NEW YORK — The fans poured out of the subway trains and streamed across the boardwalk and clogged the front gates three hours before the match began.
The air was warm and thick on a cloudless summer evening under the lights at the National Tennis Center. The U.S. Open was hitting its stride.
Connors vs. McEnroe.
But this was neither a rematch nor a rebirth. It was a drama that stretched across the night and into the early morning.
Jimmy Connors went against John McEnroe's youngest brother Patrick, and he won, 4-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, completing one of the great comebacks in the history of the sport. The first-round match began last night at 9:15 p.m. at a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium and ended this morning at 1:35 in front of 4,000 screaming true believers, as Connors emerged with the triumph after falling behind two sets and three games.
"I think this is the biggest comeback, for a lot of reasons," Connors said. "I was going against a McEnroe. Patrick let me in the match the third set, and the crowd won it for me."
Six days before his 39th birthday, Connors came back to his 21st Open after a one-year absence. Slowed by age and injuries, the five-time Open champion was No. 174 in the world rankings. The only thing modern about Connors' old-fashioned baseline game was his neon green racket.
McEnroe was No. 35. Unlike his more famous older brother, he is a right-hander and a baseliner who exhibits a calm, gentlemanly manner on the court.
"If I was in the crowd, I would have been rooting for Jimmy, too," McEnroe said. "You have to play the player, and that's what I was trying to do. Unfortunately, I didn't put him away when I should have. I thought I had the match won. But if you think you've got Jimmy Connors beat, that is when he is at his most dangerous."
Connors played like he didn't know not only what time it was, but also what year it was. This could have been Wimbledon in 1987, when he came from 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 down to beat Mikael Pernfors. Or maybe it was the Open in 1971 at Forest Hills when a cursing, snarling Connors came from two sets back to beat Alex Olmedo.
This was extraordinary stuff. Patrick McEnroe leveling Connors in the first set, applying a staggering blow in the second set tie-breaker, and racing ahead by 3-0 and 0-40 against Connors' serve in the third set.
And then here came Connors, limping around the court, clutching his left calf, refusing to give in. Connors holding his serve to come back to 1-3. Connors breaking back on McEnroe and pulling away with the third set, the clock ticking past midnight.
A fourth set with Connors screaming at the skies, shaking his racket, inciting the fans. Connors yelling at chair umpire Dana Loconto of Gadsden, Ala., to reverse an ace, the crowd standing and cheering. The clock striking 12:25 a.m. and here was Connors unloading a forehand passer for the break that would give him the set.
The fifth. The clock ticking past 1 a.m. Connors breaking McEnroe in the third game. The clock hitting 1:34 a.m. The third match point and here was Connors unloading a serve and McEnroe popping the ball into the air and the crowd screaming and Connors standing at the baseline his arms raised in triumph.
C7 Breakfast at Flushing Meadow never was any sweeter.