Connors, Courier in baseline game Old, new provide a study in contrast

October 22, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

One is the ultimate showman, playing to the crowd as if he were on a Broadway stage, using his racket as if he were conducting an orchestra. The other is a most hesitant superstar, perhaps more uncomfortable with his growing fame than any other top player in tennis.

Jimmy Connors, 41 and going on forever, is no longer a force in a sport he once dominated, but he still gets a kick out of playing and beating guys half his age. At 23, Jim Courier is still learning how to juggle his priorities, trying to keep any shred of privacy in a very public life.

Tonight, Connors and Courier will share top billing in the eighth First National Bank Tennis Classic at the Baltimore Arena. But the affection of the crowd undoubtedly will go with Connors -- as well as with native son and daughter Cal Ripken and Pam Shriver -- in a charity event presented by The Baltimore Sun.

It will mark Connors' first appearance in Baltimore since he played for the city's World Team Tennis entry, the Banners. "About 20 years ago," said Connors, who was then on his way to beginning a five-year reign as the world's No. 1 player and the man largely responsible for turning tennis into a big-money sport.

"I always enjoyed myself," Connors said earlier this week. "My attitude was my fun. My reputation was my fun. It didn't matter to me if they were for me or they were against me, as long as they came out to watch. My enjoyment was being out there grinding, giving it my all, trying to reach that level of perfection."

Some are beginning to see the same chip-on-the-shoulder, wrong-side-of-the-tracks attitude in Courier, but Connors isn't looking to make any comparisons. Nor are they applicable, given Connors' penchant for the spotlight and Courier's apparent aversion to it.

"I don't see me in anybody," said Connors. "I had my own personality, my own style. Really, I don't look for that in anybody."

It is a style that became noticeably absent in men's tennis when Connors and longtime rival John McEnroe cut down drastically on their playing schedules this year. Courier and Pete Sampras, who shared the No. 1 ranking for most of the year, had a difficult time trying to fill the void.

Courier had been cast as sort of a small-town, blue-collar type who came out of nowhere (Dade City, Fla., or No. 25 in the world as recently as 1990, take your pick) to become the game's No. 1 player last year. But his image has taken a beating the past few months. He spent most of the summer sparring with the media, and, as was the case with this article, turning down requests for interviews.

"When he got to No. 1, he was getting requests all the time, and I think he just got burned out," said Patty Giudice, an assistant in the tennis division of International Management Group, the Cleveland-based firm that represents the now-No. 2-ranked Courier. "He doesn't like to live in the spotlight. He decided that tennis is more important than speaking to the media. That sums up Jim pretty well."

Courier seemed to burn out physically as well. After winning the Australian Open and reaching the final at Wimbledon, Courier has tailed off since losing to Cedric Pioline of France in the fourth round at the U.S. Open, losing a few early-round matches to players with triple-digit rankings.

There were times early in his career that Connors had similar image problems -- or worse -- for what was viewed widely as boorish behavior. But as he got older, and then got old in tennis terms, Connors went from reviled to revered. It helped him become one of the country's most sought-after and highly paid corporate pitchmen.

Now, Connors is pushing the "Champions' Tour," a concept that could become to tennis what the Seniors Tour has become to golf. The idea of Connors and longtime business partner Ray Benton, it began this year with three events and players such as Connors, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas and Roscoe Tanner.

The format gives Connors the chance to spend more time playing -- and beating -- guys his own age. After deciding not to play in this year's U.S. Open, Connors said it was doubtful he would play in another Grand Slam event. Even the string of Open upsets -- including that of Courier by eventual finalist Pioline -- hasn't made Connors change his mind.

"I don't have any second thoughts, but as it turned out, I picked the wrong year not to play," said Connors, who won the Open five times and reached the semifinals as recently as 1991, when he lost to Courier. "I never came out and said I was retiring. If I retire, it's a one-shot deal. I'm not going to leave and have any what-ifs. I'm going to get it out of my system."

At 41 and going on forever, the ultimate showman is still in search of a stage, trying to conduct the orchestra. Tonight, after a 20-year absence, he returns to Baltimore.

FACTS AND FIGURES

What: First National Bank Tennis Classic

When: Tonight, 7

Where: Baltimore Arena

Who: Jimmy Connors vs. Jim Courier in best of three-set match; also Venus and Serena Williams vs. Cal and Bill Ripken in pro set (six games); Connors and Venus Williams vs. Courier and Pam Shriver in regulation-set mixed doubles.

Why: Net proceeds from the event will be distributed by the Baltimore Community Foundation to children's charities.

Tickets: Limited availability of $75 and $35 seats, as well as $20 and $9 seats. Tickets can be purchased at the Arena box office, any TicketMaster outlets or by calling (410) 481-SEAT.

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