They came to the French Open playing on their memories: Jimmy Connors, at 39 a punch-drunk braggart with a couple of mule kicks still left in his racket, and John McEnroe, at 33 a fading genius with groping, uncertain hands. After both lost their opening-round matches, it was clear that what they seemed to have remembered best was how to act like jerks. McEnroe incurred a $7,500 fine for cursing out a photographer during his four-set loss to Nicklas Kulti and could face suspension from his last Wimbledon. Connors raged, howled and generally created major melodrama in extending 23-year-old Wimbledon champion Michael Stich to five sets. But then he undercut his heroic performance by insulting today's generation of players and generally playing the phony.
Usually when a legend plays a Grand Slam event for the last time, as McEnroe and Connors probably did at the French Open, the stadium is awash in tears and nostalgia. Why then were the departures of these two legends last week not sadder occasions? Simply because the behavior of Connors and of McEnroe repels deeper sentiment and affection.
Let me make one thing clear. Connors and McEnroe are two of the most sublime tennis players ever. Connors could move whole stadiums to climb a mast in a hurricane, and McEnroe's deftness may never have an equal. They will be irreplaceable in various ways—both good and bad. As they so often remind us.
After their losses Connors and McEnroe each gracelessly suggested that the game would suffer from a lack of personality when they were gone. Said Connors, "My time and McEnroe's time, we've had it.... Somebody in today's tennis is going to have to come to the forefront with their tennis. And not only on the court...." McEnroe agreed and then singled out top-ranked Jim Courier as an example of today's colorless stars. "I think [tennis] could use some more personalities," McEnroe said. "A guy like Jim Courier, for example, is extremely strong mentally right now, but as far as personality, it is not the same as it was 10 years ago or even five years ago."
June 7, 1992
Apparently Courier is not an interesting enough conversationalist for McEnroe and Connors. Neither, presumably, is second-ranked Stefan Edberg of Sweden. Perhaps Connors and McEnroe have a point. Wasn't that the knock on Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson? Nice guys. Great champions. Well behaved. Not great copy—a sin that will forever taint their records.
McEnroe, in particular, should be careful of what he says about today's players, for he is in imminent danger of being surpassed by them. McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles, but never the Australian or the French. Bland as he may be, Courier, at age 21, has already won a French and an Australian. Edberg, 26, may lack McEnroe's colorful temperament, but he has won five Grand Slam titles, is the odds-on favorite to win his third Wimbledon next month and lacks only a French Open title to be the first male player since Laver to win all four slam events.
Moreover, McEnroe's seven Grand Slam titles amount to about half of what he could have won had he bothered to train properly or gain control of his temper. Last week he said that his "greatest disappointment" was his loss in the 1984 French final id Ivan Lendl, a man he reviled for being too workmanlike. Lendl, incidentally, has won eight Grand Slam titles, more than McEnroe and as many as Connors.
Connors at least has earned his self-proclaimed superiority with the sweat of his 20 years of effort on the court. His ambition has never abated, and when he can lake [he reigning Wimbledon champion, 16 years his junior, to five sets, everyone appears frail and pale beside him. Still, nobody but Connors could have gotten away with the ugly gamesmanship he displayed against Stich. He played shamelessly to the crowd to buy breathing time and took up to 50 seconds between points. Also, he tanked the fourth set, hoping to ride the crowd in the fifth, but miscalculated and had nothing left.
Afterward Stich said that while he understood Connors's attempt at survival, "I don't have to like it." Courier would not dignify McEnroe's remarks with a reaction, suggesting that he would let his own career speak for itself over time.
While Connors and McEnroe were trying to separate great champions from those who are merely great players, they should have separated themselves as well. They are great characters, American toughs from the if-you-don't-like-the-call-kick-dirt-on-the-umpire school. But for years McEnroe and Connors have unapologetically believed that brazenness could substitute for class.
It was impossible not to compare the behavior of McEnroe and Connors at the French with that of Edberg, who lost to Andrei Cherkasov in the third round after chair umpire David Littlefield overruled a linesman to give Cherkasov an ace and match point. Edberg would have been justified in yanking Littlefield out of the chair by his necktie. Despite the outrage, Edberg, a man with a faint personality but an exquisite sense of fairness, merely protested politely. With the crowd whistling and raining epithets on Littlefield's head after the match, Edberg shook the umpire's hand.
"It is a different breed of player than 20 years ago," Connors observed. "It is a different kind of player. But that is what the game will have to be satisfied with at this point."
O.K. by me.