39 with a bullet, Connors keeps firing at Open

MIKE LITTWIN

September 06, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

NEW YORK -- They call them Connors miracles now, because your basic, ordinary, it-gets-you-to-be-a-saint kind of miracle doesn't begin to describe what's going on here at the Jimmy Connors Open.

I don't know what does describe it.

It's not real. It's more surreal. It's not simply tennis. Maybe it's theater of the absurd, played in short pants.

I know this: It's Jimbo, the guy who never quit, just not quitting. The Soviet Union quits, but not Jimmy.

"Is this for real?" Connors wondered after pumping the sky one last time. "Is it? I can't describe it. It's going to take me six months to sit down and figure out what happened here."

Here's what we have so far: Connors is still 39 (in case you hadn't heard), he's in the Open semifinals and he's almost lovable. If you don't think this lovability business is a miracle, then you never saw the ultra-profane Jimbo at his crotch-grabbing best.

He's still profane. Doesn't seem to matter.

Have you seen him?

In the quarters, he played some guy named Paul Haarhuis, who TC beat Becker earlier in the tournament. He won the first four games of the match and then, instead of Jimbo dying, he did. He held on to win the first set and had a chance to serve out the second when he had four consecutive overheads he couldn't put away. Jimbo saved them all, won the point, won the rest of the sets, won the match. Memo to Haarhuis: This is how you become a legend.

And, yeah, the crowd eats it up, just like it was some $12.95 New York hamburger. The fans go nuts, complete with high-fives and mid-set standing ovations. That's another important aspect of this Jimbomania. It's prize-fight stuff, with fans rooting against the other guy, something you're never supposed to see in tennis. It's not polite, after all. But then, if there's one thing no one ever called Jimmy Connors, it was polite.

What you can say about him is that he plays to the crowd and the crowd plays to him, and that almost explains what's happening here at the Open -- but not quite.

You can also say that nobody ever tried harder on a tennis court, and that's part of the special attraction and maybe explains how the impossible got to be possible.

But, face it, what gets the crowd is that he's 39. Jimmy talks about being 39 more than Jack Benny ever did. He screams at an umpire: "I'm 39 and I'm playing my butt off . . . " as if that should give him a close call.

He gets the calls. He screams at umpires, and they don't even warn him. It's Jimmy's tournament, and who wants to take it away from him?

Who else is there to root for? Lendl? Edberg? Courier? Courier wears a cap. That's it for personality. Connors, we know. People know him well enough not to love him, but they do anyway because they want to. They love the idea of the story. They love the old warhorse, the old battler, coming back, scars and all, and inviting everyone to come with him on this weird nostalgia trip in which Jimmy gets to his 14th Open semifinal and gets to be lovable in the bargain.

There's the truth of Connors and of this tournament. Connors calls an umpire an abortion, and it isn't simply ignored. It isn't even noticed. That's because the outburst didn't fit the script, in which Connors is supposed to be rehabilitated somehow into a mature, responsible family man.

It worked. America loves Connors.

Sure, not everyone is convinced. Some of America finds him a wonderful tennis player who refuses to go away who makes the impossible seem possible and who is, at the same time, a complete jerk. That's a case you'd have a tough time arguing against.

Whatever you think of Connors and his career, there is certainly an amazing symmetry to it. Connors came to matter in an important way back in 1974 when he beat Ken Rosewall, who was 39, at Wimbledon and then at the Open. Rosewall was distinguished. Connors was not. He didn't want to be either. He wanted to be a bad boy, an anti-hero. Those were the times, and he was a product of them.

And when he beat Rosewall, he gloried in it. He gloried in his youth and brashness and it didn't bother him at all if anyone else liked it. He liked it. He loved it.

Now he's the old man. He revels in that, too. He came back after missing most of a year with a broken wrist at age 38. You don't come back from that unless you're Jimmy Connors and don't know anything else to do.

So, here it is. He plays Jim Courier in the semis tomorrow, and you know he has to lose because Courier is a for-real player, not a Haarhuis or a Krickstein or a Patrick McEnroe. But it doesn't matter. Connors has already won this tournament. It's his. He owns it. He owns it forever.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said there were no second acts in America. He didn't know Jimmy Connors.

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