Connors has favorite stage set for Lendl Counts on N.Y. magic to end 16-match jinx

September 04, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Here he goes again.

Throw Jimmy Connors out on a stage at the U.S. Open, and he doesn't want to get off. He routs kids nearly half his age. Plays to the cameras. Leaves the crowds begging for an encore.

Yesterday, the Open had its first official post-birthday smash hangover.

The place was still buzzing about Connors turning 40 and delivering a straight-set first-round rout over Jaime Oncins on Wednesday night. And the tennis world was gearing up for Connors-Ivan Lendl in tonight's second round as if it were the second coming of Ali-Frazier.

"This is the way tennis was in the '70s and early '80s, when you walked in and there was electricity here," Connors said. "When [Bjorn] Borg was playing and [Vitas] Gerulaitis was playing and [Ilie] Nastase was playing. When you looked at your sheet, you didn't know where to go. There were great matches."

You want to know what Connors means to tennis? Check the atmosphere.

Wednesday night, it was like a rock show. Connors hitting the stadium court and the crowd up, roaring, even singing "Happy Birthday." Yesterday afternoon, top-ranked Jim Courier played in front of 19,000 empty seats, beating Andre Chesnokov, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

Courier can win Grand Slam titles. But Connors wins fans.

His baseline game is the same now as it was 22 years ago, when he first started going after U.S. titles back at Forest Hills, and then helped move the sport into the National Tennis Center. You want to know what the tennis boom was? It was Connors against hTC Laver or Borg or McEnroe.

"The drive and the desire was different 20 years ago," he said. "There was no money. Guys today, they make so much by not winning. They are pushed and marketed."

Let's face it: Connors does his ads, too. Anyone "Nuped-It" lately? But the difference is, Connors doesn't play as if "image is everything." He performs as if his life depended on winning.

He's 40 now, a fossil in a sport of teen-agers. He comes across players who weren't even born when he started to win Grand Slam titles.

Others will try to psychoanalyze Connors, try to dig deeper when he says he plays because "it's fun."

"You know, maybe I'm one of the only guys you could look up to and say, 'Hey, this guy really likes what he does,' " Connors said.

"I don't do this because I have to do it and I don't do it because I need the money and I don't do it because I want to be away from home. I do it because I love the game. If this was a $50,000 tournament, it would be interesting to see how many guys would be here playing this event. But I would be here."

He is facing the toughest assignment of his career, trying to catch magic again. A year ago, he went all the way to the Open semis and became a folk hero.

But now he meets Lendl. He hasn't beaten him in 16 matches that stretch back to 1984. Somehow, the numbers don't matter when it's Connors at the Open.

Lendl says he "likes playing with no fans," doesn't care "who my opponent is." He has never been beloved in New York, and when he meets Connors, he'll be like the black hat trying to hunt John Wayne.

All Connors says he's asking for is a chance to get in the match against Lendl, a chance to start a roll and get the crowd out of the seats.

"Every time I come here, I don't know what to expect," he said. "And that is the unbelievable thing. You know, the people can come, and then leave in the middle of the match if they don't think things are going well. But they can also stay forever if they want to see you win. If I can go out and get stuck in a match, then we'll have one hell of an evening."

That's Connors. Give him a stage, and you can't drag him off.

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