40th birthday is Open party for Connors Easy win over Oncins just part of celebration

September 03, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- He marched into the stadium surrounded by six security guards, the light of a television minicam bouncing off his face, kids and parents trying to keep up with him, screaming "Happy Birthday" every step of the way.

It was another U.S. Open, another prime-time show when New York stopped for a couple of hours, and took notice of a limping old man running down tennis balls, chasing after dreams that should have long since been extinguished.

Jimmy Connors turned 40 last night and took over tennis. He played the hard court stage once known as Louis Armstrong Stadium, grabbing the joint and giving it a shake, turning his opponent, Jaime Oncins of Brazil, into a tomato can in tennis shorts.

Connors won, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, and got out of the first round of the Open.

"It seems like I've been playing here forever," Connors said.

This was his 114th Open match, a record. His 98th win. Another record.

They stopped counting the standing ovations years ago. He owns the crowd.

"I never thought I'd be playing here until I was 40," he told the true believers who waited until the last shot. "You people have given me something that I can not buy, that's you coming to watch me, day after day. And I can never repay you."

His legs may be going, going, going on the way to gone. His serve doesn't come close to triple digits on a radar gun. And his groundstrokes are nothing more than changeups.

It doesn't matter. Connors is a human greatest hit, striking the right notes, winning the big points, bringing a little glory and glamour back into the game.

"The whole atmosphere around here was beyond tennis," he said. "It was buzzing."

The crowd brought party favors, sang "Happy Birthday," roared when Connors screwed up his body and hit all these groundstrokes and stood when he unloaded a topspin lob to close out the first set.

"I would have played for four hours to win this match," he said.

Oncins never had a chance. He is one of the steadiest Davis Cuppers to come out of Brazil, a 22-year-old who gave Ivan Lendl a second-round shock at the French Open this year. But two games into this show, he scraped his right hand, the one he uses to grip his racket, and lost control of his shots.

But, the night wasn't about Oncins, who was a walking unforced error anyway. It was about Connors.

"I've had my greatest thrills the last 20 years on my birthday," Connors said. "I don't plan to stop now."

The U.S. Tennis Association gave him this birthday gift, scheduling his first-round match three days into the tournament. And when the match ended, they wheeled out a birthday cake and the crowd sang one last chorus of "Happy Birthday."

"I wish I could feed you all," Connors told the crowd.

The party goes on. Tomorrow night, Connors meets Lendl, who struggled for 4 hours, 22 minutes in a five-set victory over Jaime Yzaga.

"If anyone deserves this, Jimmy does," said Stefan Edberg, the defending champion. "I don't think I want to play at that age. It would be too tough."

But not for Connors.

He is still trying to pump up a bust of a summer, losing first-round matches at the French and Wimbledon. But this is the Open and this is home, where he has won five titles on three different surfaces.

He also has transformed himself from tournament rat to folk hero.

He was once the brat with the mop of hair and the snarl on his face. He ran out of Forest Hills after that final against Guillermo Vilas, the one he lost in 1977. But there was this moment against Vilas, when Connors chased down this shot, and came back with a lob that brought the crowd to its feet, that changed his image forever.

There were other bits of magic. The shot that curved around the net post and landed down the line against Adriano Panatta. The battles against Bjorn Borg and Lendl and, of course, the duel of egos, Connors vs. John McEnroe.

Now, he's 40, a decade removed from winning important titles. He came into the game against the old Australians, the Rosewalls and Lavers, and will leave it going out swinging against the Agassis and the Couriers.

"There have been four generations in there," he said. "But my game keeps up with the players of the day."

Tomorrow night Connors goes against Lendl. He hasn't beaten him since 1984, losing 16 straight.

But this is New York and the Open and Connors at night. At 40, life is still filled with possibilities.

"I know Ivan and he knows me," Connors said. "There are no surprises out there. If I can get in the match really early and he doesn't blow me off the court early, I can be in it. I'll have 20,000 of my best friends watching."

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