WIMBLEDON, England — Picture a man dangling on a rope, sharks in the water, snapping at his flesh. The man is Jimmy Connors, the sharks are the tireless young tennis players who keep coming and coming. And one of them just rose up and bit him in the butt.
Jimbo exits Wimbledon. Who knows whether this is last time? He is 35 now, the wins come harder and harder, and the opponents are nameless, faceless.
“How much did you know about this guy before you played him?” someone asked Connors, after he lost a five-set match to unheralded West German Patrick Kuhnen, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, exiting this year’s Wimbledon in the fourth round.
“I don’t know anything about anybody,” sighed Connors, once the king of tennis. “They’re all 15 years younger than me now. They speak a different language. They listen to different music. They’re a different generation. . .
“But I never watched tennis anyhow. I never went out and scouted guys, I’m not gonna do it now. I don’t mind playing a guy like him, if he beats me, fine. The question is, can a guy like that play that well tomorrow and win?”
“Can he?” someone asked.
He grinned. He snorted. “We’ll see.” Jimmy always took the fifth
Same old Connors. Snotty when he wins. Snotty when he loses. But this was something odd, something disturbing — if you’ve come to admire this aging brat with the pageboy haircut.
He’d never lost a five-set match here to anybody but Bjorn Borg. You get Connors into the fifth set, you’re looking the dragon in the mouth, you’re heading into the abyss. Call home. Make out the will. Connors may be dirty mouth and dirty finger, but when the chips are down, he is all heart.
And yet Tuesday, that old reserve let him down. He escaped match point late in the fourth set against Kuhnen, came back to win and tie it up. You could smell the kill. Jimbo was salivating.
“The German should’ve finished him while he had the chance” the fans whispered gleefully. “Now Jimmy will take him for sure.”
Nothing is for sure. Not life, not marriage, not a tennis career. Connors faltered. He ran out of gas, and, afterward, he shrugged. No venom. No poison. He has been facing retirement questions every year at this tournament. This time, after Kuhnen, (ranked 90th in the world) captured the last nine points of their match, there was none of the usual nasty answers or insults.
“Will you come back?”
“I don’t know. Ask me next year.”
“But do you plan to return?”
“I’ll tell you this. If I play next year I’ll just play places that I enjoy playing, even if they’re not the biggest places. The tournaments that give me a hassle? I’ll just pass on those.”
And he may have been talking about Wimbledon. On Monday night, he was about to serve in the third-set tie-breaker against Kuhnen, when suddenly, it began to drizzle. Without warning from the umpire, a crowd of groundskeepers ran onto the court, pulling the tarp right over Connors’ foot; they almost Vince Coleman-ed him to death.
It was a sadly fitting picture: Jimbo, who has made the finals six times here and won the whole thing twice, being buried before his time by a group of over-eager nobodies. Better brash than bland
Remember last summer? Connors’ match against Mikael Pernfors? When he rose from the dead — the dead and gone, to be honest — trailing 1-6, 1-6, 1-4, and came back to win? What a moment! It didn’t earn him a title, yet it summed up everything Connors has ever stood for in this game.
It was pure American spit. Guts, glory — perfect for Connors, who has always appeared a bit more baseball player than tennis gentleman, grabbing his crotch and yelling obscenities and throwing rackets, balls, whatever. You may love him; you may hate him; but odds are you didn’t ignore him. And journalists, when not the target of his wrath, were actually happy for his candor, considering the alternative.
And here came the alternative Tuesday afternoon: Kuhnen, another tall, robotic, 22-year-old stud in a denim jacket.
“Is this your biggest win ever?”
“Yes, of course.”
“How significant was it?”
“A tennis player beat a tennis player.”
“Did you feel at all sorry, seeing a great player like Connors lose?”
“If I felt sorry I never would have won. We are tennis players. There is no sorry. There is only winning and losing.”
And today, there is only Kuhnen left standing. Connors is heading home. After 17 Wimbledons in a row, he may be somewhere else next June.
Not good news, not if you ask me. Tennis is quickly running out of personalities, seeing them replaced with boring executioners. Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe, Connors. They may have ruffled feathers, but at least you could tell them apart. On Tuesday, a British reporter was asking Connors about his anger during the final set. Connors ducked the accusation. The reporter persisted. Connors held firm.
“Your language was strong,” the reporter said.
“You were sitting too close,” said Connors.
Sharks are biting. He’s getting bit. But we will miss this guy one day. Mark my words.