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Same Old Jimbo Advances Confidently in U.S. Open

August 31, 1985|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Submitted for your consideration: Jimmy Connors and his bid to win the U.S. Open tennis championship for a sixth time.

Evidence against: Monday, Connors turns 33, making him the oldest player in the Top 40. His world ranking has slipped to No. 4, the lowest it has been since 1973. He has not won a tournament this year, his last victory coming last October at Tokyo. He has spent most of 1985 frustrated by racket and back problems. Eventually, he changed rackets. He has the same back.

Evidence for: Connors' confidence.

Connors doesn't want to hear about his age and how he should be readying for the Legends tour. He doesn't want to know about Boris Becker or John McEnroe or Ivan Lendl or Mats Wilander.

Connors doesn't care about the seedings, either. In his mind, there's only one real favorite here.

James Scott Connors.

Before the storms came to Flushing Meadow Friday afternoon, Connors was able to get in three sets against Hank Pfister. He took a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 second-round victory into the postmatch interview room, where he did a little campaigning for Connors in '85.

"If I win this U.S. Open, which, I think, is likely . . . everybody's going to have their heads down, going 'duh,' " Connors said. "I'm not going to count myself out at any time. I got to play great tennis to win--there's no doubt about it--but if I do that, they won't know what to say."

Connors flashed a Jack Nicholson grin as he looked out at the aisles of chairs filled by reporters.

"That's why I'm working so hard," he said. "I want to see a lot of you guys with your heads down there."

The calendar and the results of recent tournaments seem to be saying: Shut up, Jimbo, you don't know what you're talking about. You've lost nine straight to McEnroe since 1983 and you've lost your last six matches against Lendl. That's 0 for 15 against the U.S. Open's two top-seeded players--and that's not even taking Wimbledon champion Becker into account. Take a seat, old man.

But Connors refuses to shuffle off into the background as if he's yesterday's news. He didn't earn his calling card as the Pete Rose of tennis by backing down from challenges.

"If everybody wants to bury me, make me a tombstone. Just don't put it on me yet," Connors said. "I don't really worry about what anybody says. I'm out there trying to prove that I'm playing the game as well as I can and trying to win tournaments."

Over his career, Connors has won 105 tournaments, more than any other player. And he has won them unlike virtually anyone before him or since.

Unlike Lendl, who wins on sheer ability, and unlike Kevin Curren, who wins on raw power, Connors wins on determination, resiliency, guts and guile.

He wasn't given overwhelming tennis skills. His serve has always been run-of-the-mill, and his forehand strikes fear into the hearts of few. His technical strengths--return of serve, crushing two-fisted backhand--are results of a perfectionist's work ethic.

"I'm not the most talented guy in the world," Connors admitted. "There are a lot of guys out here that have a lot more talent, I'm sure, but as far as I'm concerned, I have to have some kind of talent along the line to accomplish today what I've done.

"Also, I wasn't afraid to break my back and work hard and grind it out to add that little extra something to the talent I had. My good friend (Ilie) Nastase--if he would have worked as hard as me, he'd have been the best ever.

"I'm happy in my position. I've got some talent--and I work my butt off."

That may not be enough for Connors to turn his U.S. Open championship trophy collection into a six-pack this year. Should the men's draw proceed as expected, Connors can look forward to facing Sweden's Stefan Edberg, a powerful serve-and-volley player, in the fourth round. Then, should he survive that, there's Lendl in the semifinals--with McEnroe or Becker, in all likelihood, awaiting him in the final.

Welcome to the gantlet, Mr. Connors.

But the way Connors views it, he has one major factor going for him.

This is the U.S. Open, isn't it?

Connors traditionally plays his best here. New York is loud and brash and rough around the edges--kind of like Connors.

After a lengthy and stormy courtship, bottoming out in the 1977 U.S. Open final when the crowd booed Connors and rooted for Argentine Guillermo Vilas, Connors finally won over the fans here the way he wore down opponents. New Yorkers admire heart, and they have since taken to Connors.

Connors, in turn, feeds off the fan enthusiasm.

"I didn't really become a crowd favorite until the '78 Masters," Connors said. "I had a controversial final in the Open that year. People from the Open in '77 didn't know what to expect. I gave them some of the best tennis that I had at that time. New York then took me to heart in January '78.

"Once New York accepts you for what you are and what you can give them and the enjoyment that they can get from you, that can turn a lot of ways. . . . These people here today made me what I am, and I appreciate that."

Connors hopes to turn next Sunday's final into fan appreciation day. He's a longshot--the longest shot he has been at the Open in a decade--but don't tell him he has no chance.

That'll get Connors angry, and at 33, anger has become Jimbo's main source of inspiration.

"I enjoy getting mad more now than I used to," Connors said. "Back when I got mad when I was younger, I got mad because I was trying to find something to get mad about. Now, I get mad because I have fun getting mad. It brings my game up and makes me get in there and try harder."

Connors win the U.S. Open? That would be sheer madness.

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