NEW YORK -- Years from now, they will talk of this day and night when the old man showed that if you can run, you can win. From the outside, others would speak of the miracles in the U.S. Open of 1991.
But up close, right next to the stage at Louis Armstrong Stadium, all you could see and hear was this 39-year-old man running from end to end, grunting on every shot, his sneakers squeaking on the hard court. He was chasing balls into flowerpots, tearing into the net and showing exactly why he'll remain forever young.
Skills erode, but hustle never fades.
That is the lesson of Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open. He turned 39 yesterday and ran for 4 hours, 41 minutes. He ran through five sets. He ran through two tie-breakers. And he ran right past Aaron Krickstein and into the quarterfinals with a 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) victory.
"Well, at 39, it's pretty damn satisfying to win," Connors said.
Logic says that Connors has only so much bluff left, that, eventually, he'll come up against some big, young kid who will blow him right off the court with a pulverizing serve and a merciless volley. But for now, Connors is the whole show at the Open. Until he is knocked off the stage, the city and the tournament belong to this street fighter who refuses to grow up or grow old.
The Open was at its eeriest and weirdest yesterday. The youngsters who really have a shot to win this were virtually ignored, playing in half-empty stadiums.
Defending champion Pete Sampras outlasted No. 11 David Wheaton, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. Two days after eliminating top seed Boris Becker, Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands defeated Carl-Uwe Steeb, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. French Open champion Jim Courier defeated Emilio Sanchez, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3.
The results set up an intriguing program of quarterfinal matches: Connors vs. Haarhuis, Sampras vs. Courier, Ivan Lendl vs. Wimbledon champion Michael Stich and Javier Sanchez vs. Stefan Edberg.
Where does Connors figure in all this? It's tough to tell. He twisted his knee in the second-set tie-breaker against Krickstein and had leg cramps after the match. But he has two days to rest before going back out on the revival tour.
He's a five-time Open champion who won his first title as a 22-year-old in 1974, beating 39-year-old Ken Rosewall.
"This is the same old Connors as far as competitiveness," Krickstein said. "He still fights just as hard as ever."
The Connors fight was there for a match that began in the midday sun and ended in twilight. It was there when Connors won a second-set tie-breaker and rallied to win the fourth set after a miserable third. It was there when he badgered the chair umpire, cursing and snarling. And it was there in the fifth set, when the fans pulled on sweaters and coats and sat chilled in the shade, when Connors came from 5-2 down and forced the tie-breaker and won the match with nothing more than grit and volleys.
The fans stood and sang "Happy Birthday."
"I'm not going to give matches to anyone," Connors said. "They are going to have to beat me. And I can handle it if I am in a little bit of pain. I have played in pain before. But you know, I am 39, too. So I just give it my best effort."
His best may not be good enough to win the Open.
Sampras is starting to play wonderfully again. Against another young American, Wheaton, Sampras seized control with his serve and then displayed his effortless volleys.
"Last year, when I went into this tournament, I was not really a contender," Sampras said. "I was kind of working my way up in the rankings and no one expected me to win the tournament. This year, I am kind of like one of the favorites. A lot of people expected me to do well. I am doing that, so you know things are looking good right now."
Things are also looking good for Haarhuis. This is the first time he has reached a Grand Slam quarterfinals, and all he has done is knock off two of the top three German players, Becker and Steeb. He proved two years ago that he can stare down a hostile crowd, knocking out John McEnroe at night. He promised to be ready for Connors on Thursday night.
"Playing Connors would be nice," Haarhuis said. "He is one of the all-time greats. You are going to have the crowd against you. That is fine. I mean the crowd is not going to hit the ball. Connors will be pumped up by it. But you know, I have to play my game. If I play well, if he can beat me, fine. But I will give him everything I have got. And I can't do anything more than that."
Haarhuis had better get set to run. It could be a long, long match against a champion who will not go gently into the night.