Capriati, Connors fail to find magic, fall in U.S. Open Lendl overcomes first-set letdown

September 05, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- For one set, it could have been 1982.

Jimmy Connors was charging up the middle like a bull. Ivan Lendl was standing on the baseline. And the crowd at the National Tennis Center was up and roaring, giving a shout that cut through the hot, humid night.

Tennis was young again. And exciting again. And the U.S. Open was like the best drama on Broadway, giving you chills, tugging the heart, and yes, even bringing a few tears.

But it would not, could not, last.

After all, Connors is 40, not 30. Tennis is filled with power, not finesse. And Lendl is an American citizen, not a Czech who "chokes."

Last night, Lendl ended the Open run of Connors in the second round, winning, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0.

"It's hell being 40," Connors said.

Lendl, 32, goes on to meet Chuck Adams, a 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) winner over Brian Dunn. And Connors goes on to a made-for-television spectacle against Martina Navratilova, and perhaps, retirement from the Grand Slam events.

Still, for a few moments, this was terrific stuff. Two days after his 40th birthday "bash" and first-round victory over Jaime Oncins, Connors returned to his stage on stadium court. The crowd stood as he entered, cheered every point on his opening service game.

And Connors gave Lendl a scare in the first set, using an uncharacteristic serve-and-volley style. It didn't matter that Connors hadn't beaten Lendl in 16 matches stretching to 1984. This was New York and the Open, and Lendl was on the run.

"It was pretty sweet to be able to play like that," Connors said.

Before the match, Connors said, just give him a set, and see what happens. History was on his side. He was 88-1 after winning first sets at the Open.

Lendl, however, was not impressed. Lendl was like a tennis parent, standing at the baseline, dishing out slice backhands. Lendl wasn't waiting for perfection. He was waiting for mistakes.

And he got plenty of them. Connors had to generate his own power, and couldn't. And as dramatic as the first set was, the air went out of the whole match in the second set, and by the finish, Connors was like an old prize fighter, wobbling, desperate to hang on until the final bell.

"Why stop what works?" Lendl said. "I thought the first set he beat me was the best he has played against me in many, many matches."

But it wasn't enough.

Lendl slapped away Connors' serves as if they were gnats, busted Connors with aces and service winners, and finally watched as Connors pushed one last forehand long, the match ending, the crowd standing one more time, chanting, "Jimmy, Jimmy."

Connors has come to this Open 22 times, won five titles on three surfaces. He gave tennis a -- of star power back in the 1970s at Forest Hills, and then brought the sport into the big time at Flushing Meadow.

And along the way, he turned the crowds that were against him, and made them cheer him.

Connors paved the way for the big money. And players like Lendl cashed in. And now, Lendl is being pushed aside by younger players. Maybe Lendl can come back and challenge for another Open. And maybe he can't.

But for one night, he was part of a big match, the designated challenger going up against a once-snarling rebel turned aging folk hero.

Connors lost. Earliest Open exit since 1972. Yet for one set, he was young again. Not a bad way to go out.

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