NEW YORK — Father Time has come to the net, and you half expect Jimmy Connors to flip him an obscene gesture before smashing the ball back at his face.

The nerve of it all. James Scott Connors, the original angry young man of tennis . . . old? Why, the spirit should be ashamed, as should those pea-brain journalists who keep creating stories entitled “The Mellowing of Jimmy Connors.”

First off, the guy is not a cantaloupe.

Secondly, those stories inevitably feature pictures of Connors sitting on some couch in some corporate office, his hair blown back, that smiling, Paine Webber spokesman-look on his face. No rackets. No crowd. No cursing.

It figures. If they’d shot him on the court, they’d get the same Jimmy Connors pictures as always: his face snarling, his hair soaked in Prince Valiant bangs, dropping tennis balls from between his legs to suggest the referee just, uh, laid an egg, so to speak.

Sure, he celebrated his 33d birthday Monday — Labor Day, how appropriate
— which makes him nearly seven years older than John McEnroe, eight years past Ivan Lendl, 12 years beyond Mats Wilander and an incredible 16 years past West Germany’s Boris Becker.

And so what?

Questions are becoming standard

You get older, you get smarter. McEnroe, who knows a thing or two about the game, says Connors is playing some of his best tennis ever. Connors just grins.

“If everybody wants to make me a tombstone, well, let ’em,” he said Sunday. “Just don’t put it on me yet.”

Not that they haven’t tried. This year especially — in which he’s failed to win a tournament for the first time ever — tennis’ original superbrat has had more dirt tossed on him than an old bone.

“Why are you still playing?”

“When will you quit?”

“What about the younger players?”

All standard questions now at a Jimmy Connors press conference.

Strange, no? Connors has been many things over the years. But never old, never yielding.

You can still see him at age 22, the shaggy-haired No. 1 of the world, jumping over the net after a win, smooching with an 18-year-old Chris Evert, sticking that finger in the air, then a few years later, disappearing into a taxi after losing at the U.S. Open, ducking photographers during a romance with a Miss Universe, telling McEnroe to “shut up and play” at Wimbledon, and then, when everybody had just about buried him, coming back in 1982 to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, marrying a former Playboy Playmate, fathering a son.

Stubborn. Boorish. Charming. Rich. There’s all that. But Connors has always been just one thing during a tennis match, and mellow ain’t it.

“I am,” he said, “an animal out there.”

Younger isn’t always better He is out there again today, playing with the same dinosaur of a racket he’s been using since 1974. And if he wins he’ll have more U.S. Open victories than any other man in history, one more medal for his personal combat vest.

Fittingly, the challenge comes from yet another young turk — or Swede, as the case may be — Stefan Edberg, 19.

I’ll take Connors. Most people will. At least most people who’ve seen the other side of 30, or who’ve been told at some point in their lives that a younger man can do the job better.

Or who believes, as Woody Allen once put it, if you get too mellow “you ripen and rot.”

Thirty-three isn’t dead, you know.

On Monday, his birthday, CBS had Connors in a jacket and tie, interviewing McEnroe after a match. He asked who Mac thought was playing well in this tournament.

“Well,” McEnroe began, “this guy Connors isn’t too bad. . . . “

Nice. And true.

Tennis buffs will remember a U.S. Open semifinal in the ’70s, in which Adriano Panatta had Connors bobbing across the court like a duck in a penny arcade. Panatta whipped it right, Connors ran and got it, left, Connors ran and got it. Panatta came to the net, put one in the far right corner that Connors never could get, except he got it, with the very fingernail of his racket, and sliced it down the line for a winner.

“That,” Connors recalled, “was the greatest shot of my life.” So far.

But don’t be surprised if he puts a few passing shots by Father Time before it’s all over. The angry young man hasn’t rotted yet.

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