NEW YORK — They stand five deep to watch 38 going on 16 wave his fluorescent, lime-green racket on a practice court. Boris Becker stops by. So does Gabriela Sabatini. Vitas Gerulaitis bows.
Jimmy Connors shows up at the U.S. Open and a slumber party breaks out. Time stops. Is this 1991 or 1971, anyway?
He plays past midnight and beats Patrick McEnroe in a five-set epic and suddenly, people wake up later that same day and want to be Connors. Monica Seles says, "He is just unbelievable." John McEnroe calls him "a living legend." And Ion Tiriac says the whole scene "is normal, absolutely normal."
It's New York, and it's August, and Connors has the run of the place, pumping life into the event that he almost single-handedly made, the U.S. Open. He keeps coming up with the great moments and the greater shots that make Louis Armstrong Stadium something more than just a concrete-and-steel hulk built on a pile of ash.
"I've always played my tennis like I have three 6's in my head," Connors said. "It's like I'm possessed."
Connors is sitting on a chair doing a little business after practice. Tiriac is talking deals. Reporters are asking questions. Connors listens. His left knee is scraped. Two knuckles on his left hand are bruised. It doesn't matter.
It's August and he's alive at the Open. Tonight they'll prop him back up at Louis Armstrong Stadium against Michiel Schapers, a big-serving Dutchman who should blow him right out of the second round and the tournament. But don't bet on it. Connors will turn 39 Monday. He still could be around.
He looked finished against Patrick McEnroe, John's younger brother. The match started Tuesday at 9:15 p.m., and by 10:30, the stadium was clearing out, McEnroe up two sets, three games and 0-40 against Connors' serve.
"I saw a third of that stadium walk out," Connors said. "I thought those people would miss a lot of great tennis. Those who stayed were the good, true sports fans."
Four thousand, tops, stuck with Connors. In 10 years, 50,000 will say they were there. Connors wouldn't lose the third set. And there they all were up past midnight, Connors winning the fourth, and then grinding it out in the fifth. The clock ticking to 1:35 a.m., the fans bowing and twirling shirts, and here was Connors unloading one last big serve to win, 4-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
Later, Patrick McEnroe would say, "If you think you got Jimmy Connors beat, that is the most dangerous point."
And Connors would talk of winning. Twenty-one years at the Open and four titles, and he still wants to put on a show.
"In the old days I used to win a lot because of my reputation," he said. "I'm not 22 or 24 years old anymore, there's no denying that, but there's a pattern that has been set throughout the course of my career -- you're going to have to kill me to beat me. I'm not going to lose it. They have to win it, and they have to take it from me."
It's hard to take anything from Connors now. Maybe this is the last spring and summer of his career. Maybe it's not. But he'll always have 1991. He'll always have Paris, when he took Michael Chang into the fifth. He'll have that middle-Sunday at Wimbledon, when the commoners stormed the gates and did the Wave for the old man. And he'll have this one night at the Open when he left the court and the crowd sang, "Jimmy, Jimmy."
He's not going to wake up in the middle of the night wondering whatever happened to his career. Bjorn Borg can wonder, what if? So can John McEnroe. But not Connors.
"I won't need a retirement tour," he said.
He is still driven. No one can really explain it anymore. John McEnroe tries to understand Connors and keeps coming back to Pete Rose and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, two athletes who stayed and played long after everyone else in their generation had retired.
"I think no one in tennis has the inspiration to have the longevity and the love of the game that he has got," John McEnroe said. "That is basically what has kept him playing. I wish I had as much love for the game as he does. That is what keeps him going when things are looking so bleak."
Connors plays on. Someone asks why?
"I don't explain it in passion," he said. "I explain it this way: I'm a guy who goes out, gives it all he has and loves it. You can't fake it."
4 Connors is 38 going on 16, and he won't go away.