NEW YORK — Near the back of the men’s locker room, on a single wooden bench, Aaron Krickstein sat by himself, watching a silent TV screen and counting down the minutes. Soon he would become the loneliest man in New York City, the man who would try to beat the legendary Jimmy Connors, a one-time tennis villain who has finally reached his 39th birthday and who suddenly everyone wants to take home and cuddle.
“When was the last time you played a 39-year-old?” someone asked.
“My coach,” said Krickstein, smiling.
This would not be his coach. This would not be his peer. This would unlike any tennis match he had played before, like playing Castro in Havana, like playing Superman at Krypton Stadium. Jimmy Connors now owns the U.S. Open, I guess because he is brash and crude and would kick your mother in the crotch to win a fight and therefore the folks around here figure he must have trained locally. They love him. Connors, a five-time Open champion, has become The Angle in New York City this week, the Hot Story, the Man of The Moment, and what’s big in New York gets big across the rest of the country, real fast. Suddenly, meeting Connors at Flushing Meadows is like meeting the Libyan army at Tripoli.
“How many seats here, 20,000?” Krickstein asked. “I figure 19,800 will be rooting for him, and 200 for me. I think I gave out that many tickets.”
He rubbed his shaggy hair and hooked his fingers together nervously. “I just hope they make some noise.” Not even a warning
“YOU SON OF A B—-! GET YOUR A– OUT OF THAT CHAIR!”
This was Connors to the umpire at the end of the second set, on a ball that was pretty clearly out. He didn’t like it, so the fans didn’t like it. They hooted, they roared, and Connors played them to the hilt, pointing repeatedly at the umpire and jerking his thumb in the “You’re outa there” fashion.
“KISS ME WHEN YOU DO THAT NEXT TIME! I LIKE TO BE KISSED WHEN SOMEONE DOES THAT TO ME!”
This was Connors in the fourth set, to the same umpire, after another disputed call.
“YOU’RE AN ABORTION! AN ABSOLUTE ABORTION, YOU KNOW THAT?”
This was Connors in the fifth set, same umpire, another disputed call.
“I’M TOO F—— GOOD! I’M TOO F—— GOOD!”
This was Connors yelling to the crowd after he tied the match at 5-5 in the final set. They roared as if they were teenagers and Axl Rose was whipping them into a frenzy. Right didn’t matter. Courtesy didn’t matter. Jimmy was their guy. They did what he wanted.
Yet for all this abuse — and there was plenty more that I left out — there were no penalties from the umpires. No fines. Not even a warning. Connors steered this match brilliantly and diabolically, intimidating the officials and playing the crowd like a piano. I point this out only to remind you that while Connors is a great story, an amazing tennis specimen, a tribute to 39-year-olds everywhere, maybe the best pure competitor on the tour today, he is still, as he has always been, a jerk on the court.
Which is why I laugh at all the attention he is getting this week. Sure, what he is doing here, at his age, is terrific — two five-set victories in his first four rounds — but the light that is shining on his courage and guts, which he has always had, seemed to also be illuminating him as some sort of good guy. And you shouldn’t buy that. This clever marketing campaign (the Paine Webber commercials) and the way Connors works the TV cameras — now that he has become a network analyst, the kind of job he once spat at — has not fooled me. It hasn’t fooled most people who follow tennis. What you saw at the end of the second set, and in the third, and in the fifth, that’s Connors. Always has been. Still growing up
Having said that, you must give Connors his due. He came back from a set down, and from three games down in the final frame to win his fourth round match with Krickstein — in a tiebreaker, no less. You do that at 29, it’s impressive. You do it at 39, it’s incredible. Time and again, Connors would challenge Krickstein, racing to the net like a wild beast, slapping away Krickstein’s returns. He seemed destined to win it, convinced that it was just a matter of time.
And maybe that is the difference between the two. In six tries, Krickstein has never beaten Connors. Mentally, perhaps, he doesn’t feel it can be done. He had Connors down, 5-2, in the fifth set and couldn’t put him away. Time after time, on the verge of victory, Krickstein seemed to hit right into the teeth of Connors.
“I should have been more aggressive,” Krickstein admitted afterwards.
“You get in a situation like that, it’s tough.”
You had to feel for Krickstein, taking on both a legend and an army of fans. Then again, after the match, someone asked Connors if, given the circumstances, he felt compassion towards Krickstein. This is what he said:
“Hey, nobody ever had any compassion for me when I was growing up.”