FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, JIMBO, ACT YOUR AGE!

NEW YORK — Near the back of the men’s locker room, on a wooden bench, Aaron Krickstein sat by himself, counting down the minutes. Soon he would become the loneliest man in New York City, the man who would try to beat Jimmy Connors, a former tennis bad boy who just turned 39, and suddenly everyone wants to take him home and hug him.

“When was the last time you played a 39-year-old?” someone asked Krickstein.

“My coach,” he said, smiling.

This would not be his coach. This would not be his peer. This would be 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 New Yorkers figure, hey, he must be OK. Go, Jimbo! Connors, a five-time Open champion, has become The Hot Story in The Big Apple this week, and what’s hot in New York gets hot across the country, it grows real fast, until now meeting Connors at Flushing Meadow 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.”

“I just hope they make some noise.”

Well. If they did, they were drowned out. Krickstein and Connors pounded each other for four hours and 41 minutes Monday. Five sets. It was the longest and best match of this U.S. Open so far.

It was also the most unfair. Once a jerk, always a jerk “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 at the ump, as Connors jerked his thumb repeatedly in the “you’re outa here” 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, same umpire, after another disputed call. The crowd cheered Jimmy. They clapped on Krickstein’s mistakes.

“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! TOO F—— GOOD!”

This was Connors yelling to fans after he tied the match at 5-5 in the final set. They roared like teenagers. This was tennis? A major tournament? Did Krickstein count at all?

Apparently not. 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, a brilliant competitor, he is still, quite often, a jerk.

Which is why I question all the hype he is getting this week. Sure, what he is doing at the Open, 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, seems also to be casting him as some sort of good guy. And you shouldn’t buy that. This clever marketing campaign (the PaineWebber 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. This is the same temperamental guy who would bite your nose off, tell your kids to get lost, give fans the finger. What you saw in the second set Monday, and in the fourth, and in the fifth — the crude abuse, the me-first, me-only attitude — that’s Connors. Always has been. Play by the rules Having said that, you must give him his due. He came back from a set down, and from three games behind in the fifth. At 29 that’s impressive. At 39 it’s incredible. Time after time, Connors would charge to the net like a wild beast, slapping away returns. He played through injury, fatigue, his chest heaving, his hair dripping sweat. He seemed destined to win, convinced it was just a matter of time.

And maybe that is the difference between Connors and Krickstein, who has always been a little too nice for his own success. In six tries, Krickstein, 24, has never beaten Connors. Mentally, perhaps, he doesn’t believe it can be done. “I should have been more aggressive,” Krickstein admitted after blowing a 5-2 lead in the fifth.

Then again, he was taking on the entire stadium.

And things will not change for the next opponent. On Thursday, in the quarterfinals, Paul Haarhuis will become the loneliest man in town. Connors is New York City this week, they are all behind him. And that’s fine, I guess
— as long as Connors isn’t allowed to chew the rules and spit them out.

Personally, this whole Let’s-Celebrate-Jimmy bandwagon seems a little too orchestrated for me. He’s 39? Great. So’s my barber. I pay more attention to little things, like behavior, like history. Like after the match, when someone asked Connors if he felt compassion for Krickstein. This is what he said:

“Hey, nobody ever had compassion for me.”

A New York hero, if there ever was one.

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