The long goodbye

It's not yet game, set, match for Jimmy Connors, even at 47

He still looks young, even up close -- like a memory come to flesh-and-blood life, not yet the vestige of a hero. There is a little gray in the eyebrows, and his hands look callused and battered. But otherwise, sitting beneath a shade tree behind the Four Seasons Resort and Hotel in Las Colinas, James Scott Connors looks every bit the way he did in 1974, when he first won Wimbledon; or the way he did in 1983, when he won the U.S. Open for the fifth and final time; or the way he did in 1991, when he reached the semis at the U.S. Open at the grand old age of 39.

Time has been kind to Jimmy Connors, bestowing upon him the gift of smooth, tanned skin and a mirthful smile. Perhaps that is what happens when, at the age of 47, you are still playing the game your mother and grandmother taught you to play. Jimmy Connors will forever be a child, Gloria Connors' boy still bringing his tennis racket to work with him.

By all rights, he should have long ago disappeared into the history books, beneath the heading, "One of the greatest who ever played the game." It has been 27 years since Connors turned pro, though it often seems as though he has been around for several lifetimes. And perhaps he has, since no other figure in professional sports has evolved as much as Jimmy Connors -- the brat who played on hate, only to become the sport's beloved grand old teddy bear when he walked away from the pro circuit eight years ago. Most athletes would have been thrilled to be given such a glorious going-away gift as Connors received at the U.S. Open in 1991, when the adoring crowd nearly lifted him to unexpected, inexplicable victory. They would have gladly walked away before they had to be carried off. John Elway seized the opportunity; so did Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky.

But not Belleville, Illinois' Jimmy Connors, who is too competitive and perhaps even too stubborn to walk away from the court. That is why, each year, Connors comes to Irving as part of the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit -- because, as the WSTC's co-founder, he is not yet ready to leave the game, no matter how burned-out he feels whenever he is away from the court. There is still some tennis to be played, some old rival left to beat one more time, some old memory left to chase out there between the lines. That is why Jimmy Connors comes to town once a year -- to win, because he still can and because that's all he's ever done.

"I play golf with Gretzky and Jordan and talk to them about it, and they just said, enough's enough," Connors says, sitting in the shade. He wears a white Cadillac sweater, and his skinny legs stretch out from his white tennis shorts. "When you can't do it anymore, and you don't like seeing the results, that you can't go out there and give it all you got. But the problem is, in basketball, they don't have a senior tour. In hockey, they don't have a senior tour. As far as walking away, I'd hate to say I'll never have a problem with it, but I don't think I will."

The crowds have diminished, and interest has waned. There are no more than several hundred folks in attendance for Connors' Saturday-afternoon match against Andrés Gómez, who, at the age of 30, defeated Andre Agassi in 1990 to win the French Open. A decade ago -- when Gómez was at the top of his game, when Connors was somewhere in the brilliant middle -- a Connors-Gómez match would have drawn thousands. Now, it nearly draws a blank.

Connors can almost accept that. He can almost deal with the dwindling attention -- the fact that his matches now run on cable stations sandwiched between beach volleyball games and pool tournaments; that he no longer warrants front-page attention in the cities in which he plays; that these titles won't even merit footnote mentions in the history books. Still, there is part of him that expects more -- that needs more. It's the part of him that skulked away from defeat in the '70s and '80s, the part of him that was never quite gracious enough even in victory.

After his match against Gómez, Connors came out of the dressing room and found only three reporters waiting for him. "With all the coverage in the paper, should I even do this?" he said to no one in particular as he walked to his seat next to the Four Seasons' putting green. "I mean, I saw one little clip in the paper this morning..." His voice trailed off before he took his seat. Hey, no one forced him to be here.

Watching Connors go against Gómez, who still plays for Ecuador's Davis Cup team, is like watching a highlight reel in slight slow motion. Connors' iron-fisted, two-handed backhand, as much a signature move as Michael Jordan's tongue-wagging slam dunk, has been tamed by time; you can now see the bullet as it whizzes through the air. And his grunts, which accompany each serve and each return, have grown more audible over the years. You can feel them in your own bones.

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