Search

Prince Valiant

June 10, 1991
June 10, 1991

Table of Contents
June 10, 1991

Books
On The Scene
NBA Finals
Baseball Expansion
Jimmy Connors
Tiger Strikeouts
Venus Williams
Boxing
Grooms
Point After

Prince Valiant

After nearly two years of ignoble tennis, Jimmy Connors at 38 made a gallant stand in Paris

As he screamed and wobbled and slugged and mugged through yet another dramatic tennis match on the damnable bronzed dirt of Paris last week, it was fashionable to wonder which institution had just turned 100 years old, the French Open or Jheemee Konorzzz.

This is an article from the June 10, 1991 issue Original Layout

Even after the moonlighting TV commentator, who's known in his hometown of Belleville, Ill., and other equally sophisticated corners of the universe as James Scott Connors, was helped off Court Central on Friday evening—limping away to a prolonged chanting, stomping ovation from 18,000 fans in the stadium and millions more watching him (play, not comment) on televisions throughout the world—we were left to ponder whether this finally was the closing chapter of tennis's version of The Old Man and the C (for clay).

"Hopefully, I'll be able to come back here and do this again next year," said Connors after a torturous struggle with Michael Chang in the most compelling match of an otherwise desultory year in men's tennis. Then Connors giggled and rolled his eyes. He will be 39 in September, which makes him four years older than Bjorn Borg, who can't buy a dance ticket anymore; 11 years older than Todd Witsken, an American whom he vanquished in a first-round upset in Paris; and 12 years older than Ronald Agenor of Haiti, who lost to Connors in five grueling sets in the second round. And—hold on to your Geritol bottles, George Foreman, Mark Spitz, et al.—Connors is nearly 20 years older than Chang, the crown prince of patience, whom he beat in the third round in Paris.

Beat? Well, tied. Well, O.K., won the first point of the fifth set from. Which turned out to be the last point of the match, because Connors could barely move about the clay anymore, much less run or walk or scratch or claw or swing his racket. So Jimbo had to retire, the astonishing final score reading 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 0-15, aban. When a player cannot continue a match, the French say he has abandonne, meaning the player has abandoned the match. What an inappropriate abbreviation for a nonabbreviated match—three hours and 34 minutes in late afternoon heat—in which the only thing Connors may have abandoned in Stade Roland Garros was his senses. After dropping six straight games in the third set, after his back muscles had stiffened, Connors could have—maybe, should have—quit right then.

Mais non. Instead Jimbo, having been turned into Gimpo but sustained by some massage cream and the massaging roars of an adoring audience, not only staggered through the fourth set but won it as well. When he broke the 10th-seeded Chang's serve to go ahead 5-4, the roar from the stands was deafening as Connors gingerly walked with baby steps toward the sideline for the changeover respite. "Jheemee, Jheemee," chanted the crowd.

Connors sat down, dumped water all over himself and draped a towel over his head. It's surprising enough that Connors got up at the end of the 90-second break. What's more shocking is that he walked onto the court and served out the set to tie the match at two sets apiece. What followed was a surprise to everyone but Connors. On Chang's second serve of the opening point of the fifth set, Connors crushed a backhand return winner, then peg-legged creakily to the umpire's chair and said that he had had enough. "Quit while I was ahead," said Connors later, laughing through the pain.

Bud Collins, Jimbo's broadcast partner on NBC, was above the players' exit when Bill Norris, an ATP Tour trainer, helped Connors off the court. Jimbo turned and blew one last kiss to the crowd. Inside the stadium, as he was virtually carried up a stairway, a group of players stood at the top and applauded. "Jimmy Connors won the last point of the match," Collins said in a mock report, "but television commitments will prevent him from entering the fourth round."

Hilarity and courage aside, if Connors had somehow prevailed over Chang, a former and possibly future French champion, he would have faced the host country's No. 1 player, seventh-seeded Guy Forget, on Sunday in a match Jimbo was scheduled to work for NBC. Quel problème! "Forget about your body," Collins told Connors one day last week, when the possibility loomed that he could still be in the tournament on the weekend, when NBC began its coverage. "I want to know, How's your voice?"

Because of numerous injuries, Connors had played only 10 matches since January 1990, losing seven of them, and his ranking had fallen to 324. Although he beat the 67th-ranked Witsken in straight sets in the first round, the match exhausted him. Afterward, Connors was asked what it was like to compete in a tournament in which he also was a television commentator. "It means I have to go to work in 15 minutes," he said, laughing yet again.

