Open orchestrator Connors needs baton, not racket

Phil Jackman

September 03, 1991|By Phil Jackman

The poor guy in the chair had virtually no chance. Coming his way with fire in his eyes, abuse on his lips and a tennis racket in his hands was Jimmy Connors. Worse, up in the CBS television booth, lending free-lance commentary was John McEnroe.

How would you like to take these two on in an argument? They're the people you want negotiating for you at peace talks, summits or in foreign market places.

"You're a bum," was about the nicest thing ol' Jimbo said to the match umpire before launching into a dialogue about what a marvelous, inspirational and remarkable individual he is, playing this game at the advanced age of 39 (yesterday).

"At 7-7 in a tie-breaker [second set], the umpire can't make that call, especially on a ball on a line on the other side of the court," McEnroe instructed the country on a reversed decision that went against Connors. What John seemed to be saying is, under the circumstances, right or wrong is not a consideration.

It was just one of more than 350 points contested in the 51-game, near five-hour struggle won by Connors, 7-6 in the fifth set. But it was the one the victor seized upon as once again he played his old audience-participation medley for the huddled masses yearning to be raucous.

"I'm down here playing my butt off at 39 and you're sitting there doing that," yelped Connors, chastising the umpire for being so bold as to call one against the end-of-summer mayor of the Big Apple. If this was a soccer match in South America or Europe, the guy would have little chance of enjoying another sunrise.

For many, this Connors phenomenon is invigorating, especially coming on the wings of an ever-increasing number of stirring feats by other thought to be over-the-hill athletes. For others, it smacks of being just another day at the office for Jimbo, who seems to be orchestrating these "memorable matches," similar to a guy stamping out T-shirts for sale at the door as you leave.

Against Patrick McEnroe, in his opening match, which just so happened to be on the Stadium Court at night, Connors seemed hopelessly behind before pulling his latest Lazarus job. Question is, how could a guy who has been so good for so long possibly arrange for himself to be so far in arrears of a player sans weapons?

After dispatching Andre Agassi back to Las Vegas for a rinse and set last week, Aaron Krickstein figured to be a formidable opponent yesterday. And indeed he was as the game score of 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) indicates. But throughout, even when down a break in the fifth set, one got the distinct impression that Jimbo was somehow going to win.

Surely, after he had shown that dastardly chap in the chair his fighting spirit by winning the second set only to injure his foot, he would not quit. The third set was a cakewalk for Krickstein, but after a few ministrations by a trainer, Jimbo was back without a limp and seemingly possessed of a pair of legs on loan from Carl Lewis.

Every so often, one of the TV commentators would inform that the longer the match went, the worse it would be for the decrepit Connors. Bull!

They've said it so many times, they've got us all believing it when the plain facts are Jimbo has always relished "grinding it out" over long matches. There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, he likes the idea of a match being a do-or-die affair and he wants himself and particularly his opponent to be totally spent afterward.

Next, he enjoys pitting the strength and endurance he has gained in age against the speed, flexibility and shorter recovery time of his younger foes.

He's heard for years about his average serve, the lack of topspin shots in his arsenal, the inconsistency of his forehand on occasion and his stubborn refusal to shorten points by every so often slipping to the net for an easy volley or two.

Thing is, Connors doesn't want short points. He views the game as a test of wills, of his game against the other guy's, of his gamesmanship against the other guy's with his ability to enlist the aid of the audience as his ace in the hole, particularly in take-no-prisoners New York.

Several years ago, after beating Ivan Lendl in four sets in the final, Connors seemed almost upset that his opponent hadn't played better so that the hard-hitting Czech could have suffered more by losing in five sets.

Analyst Tony Trabert likened Krickstein's assignment of taking on Jimbo in his Flushing Meadow lair to "playing the final match in Davis Cup in a foreign country." Aaron, familiar with the feeling as a U.S. Davis Cupper, agreed.

Krickstein gave it his best but, in the final analysis, he just couldn't drive the stake into Connors' game from back there on the baseline. Ol' Jimbo knew that all along and he figured his training of winning countless big matches over the last 20 years would be more than the kid could withstand.

Jimbo's in the upper quarter of the draw, where seeded players got chopped down early, and next up tomorrow comes Paul Haarhuis. He's a gangly serve-and-volleyer who won't make the mistake of thinking it's in his best interest to keep Connors out there. Of course, the world is full of guys who attempted to take Jimbo by storm only to end up as a mild barometric disturbance.

A safe bet is the members of the association of chair umpires aren't clamoring to work the Connors quarterfinal, figuring they don't want to be a prop in his latest morality play.

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