AN EPIC BATTLE DOWN 1-6, 1-6, 1-4, CONNORS RALLIES TO WIN

WIMBLEDON, England — The last American tennis man was getting the hell beat out of him. His racket was bleeding. He looked weary, overmatched — he looked old, and that was the worst thing, because Jimmy Connors is old, he’s 34, and by tennis standards that’s ancient, at least to be Centre Court at Wimbledon, taking on a guy more than a decade younger. Clunk! He put a shot into the net. Clunk! He hit long and out. The tennis fans who had been watching him here since 1971 shook their heads grimly, like loved ones on the edge of a hospital bed.

“What a shame,” someone whispered.

“Will he quit after this?”

“So much for the American players. . . . “

What was the score then? Connors down two sets to zero? Down four games-to-one? Even the non-tennis fan could recognize this disaster, just a few games away from being swept out of Wimbledon like an empty strawberry cup.

Yes. Well. Can we have music, please? Can we have the lights? This is a tale of the greatest comeback in modern Wimbledon history. You can argue that all you want, but you can’t dispute it, because when you are getting dumped on, taking punches to the chin — “Face it,” Connors would say of Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors, “he was kicking my butt so badly, I didn’t have time to be embarrassed !” — and besides that, you have every reason to lose, go quietly, blame your age or your match yesterday or whatever, and instead you start to win, despite all logic, you start like an old car under a three-year snow drift, well, what else can you call 1-6, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2?

“Phenomenal?. . . . ” Connors would suggest.

Same old Jimbo.

But OK. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. Put aside his flippant past, his “bleep you” tennis racket, his screams, his tantrums, his ego — and put aside also the phony Mr. Nice Guy he’s been playing since he got married and had a few kids, because that’s a lot of garbage — and you’ll still have the man who twice won this tournament, the essential Jimmy Connors. A battler. Dig and grind. Scratch your eyes out.

But not every second. In fact, for the first 58 minutes Tuesday, Pernfors stuffed the ball down his throat. The Swede won two sets in that short time, 6-1, 6-1. He did it with every kind of shot: winners down the line, slices that tickled the net, bloops that fell dead and seemed to laugh at the old guy. Two sets in 58 minutes? How embarrassing was that? (“Would you play Connors differently?” someone would ask Pernfors when this was all over. “When you’re up, 6-1, 6-1, I’d say you’re playing him pretty well,” Pernfors would reply.)

And so he was. And since all the other American men had been eliminated by this, the fourth round, the U.S. fans were preparing for the worst. A cold wind blew. The sun was hidden by the clouds. Perfect for a burial. When do we begin?

We don’t. Call it a rush, call it panic, call it the silent alarm of a guy who has been playing professional tennis since Nixon played president. Suddenly, Connors won a point. Then another. Then a game. Then another.

Push. Grind. Dig. He focused like a laser and did not seem to breathe until the score went from 4-1, Pernfors, to 4-4, even. In that stretch he ran off 14 straight points, coming to the net with a ferocity of years ago. The shots that had clunked now whistled, the long balls found the line instead. How do you do that? What do you call it? What takes over when you are as low as you can get?

“Were you surprised at how you came back?” someone would ask Connors later.

“Why do you ask that?” he would snap. “I can still play . I’m not out there for any other reason but because I can play tennis.”

Pride? Anger? Here is a man who is asked daily about retiring, a guy who’s already won his millions, who now sinks annually in the computer rankings. Here is 34 years old, climbing an ice mountain. Down two sets? Down four games-to- one?

And yet he somehow came back, he used every trick, slowing that third set by going to his towel, by pointing at fans, by arguing, by returning to his towel. He distracted Pernfors, goosed his confidence, and gradually, like a moving boulder, he reached set point, leading six games to five. And he hit a backhand drop shot which Pernfors returned . . . long.

“GAME AND SET TO MR. CONNORS,” bellowed the umpire, and Connors shook a mighty fist. He had only closed the gap to two sets-to-one. But he had dodged a sword. His legs were coming back.

He leaned over, intent, ready to receive Pernfors’ serve. . . .

Sports is for drama, and drama needs a stage. Could there have been a better one for what took place next? Centre Court Wimbledon, with the British royalty looking on from their box, looking at the same grassy court they used 55 years ago when this stadium was opened? Everything here reeks of age, tradition. What a spot for the oldest player in the tournament!

And he fell behind.

Again? Yes. Three quick games. And his “comeback” seemed little more than a nostalgic breeze. Pernfors, the young Swede with a punk-crew cut (remember when Connor’s hair was stylish?) was back to brilliance. He rifled shots, he sliced them — he could have put the ball through the teeth of a comb — and

he hit the line almost at will. At one point, Connors lobbed a return out of bounds, and Pernfors watched it come down and drop-kicked it. “See ya, Pops,” he seemed to say.

But remember who made showmanship fashionable. This is James Scott Connors, the kid with the page-boy cut and the obscene finger, the original brat, now turned yuppie brat. He rallied again, won a game, then another, with solid returns and well-placed volleys. At one point, Pernfors gave chase and returned a shot with his back to the net — a magnificent swipe through his legs! But Connors was waiting. He dinked it over. His point.

“GAME, MR. CONNORS. . . . “

“GAME, MR. CONNORS. . . . “

He won five straight, lost one, then won the next to capture the fourth set, 6-4. Now the very breath of competition seemed to be coming from Connors’ nostrils. Pernfors, who had played so brilliantly for such a big early lead, found himself back at square one. “He kept lifting his game,” Pernfors would say. “I knew he was a good comeback player. But I was still thinking I could win. . . . “

Deep down the 23-year-old must have known otherwise. The sun was setting. It was past dinnertime. All kids have to come inside. S o the fifth set was a battle with the outcome suspected, like a Star Wars movie, or a rerun of “The Dirty Dozen.” “I was rolling,” Connors would admit. He dropped the first game, then won the second, third, fourth, fifth. His shots had developed, well, youth. They kissed the line, they dropped perfectly then died. The match had come full circle. Pernfors was now the one slow to the ball. Connors had the magic. He developed a leg cramp and stumbled through a few points, rubbing his right thigh. Not to worry. (“I would have stayed out there if I had to crawl,” he said.)

And finally, the ending. Match point. Connors stood ready to serve, his sweat now drying in the cool evening air. How long had he been outrunning the reaper? How many comeback points? He took a breath, put his hands on his hips, and soaked in the moment. The crowd roared. They knew what they were witnessing. Better than Rosewall-Smith in 1974. Better than Borg-Connors in 1981. Better than all the comebacks since professionals began playing on this hallowed court. . . . T HWOCK! Serve, return, and a cross-court backhand winner — two-handed, of course. Vintage stuff.

“GAME, SET AND MATCH, MR. CONNORS. . . .

He threw himself into the air and cheered at the heavens, hands high, as if

some special secret had just been shared. Perhaps it had. How long had they played? Three hours and thirty-nine minutes? A lifetime? Both? Suddenly, everything was topsy-turvy. Young was old, old was new, new was tired, and tired was lifting his fists in victory and heading for the quarterfinals.

“When you walked out together, we noticed you put your arm on Pernfors’ shoulder,” a reporter would later say to Connors. “Did you say anything to him? Any condolences?”

“Nah,” the last American tennis man would answer. “I was just pushing him ahead of me so he wouldn’t see me pass out.”

That’s it? End with a joke? The greatest comeback in modern Wimbledon history? Well, why not? You only live once. Or in Connors’ case, twice.

CUTLINE:

Jimmy Connors throws up his arms in jubilation after beating Mikael Pernfors.

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