WIMBLEDON, England — The last American tennis man was getting the hell beat out of him. His racket was bleeding. He looked weary, overmatched — he looked old, and that was the worst thing, because Jimmy Connors is old, he’s 34, and by tennis standards that’s ancient, at least to be center court at Wimbledon, taking on a guy more than a decade younger. Clunk! He put a shot into the net. Clunk! He hit long and out. The tennis fans who had been watching him here since 1971 shook their heads grimly, like loved ones on the edge of a hospital bed.
“What a shame,” someone whispered.
“Will he quit after this?”
“So much for the American players . . . “
What was the score then? Connors down two sets to zero? Down four games-to one? Even the non-tennis fan could recognize this disaster, just a few games away from being swept out of Wimbledon like an empty strawberry cup.
Yes. Well. Can we have music please? Can we have the lights? This is a tale of the greatest comeback in modern Wimbledon history, and you can argue that all you want, but you can’t dispute it, because when you are getting dumped on, taking punches to the chin — “Face it,” Connors would say of Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors, “he was kicking my butt so badly, I didn’t have time to be embarrassed !” — and besides that, you have every reason to lose, go quietly, blame your age or your match yesterday or whatever, and instead you start to win, despite all reason, you start like an old car under a three-year snow drift, well, what else can you call that?
“Phenomenal? . . . ” Connors would suggest.
Same old Jimbo.
But OK. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. Put aside his flippant gestures of the past, his “bleep you” tennis racket, his screams, his tantrums
— and put aside also the phony Mr. Nice Guy he’s been playing since he got married and had a few kids, because that’s a lot of garbage — and you’ll still have the essential Jimmy Connors. A battler. Dig and grind. Scratch your eyes out.
But not every second. In fact, for the first 58 minutes Tuesday, Pernfors stuffed the ball down his throat. The Swede won two sets in that short time, 6-1, 6-1. He did it with every kind of shot: winners down the line, slices that tickled the net, bloops that fell dead and seemed to laugh at the old guy. (“How would you play Connors differently?” someone would ask Pernfors when this was all over. “When you’re up 6-1, 6-1, I’d say you’re playing him pretty well,” Pernfors would reply.)
And so he was. And since all the other American men had been eliminated by this, the fourth round, the U.S. contingent was preparing for the worst. A cold wind blew. The sun was hidden by the clouds. Perfect for a burial. When do we begin?
We don’t. Call it a rush, call it panic, call it the silent alarm of a guy who’s been playing professional tennis since Nixon was in office. Connors won a point. Then another. Then a game. Then another.
Push. Grind. Dig. He did not come up for air until the score went from 4-1, Pernfors, to 4-4, even. In that stretch he ran off 14 straight points, coming to the net with a ferocity of years ago. The balls that had clunked, now whistled, the long shotsfound the line instead. How do you do that? What do you call it?
“Were you surprised at yourself?” someone would ask Connors later.
“Why do you ask that?” he would snap back. “I can still play. I’m not out there for any other reason but because I can play tennis. If I was ready to go out 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 I shouldn’t even be out there.”
Instead he somehow wrestled that set, he used every trick, he slowed it down by going to his towel, he pointed at fans, he argued, he distracted Pernfors just a bit, and suddenly, he had the lead, 6 games to 5. And at set point, he hit a backhand drop shot that Pernfors returned too long — “GAME AND SET TO MR. CONNORS,” bellowed the umpire — and the last American marched off as if to new music, shaking a fist, “EEYYAHH!” He had only closed the gap to two sets-to-one, Pernfors. He was still miles way from any great achievement. But he had dodged the sword. His legs were coming back. The rest of him was close behind.
Sports is for drama, and drama needs a stage. Could there have been a better one for what took place next? Center court Wimbledon, with the British royalty looking on from their box, with the same grassy court surface as 55 years ago? Everything here reeks of age and tradition. What a spot for the oldest player in the tournament!
And he fell behind.
Behind? Again? Yes. Three quick games. And the comeback which has teased the fans seemed suddenly just a breeze. Pernfors was back to his old new tricks, whizzing shots — he could have put the ball through the teeth of a comb — hitting the line almost at will. At one point, Connors lobbed a return out of bounds, and Pernfors watched it come down, and reverse-kicked it. “See ya, Pops,” he seemed to say.
But remember who made showmanship fashionable. This is James Scott Connors, the kid with the page-boy cut, the original brat, now turned yuppie brat. He rallied again, won a game, then another, with solid returns and well-placed volleys. On one shot, Pernfors gave chase and returned the ball with his back to the net, a magnificent swipe through his legs. But Connors was waiting, he dinked it over. His point.
“GAME, MR. CONNORS. . . . “
“GAME, MR. CONNORS. . . . “
He won five straight, lost one, then won the next to capture the second set, 6-4. Now the very breath of this competition seemed to be coming from Connors’ nostrils. Pernfors, who had played so brilliantly for such a big early lead, found himself back at square one. “I was still thinking I could win,” he would say.
Deep down, he must have known otherwise. It was past dinnertime by now. All kids have to come inside. T he fifth set was a battle with the outcome suspected, like a Star Wars movie, or a rerun of The Dirty Dozen. “I was rolling,” Connors would admit. He dropped the first game, then won the second, third, fourth, fifth. He shots had developed, well, youth. They kissed the line, they dropped perfectly then died. The match had come full circle. Pernfors was now the one slow in getting to the ball. Connors was the one with the magic. He developed a leg cramp at one point, and he stumbled through a few points, rubbing his right thigh. Not to worry. “I would have stayed out there if I had to crawl,” he said.
And finally, the ending. Connors stood ready to serve, his sweat drying in the cool air. He led, 5-2. He took a breath, put his hands on his hips, and the crowd began to roar. Serve, return, and a cross-court backhand winner — two handed of course, vintage Connors — and it was over. All over.
“GAME, SET AND MATCH, MR. CONNORS . . . “
He threw himself into the air. He looked at the heaven as if a special secret had just been shared. Perhaps it had. How long had they played? Three hours and thirty-nine minutes? A lifetime? Both?
As Connors and Pernfors walked off together, the old guy appeared to put his arm around his opponent. “Nah,” he would say, grinning, “I was just pushing him ahead of me so he wouldn’t see me pass out.”
OK. End with a joke. But here was a magic afternoon. Alchemy had taken place. Young was old, old was new, new was tired and tired was lifting his fists in victory as they disappeared into the tunnel. The last American tennis man? The greatest comeback in modern Wimbledon history? Yes. You only live once.
Or in Connors’ case, twice.
Jimmy Connors returns a shot from Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors Tuesday.