Jimmmmeeee!!!" cried a shrill voice in the New York crowd.
"Whaaatttt???" Jimmy Connors bellowed in reply.
If his comedic sense is one reason the starving pack loves Jimbo, other reasons also became clear during his first-round match last week at the U.S. Open, a marathon that lasted until 1:35 in the morning, courtesy of Connors's tenacity. What became most apparent, though, was the sad difference between American tennis's past and future, as the most flamboyant symbols of their respective eras passed like drips in the night.
To be fair, Connors only used to be a drip. Now, having ceased his on-court practice of grabbing his privates and flipping his middle finger, he is a national hero. The more twisted irony is that at 39, Connors seems only to be arriving, while Andre Agassi, 21, or at least the Image of Andre Agassi (with this guy, one can never be sure), may well be leaving.
September 8, 1991
Old versus young. Substance versus style. Never were the contrasts between how much Connors means to the game and how little Agassi cares about it so obvious as they were in New York, where, in the wee hours of Aug. 28, Connors thrilled yet another Grand Slam audience with a Methuselahian comeback, this time against Patrick McEnroe. On Aug. 26, the tournament's opening day, Agassi, the No. 8 seed, had meekly folded his neon tent against unseeded Aaron Krickstein and sauntered away in search of his lost forehand, his faint heart or the nearest rock 'n' roll sound studio.
Agassi rolled over in three pitiful sets. Connors won in five sizzlers, though at one juncture Jimbo's numbers were 0-2, 0-3,0-40 (that's sets, games, points). About then, on the TV broadcast, CBS's normally prescient Mary Carillo was saying that McEnroe was coasting. "Patrick's just keeping the ball in play" is how she put it. "He's going to let this match die."
Oh, Mary! Oh, Jimbo!!!!
By the time Connors pulled out his 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory, a miracle that took four hours and 20 minutes to complete, he not only had taken another step toward legendary status but also had stamped his name on the two most riveting matches of this tennis season. Who will forget his dramatic default, because of back spasms, to Michael Chang at the French Open?
Meanwhile, there was Agassi's continuing failure to fulfill his vast potential. When an athlete is as talented, charismatic and exciting as Agassi is—strip away the glitter, and he is still the game's most watchably brilliant player—he must take some responsibility for his performance. Which means Agassi is obligated to get himself prepared physically, mentally and spiritually for his sport's major events.
Instead, Agassi, after playing Wimbledon in '87, snubbed the tournament for three years, until this summer, and it set him back on grass immeasurably. More's the pity, because his marvelous hands and ball-on-the-rise dexterity make him a natural for the lawns. As for the French, Agassi should have won two championships; he is simply a better player than Andrès Gómez and Jim Courier, the men who beat him in the '90 and '91 finals at Paris. Finally, after reaching the semis twice at the U.S. Open and the final last year (when he was, more understandably, taken apart by a zoning Pete Sampras), Agassi bombed out last week against Krickstein, 7-5, 7-6, 6-2, even before Maria Maples could slither out of her limo. He was heavy, slow, out of focus, off-target. Worst of all, he appeared as if he couldn't care less.
O.K., so Krickstein's a terrific big-match guy, especially at the Open, and he had a grudge to settle after being replaced on the 1990 Davis Cup team by Agassi. O.K., so Agassi may have been sick. Who's teaching him how to eat and sleep? Dom DeLuise? Jerry Lewis? The theory here is that the energy, commitment and passion Connors has always manifested on the court appear in Agassi only during shoots for TV commercials.
When Connors emerged for practice several hours after last week's first-round thriller, Boris Becker and Gabriela Sabatini were among the players who came by to congratulate Jimbo. "I wish I had the love of the game he's got," said another player. Guy by the name of John McEnroe.
Three days later, on yet another nationally televised stage, Connors crushed 10th-seeded Karel Novacek in straight sets to move into the fourth round. Jimbo was ranked 174th in the world, but as he had put it earlier in the week, "I've always played tennis like I have three sixes in my head, like I'm possessed. I explain it this way: I go out and give everything I've got. The young guys don't know it and I don't tell them."
One young guy from Las Vegas obviously doesn't get it. At the 1988 Open, before his first meeting with Connors, Agassi told a friend that he would win "three, three and three." Connors did take only nine games, but at times he pushed Agassi, who acknowledged afterward, "I didn't know Jimmy would have that much in him."
What Agassi seems to have in him is very little shame. Hey, Andre, babe: Brain Alert! Take a hint from Jimbo. It's not just a match that he won't ever let die, it's a career. And unless you straighten up quickly, you'll never begin to approach the fellow in achievement.
Incidentally, the way you played last week at Flushing Meadow, you're fortunate that you didn't come anywhere near a red-hot and raging Connors.