Fans warm to magic of Connors This could be his last N.Y. hurrah

September 02, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Jimmy Connors is walking through the National Tennis Center as if he's some sort of Elvis in tennis shorts.

Kids follow him for autographs. Adults move from his path. Technicians with minicams set up on a court out by a picnic area and await his arrival.

For practice.

He warms up with John Lloyd. Hits some winners. Then he stretches. And grabs his back. And the crowd, lined up 10 deep, starts to chant, "Nupe It, Jimmy."

So, of course, he reaches into his bag, takes out Nuprin tablets, swallows them, guzzles some water and goes on and plays.

The crowd is happy. The sponsors are happier. He's the best showman and salesman tennis ever had.

You want big. Connors is big. This is the U.S. Open, but it's Connors' home tournament. New York is always where he played best, always where he won the biggest matches in the toughest ways.

Tonight, they're even holding a 40th birthday party for Connors. He'll be on the stadium court in the first round of the U.S. Open playing a Brazilian named Jaime Oncins.

In the old days, a player like Oncins would be a three-sets and out match for Connors. Not now. The injuries come quicker. The opponents are younger.

But it doesn't matter.

Connors gave this tournament a run last year like it had never seen. Went all the way to the semifinals. Beat kids who weren't even born when he started winning Grand Slams. Beat Aaron Krickstein in this five-set epic that left the high-priced diners in Slew's Place banging on windows. Beat a dazed Paul Haarhuis at night in the quarterfinal. Took the run as far as he could, finally falling to Jim Courier in the semis.

It was the U.S. Open of Jimmy Connors, pure and simple.

A year later, they're still talking about Connors and this magic of remaining forever young.

"It is just incredible looking at it," Steffi Graf said. "I mean, looking at him and seeing him still the way he plays now. You have got to respect the man so much. You idolize him, actually. It is something. I don't think anyone has done that."

Connors says that now, he is living by a motto that "enough is never enough."

"People say I'm living in the past," he said. "I guess I am."

The past. The Open and Connors grew together. He snarled and beat up an aging Ken Rosewall for his first title. He ran away after losing to Guillermo Vilas, but came back stronger, outlasting Bjorn Borg and then John McEnroe and then Ivan Lendl.

Took titles. Five of them. Gave an ugly little steel and concrete stadium a little history, a bunch of memories. Went from being the bad guy to the hero.

"I play tennis because I love it," Connors said. "The game has changed drastically since the time that I was in it. I don't know if it's going in the right direction or if it's better or not. All I can do is go out and play."

To be truthful, Connors has done little playing this summer. He lost in the opening rounds of the French Open and Wimbledon. Pulled out with a thigh injury before having to play Michael Chang at last week's Hamlet Challenge.

He was tired. Burned out even. Rated his chances of appearing in the Open at 50-50.

"I guess there comes a point when you just push yourself and push yourself and do so much that you kind of wear down and go thin," he said. "And that's what happened to me at the French and Wimbledon. Those were the two events I should not have played. I had to get away from tennis. Regroup mentally, more than physically. I had to kind of clear my mind of things to where, when I started playing Team Tennis, I worked myself back into pretty good condition."

Can he win the Open? It's a stretch. A big one. But crowds don't come to see Connors win championships anymore. They come to watch his grinding returns, his arm pumps and his upsets.

The sport is filled with all these stoic gentlemen now, guys who play beautiful tennis with cold hearts. Stefan Edberg wins titles. Connors keeps winning fans. He could get by Oncins, but in the second round, Lendl is likely to be waiting. And Lendl is healthy and hungry.

This could be the last the Open sees of Connors. He's talking of retirement again. Talking of starting up some seniors tour. Playing against the Borgs and Vilases and Lloyds. Playing tennis for fun and money.

But for now, this is his night, and this is his Open.

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