WIMBLEDON, England — He went out holding his racket, not his crotch, which is a sign of maturity, I suppose. Jimmy Connors hasn’t always been a grown-up. But when he exited Wimbledon Friday, a semifinal loser to a young and overpowering Pat Cash, he was given an ovation not only for today but for a lot of yesterdays. He got the old man’s cheer.
It happens. You get older, people forgive you. There was a time here when a younger Jimmy Connors pulled all his tricks, his obscene racket, his curses, his crotch-grab. When he lost to Roscoe Tanner in 1976, he jumped out the back door and disappeared into a getaway car. When he lost to Bjorn Borg in 1977, he said “I’ll follow that SOB to the ends of the earth.”
He never showed for Wimbledon’s prestigious Centenary celebration of champions, claiming his invitation was lost in the mail. He stormed around, he yelled, he flipped this place the bird. And every youngster who comes to Wimbledon now and is labeled some sort of “brat” has James Scott Connors to thank for it.
So be it. This was never his town, London, nor could it ever be for a kid from the middle class neighborhoods around St. Louis, the son of a bridge toll-booth operator and a mother who dominated his life. “When I first came over here,” he admitted Friday, after Cash’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 drubbing, “I had a different rapport with the people here than I do now. I had my attitude and they had their attitude. We had a clash of attitudes. Where I come from, their attitude didn’t exist.” Is it deja vu?
But they were roaring for him Friday, roaring for his age (34) as much as his effort. And at times, he actually smiled back. It was no fluke that Connors was in this round against Cash, 12 years his junior. He played tough matches all week, and before he ever took the court Friday, he had already given this Wimbledon its finest moment so far: the come-from-the-grave fourth round victory over Mikael Pernfors, whom he trailed, 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 before catching fire. “The greatest comeback in Wimbledon history,” people are still whispering. That’s a nice gift.
So he charged after Cash’s volleys, and he raced to keep up with Cash’s serve, and it wasn’t much of a contest because Cash, the Australian whiz kid, was playing too well, too strong, too young.
The crowd knew it. They had seen it before: Thirteen years ago, a 21-year-old American embarrassed a 39- year-old Australian named Ken Rosewall here — beat him 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 to capture the championship — and for all intents and purposes, retired the old guy from the big time.
The kid was Jimmy Connors.
So when Connors’ final shot went into the net, the crowd stood on its feet for the loser as much as the victor. Connors was weaving a nice little fairy tale here, a dash of Cervantes, a dash of Peter Pan. Nice, but ultimately stopped. Tinkerbell flew off his shoulder Friday. You would too if one of Cash’s forehands was coming at you.
Cash is known as a mini-Connors back in his native Australia, a complainer, a sass, a temper. He has shown some of that this week, with moody interviews and snide comments.
“Can you see yourself playing at 34 like Connors?” someone asked Cash after his win.
“I hope not to be,” he said.
“What would you rather do?”
“I’d rather be on the beach, reach 20 stone, and become a yobbo.”
‘Get ahold on yourself’ Here is the translation of that, at least what an Australian journalist said: 20 stone is about 280 pounds. A yobbo is a guy who drinks. Pat Cash would like to be Ralph Kramden.
Well. That’s his business. Right now, we are left with Cash in the men’s final against Ivan Lendl, who beat Stefan Edberg in a battle-of-the-snooze earlier Friday. Lendl has been accused of being mechanical, emotionless, a robot. But at least he casts a shadow.
Edberg is so dull, when he put a towel over his head during a changeover Friday, half the crowd thought he’d left the stadium.
Lendl against Cash. They have met before. Their most memorable duel came in the 1984 U.S. Open semifinals, where Cash — showing true Jimmy Connors inspiration — heaved his racket into the crowd after losing in the fifth set.
Maybe he’ll do it on Sunday. Maybe Lendl will, too. Then, we can leave to see “Les Miserables.” The theater version, not the tennis one.
Whatever. That’s Sunday. On this day, the moment belonged to Connors, to Father Time, to 16 years at Wimbledon and a crowd that finally appreciates him for more than his outbursts.
I think in the final games against Cash, with the match nearly lost, Connors gave the faithful a few from the old days. A yell. A finger. And yes, once, the famous grab.
“Get ahold on yourself,” he seemed to say.
He may be back.