The long goodbye

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

But Connors is still capable of playing thrilling tennis, even against a man several years younger than he; this is not Frank Sinatra during his final years on the stage, reading from TelePrompters the lyrics to songs he had sung thousands of times before. Connors -- who says later that he is happy to play at "80 percent of my old 100 percent" -- closes out the first set against Gómez with two astonishing points, covering the court like a sudden downpour. He stretches his body so far, it seems as though he will snap in two, diving for balls Gómez thought he had no chance of retrieving.

Finally, by the end of the set -- which Connors wins 6-2 -- he is so spent, he rests his sweat-soaked body against the railing separating the spectators from the court. "You're a bastard," Connors yells to Gómez, a pale smile running across his face. Later, Connors will insist he wasn't as tired as he let on, recalling McEnroe's comment in 1984 that Connors "fakes it pretty well."

Yet the man appears exhausted, and he essentially tanks the second set -- a strategy common on the seniors tour, where matches go no further than two sets and, if necessary, a third-set first-guy-to-10 tiebreaker. He barely moves toward balls only a few feet beside him, preferring instead to save his reserves for the tiebreaker. Connors rushes through games, hurling toward the inevitable defeat. He barely waits for one serve to drop before delivering another; he's a machine gun, always missing the mark.

Playing by memory: Jimmy Connors is the WSTC champ, but what else would he be?
Playing by memory: Jimmy Connors is the WSTC champ, but what else would he be?

Connors appears to become a little grumpy, arguing one call by telling a tentative line judge, "I don't mind if a ball's in or out, just call it before the day's over." But even that castigation is delivered only half-heartedly, like an apology. Unlike McEnroe, who nearly reduced the chair umpire to tears during last year's WSTC event at the Four Seasons, Connors is not at all the terror he was two decades ago. He will even mutter to himself during the second set, "It's just not worth arguing over."

Connors, of course, wins the tiebreaker 10-7; it's a workmanlike performance and an inevitable outcome. Then, little drama usually accompanies the matches on the WSTC. It's almost a given that Connors or, when they are playing, John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg will be there come the finals. At least, the script had better unfold that way; if not, then what is the point? A Johan Kriek-Guillermo Villas finals might have been sexy in...oh, 1980, but the crowds, such as they are, want only one thing: Jim-my! Jim-my! Jim-my!

In fact, once Connors and McEnroe and Bjorg finally retire from the seniors circuit, the tour might as well go gently into that good night. The next two former superstars eligible to join the WSTC are Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker; Edberg is said to be interested, and Becker has been silent on the matter. And even if both were to join, how much interest would there be? McEnroe and Connors were the Rolling Stones and Beatles of tennis during the 1970s. At best, Edberg and Becker, even with their combined total of 13 major titles, were the Dave Clark Five and the Monkees.

And it's doubtful that the likes of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will ever have much interest in playing on the oldies circuit. They're too bloated by modern-day tennis' wealth to need the $40,000 a winner can pocket for a weekend's worth of...work. Doubtful they will ever slum it playing for country-club cash. And it's just as doubtful that crowds would want to see them play during the twilight of their careers -- especially Sampras, whose bad back has begun to hamper the 28-year-old's boringly brilliant career, rendering him old before his time.

Connors would like to see the tour continue, but also is skeptical about its fate. He knows there are no players on the men's tour who have as much charisma as he and McEnroe, among the most hated heroes in modern sport. And charisma is all these men have left after all these years.

"Even though the other tour is looked at as big business because of the prize money and everything else that goes along with it, personality is what sells over here," he says. "I hope a lot of the guys want to continue to come and play this when they do turn 35. It'll be awful nice for me, when I turn 60, to look back and say, 'Geez, that senior tour is still going, and I started that. That was my baby, and it's still going, and look, it's even gotten bigger and better.' I hope a lot of the younger guys, even if they get out of tennis for a while, come on."

That said, Connors does not talk to today's champions. They do not seek him out for counsel, and he does not seek them out. He says, with a laugh, that he is not the "reach-out-able type" -- he would prefer to keep today's champions at a racket's length. And it certainly did not help when, last month, he told a coterie of English reporters that Andre Agassi doesn't belong "in the same breath" as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, even Pete Sampras -- remarks he now insists were taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

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