absolute best to win. Now he does. Maybe that's tough for him to realize."

Still, a Mac attack, in Connors' view, is no reason to default, in Connors' view, one of the two greatest American male tennis players.

"You default a player like McEnroe, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face," Connors said. "He's the guy people come out and see. I wasn't paying attention to who he was playing, but I'm sure the people weren't there to watch him."

Connors is still grinding it out, as he puts it, one month shy of his 39th birthday, still reaching the third round at Wimbledon and the French Open, because the torch is not ready to be handed down. Well, that and the money. Money first, torch second.

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