NEW YORK -- They were in the runway, now, and here was Jimmy Connors walking with his bodyguards, trying to keep up with this freckle-faced kid with the white baseball cap and the strawberry blond hair and the smug, sideways grin.
Later, the kid would say there was nothing special about hitting the stage first for this tennis revival show at Louis Armstrong Stadium. But for 2 hours and 6 minutes on a bright, blue late-summer day, there was Connors huffing and puffing, his hair mussed, his face shining with sweat, following this kid around the court.
In 11 days, Connors remade himself into an American folk hero. But, yesterday, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, he was just another 39-year-old man chasing vainly after youth.
Jim Courier, a 21-year-old who plays tennis like his idol Pete Rose once played baseball, sent Connors out of the Open, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. Courier advanced to today's final, where he will meet Stefan Edberg, a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Ivan Lendl.
Connors may have lost the match, but he still owned the Open for one last day. He was the whole story, The Greatest Day in Tennis turning into a one-man show.
Edberg-Lendl was just a warm-up, two guys exchanging these strange behind-the-back shots, Lendl, the eight-time finalist and three-time champion, directing a blimp around the stadium, and Edberg finally reaching his first Open final with an effortless, serve-and-volley style.
But it was Connors the crowd came to salute. He entered to a roar and left the stadium with a wave and a smile, punching the air as the crowd screamed. After five matches in which the impossible became the inevitable, Connors had nothing left to prove or to give.
"About 15, 20 years ago, I was able to fight not only my opponents and the linesmen, but the crowd also," Connors said. was me against everybody. That was the way I liked it. When they were against me, I loved it. And when they were with me, I loved it even more. At this point, I can't fight 20,000 people anymore."
The crowd was with him. It started small when only 4,000 were left in the stands after midnight when Connors beat Patrick McEnroe in the opening round. And then it just built, Connors coming back from nowhere and this wrist injury, inviting the world into this theater and then unloading all of these greatest hits.
"They like the blood dripping, the stumbling and the showing them how you really feel," Connors said. "My whole career, I wasn't afraid to show that to them."
But yesterday he came up against a younger version of himself. Courier is No. 5 in the world. He is the French Open champion. He would not be intimidated -- not by Connors, not by the crowd, not even by the moment.
"My name isn't Jimmy," Courier would say.
"I would want to compare myself to a pre-scandal Pete Rose, the Charlie Hustle, get-down-in-the-dirt type," he said.
Courier refuses to hang around the baseline trading ground strokes. He bashes winners and charges the net. But, like Connors, he rarely gives in to opponents.
"There is no doubt that I have tried to emulate Jimmy's guts," Courier said. "Nobody can match his guts out there. Jimmy is the one. He is the one everyone looks up to."
There was a point in the match where Courier could have gone like all the rest. A line call went against him, and suddenly he was down, 1-3, in the second set, and the crowd was rising and here was Connors throwing one of those fists. So all Courier did was argue his case politely and tug at his cap and run Connors right out of the stadium, right out of the Open, winning nine straight games.
"My concentration came deep into focus there," Courier said. "It is hard to say exactly what happened."
At the end, after Courier nudged in one last backhand cross court, it was almost like Connors was passing on the torch. He ran to the net and told Courier he could win the tournament, and Courier told Connors, "You're unbelievable."
"I don't think we'll ever see someone like him again," Courier said.
Connors at 39 made the Open in 1991. He said he'd be back next year. People kept comparing him to Nolan Ryan and George Foreman and Rose, but Connors just wanted to talk about playing tennis.
"I am not carrying a flag for guys 35 or 45 years old," he said. "I am out there doing what I love to do. Once you get past the game, there is a little something extra that somebody has to be able to give to go beyond perfection, to go to the outer limits of themselves to push themselves so far that it doesn't matter what happens to them. I am not afraid to tell you that I have that."
Connors gave the Open life. Courier and Edberg will give it a champion.