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.

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.

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.

Never mind that he was right. No one will ever be able to replace Jimmy Connors -- not the 20-year-old mama's boy or the 47-year-old senior-circuit champion. And that, perhaps, is why he still plays. Because, quite simply, he is Jimmy Connors, and what the hell else is he supposed to do?

"I loved playing tennis, and I loved everything about it -- I loved the sacrifice. But the actual playing of the tennis was what it was really all about. I don't do this to be around tennis, and it's not about missing the fans. I walked away from that nine years ago, when I left the U.S. Open and that craziness. It's the idea of still doing something I like to do, and eventually I'm not going to like it anymore. I'm going to wake up one day, and my body's going to hurt worse than it does, and I'm gonna say, 'I really don't like doing this anymore.' And when I don't like it, then I am going to quit totally. I will never pick up a racket again. It will be totally over, and I hate to say that. But once I walk away, I will have had enough."

Until then, he will chase little yellow balls.

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