Connors Jusqu'au Dernier Souffle ("Connors Until the Last Gasp") screamed the daily France-Soir after Jimbo's epic battle against Chang and Father Time. "Hey," Connors said after defeating Agenor, a tough clay-courter, mixing his tenses as well as he always has his shots and personalities, "this is my hometown. I was in the trenches where I have to work and grind. When I was in my prime, I played matches like this because I'm supposed to."

Connors's performance in Paris was an inspiration even to the game's current stars. "[Connors] feels no pressure out there at all. It's obvious he's having a lot of fun," said Stefan Edberg, the No. 1 seed.

"I saw him, and I was pleased to have someone that famous and that good and 38 win in a clay court tournament," said No. 2 Boris Becker. "That just shows how good he must have been 10 years ago."

Or 19 years ago, when Connors played his first French Open—four years before Jennifer Capriati was born. We're talkin' un vieux garcon here, folks. And like the rabbit in the battery commercial, he keeps going...and going...and going. The rejuvenated Connors says his goal is "to make the top 100, to be a factor. I want to get my game to a level where I have a chance to win anytime I walk out there."

Connors's primary business in Paris was with NBC. "But I came with the purpose of playing into shape, too," said Jimbo. (He will skip Wimbledon because NBC wants him to be a commentator exclusively, but Connors will rejoin the circuit later this summer to prepare for the U.S. Open in August.) "I would have preferred not to kill myself."

Let's consider Connors in relation to the sport's other old heroes. After saying he would play the French Open, Borg, who'll be 35 this week, changed his mind and did not ask for a wild card; Guillermo Vilas, 38, was denied a wild card; Harold Solomon, 38, lost 6-3, 6-0 in the qualifying tournament for Roland Garros to the immortal German (that's his name, not his country; he's really from Spain) Lopez; John McEnroe, 32, was eliminated in the first round by Andrei Cherkasov of the Soviet Union; Mats Wilander, 26, after being embarrassed in the second round by French teenager Fabrice Santoro, waved disgustedly to his wife in the stands, as if to say he had finally decided to retire; and Yannick Noah, 31, France's own dreadlocked, Cameroon-born heartthrob, has practically retired. Just before the tournament, he announced that he would pursue a music career, which was recently launched with an album entitled Black and What.

In black and white, what it all means is that the only tennis comebacks—discounting pregnancy hiatuses—that have ever counted belong to Connors. That is, if you believe he has ever been away, which Connors says he hasn't. In any case, the man won his two Wimbledon titles eight years apart (1974 and '82) and his five U.S. Open crowns over a nine-year span (1974, '76, '78, '82 and '83). In 1974, Connors also won the Australian Open. Fifteen years later, he routed Edberg, 13 years his junior, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 at Flushing Meadow. That's Edberg's worst licking in a Grand Slam event.

If that isn't enough history and longevity, Connors also holds the men's record for most consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 (159, from July 1974 to August 1977). He's the only man to win the U.S. Open on three surfaces (grass, clay and hard courts). He has won more tournaments (109) than any other man in history—Tel Aviv in 1989 being his last one, if you're scoring at home. "A man of endless surprises," says 20-year-old Jim Courier, the ninth seed in Paris. "Connors is the Nolan Ryan of tennis."

While rolling along in late '88 toward the seventh-inning stretch of his career, Connors was knocked out of the box by foot surgery and, in October 1989, repairs to his left wrist. This year he has lost to the likes of Cassio Motta, but in April in Tokyo he extended Edberg to three sets in a best-of-three encounter and announced, "I'm back in business."

So with his wife, Patti, and their two kids back on the ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., off Connors went to Roland Garros to compete in the one Grand Slam event he has never won. Never even come close to winning, in fact, although he might have won Paris—and thus the Grand Slam—in 1974 had he not been banned from the tournament for having played World Team Tennis. The farthest he has advanced is the semifinals, in 1979, '80, '84 and '85. For the most part, Connors and the French Open have given each other, in a term that a baseball man like Ryan might appreciate, the raspberry. To wit:

•1980. Connors was fined $1,000 for swearing and otherwise acting nasty while coming from behind to beat homeboy Jean-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Caujolle, who led two sets to none and held a match point.

•1981. Incensed by an overrule by umpire Chou Lu, Connors raged, shook the ump's chair, threatened to smack him with a ball and won only eight points in a 6-0 final-set loss to Jose-Luis Clerc.

•1982. Connors demeaned a fourth-round match between top-seeded Ivan Lendl and Wilander, the game's new star, saying he had needed No Doz to watch their baseline encounter. As for his own effort, Jimbo won just six games in a quarterfinal loss to Jose Higueras.

•1983. Angered by the way in which the French press portrayed his estrangement from Patti, Jimbo lost to the unknown Christophe Roger-Vasselin and made another controversial exit, complaining about "clay specialists." It was about then that Paris writers began referring to Connors as le Grognon ("the Grumbler").

•1984. Connors's always stormy relationship with McEnroe bubbled to the surface during a semifinal matchup that L'Equipe headlined LES DEUX CANNIBALES AMERICAINS. As Mac was questioning a line call on his way to a straight-sets victory, Jimbo approached the net, yelling and pointing at his younger countryman. "Shut up! Grow up!" Connors shouted. "You're a baby. I've got a son your age." He then erased McEnroe's ball mark with his foot.

Connors's metamorphosis from scatological scoundrel to Mr. Warmth probably has everything to do with his interest in preparing for a career after tennis. Undoubtedly realizing that he would soon be a media dog himself, Connors apologized a few years ago to journalists on French TV for being unable to do interviews "in your language." Collins, whom Connors once addressed as "——hole" and whom Jimbo once whapped with a tennis bag to avoid an interview, is now his good Bud.

And so it went last week, Connors continuing to see the light in the City of Light. Following his 3-hour-and-39-minute marathon victory over Agenor, which turned on a call in the fifth set, after Connors had slyly forced an umpire's overrule on an apparent Agenor ace, Jimbo was asked what he thought of his next foe, Chang. "He's younger than I am," said Connors.

"Everybody is," said Sal Zanca of the Associated Press.

In the old days, such a remark would have produced a stream of four-letter Jimboian invective. This time, however, he laughed and said, "That's cold."

"The part maniac in him gives Jimmy a chance to win [against Chang], but it's not likely," said Andre Agassi, echoing the locker-room scuttlebutt. From the beginning, Connors was up to his old/new, full-maniac act: pumping his arms, kibitzing with linespersons and ball children, gasping for breath, stoking himself, playing the crowd better than he ever has and, ultimately, having the fun match of his life. "Getting old is a bitch," said Connors at one point to Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, who was sitting in the first row.

After the players had split the first two sets, a courtside phone began ringing in the first game of the third. "Tell my wife, Patti, I'm being good, don't worry!" screamed Connors. But soon, he was a hurting, creaking old man. Norris appeared twice to aid Connors, but the crowd—"Allez, Jheemee, allez"—carried him through that remarkable fourth set.

"He must get his energy from his guts, or somewhere," Chang would later say. "I didn't really care if Jimmy was injured. He was still hitting great shots—flat, sliced, lots of penetration. He kept coming at me. I couldn't consider his age. The guy is Jimmy Connors. We all know how he is, because of who he is." From the mouth of a babe—and such a tribute.

When Chang broke serve to make the score 4-4 in the fourth set, the weary veteran looked for all the world to be finished. Mais non. Encore! Moving just so—setting up, taking aim—Connors fired four withering blasts in the next game to break back at love. He paused to bask in the acclaim, saluted the crowd and then limped to the changeover. A few minutes later, after he had served out the set, all of France seemed to envelop Connors with praise and passion. Then, on the shakiest of legs, he hung on for that one final winning stroke before he approached umpire Bruno Rebeuh and bowed to the inevitable. "I can't move my back anymore. I'm trying my ass off out here," he told Rebeuh, who urged him to continue.

After undergoing an ice massage, stretching and getting an IV solution of sodium and potassium, Connors was able to dress himself, sit up and speak about the sorrowful joy of what had happened. "I've been run ragged, my back's stiff, and I feel like ——," he said. "But, boy, was it fun. To get a stadium rocking like that is a kick you can't believe."

Ah, Jheemee. Not unless it's anything close to the marvelous kick everybody in Paris got watching you.

PHOTOCARYN LEVYConnors was all guts and glory against Chang before his body finally gave out in the fifth set.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWhenever Chang seemed to be a leg up in the 3½-hour match, Connors reached down deep.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERAfter Connors retired, Chang said, "He kept coming at me. I couldn't consider his age."