NEW YORK — Jimmy Connors says the thing he loves most about tennis is the battle. More and more with the 33-year-old, the battles move from the court and into the interview room. After Sunday, Connors may have another arena for conflict--the locker room.
Unseeded Todd Witsken, formerly of USC, blew out Connors, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5, in the third round of singles at the U.S. Open. That was enough to make Connors angry. But when he heard Witsken had said that Connors is no longer feared by the younger players on the tour, Connors flared.
"For somebody that young, he talks an awful lot, doesn't he?" Connors said of the 22-year-old. "He hasn't been around long enough to talk like that."
Connors wasn't in the mood to be reminded of his own mortality. After playing a lackluster three sets on the Stadium court at the National Tennis Center, Connors was once again faced with the inevitable questions about retirement. Specifically, when?
"Everyone goes through the rising and falling in his career," Connors said. "Hopefully, they rise again. My career has been a roller coaster ride. I've fought through all the valleys to where I would rise again. It's actually been good for me because now I know who my real friends are. Who the guys who make comments like that are and if there is ever a rise again, they shall fall."
Connors is at a point in his career where he is gathering his friends around him. Connors' play in the past few years has been at only a slightly lower level than it was when he was able to win five U.S. Opens. The problem is that the rest of the tour has not remained in a vacuum while Connors has aged. The younger players continue to improve.
"Obviously, he's at the end of his game and I'm just starting," Witsken said. "It's a big advantage to me. You're used to seeing guys like Connors or McEnroe, and they aren't at the top of their games right now. You're used to them being at the top. It's kind of difficult to see them not play their best tennis anymore.
"Several years ago, guys in my position never thought that they would have a chance against Jimmy Connors. Unfortunately, guys get old, and he's a little old. Guys know he's beatable."
These are not comments that will endear Witsken to Connors. But then, Connors is likely to be sensitive. It's been 22 months since he won a tournament. He was eliminated in the first round of this year's Wimbledon. He was suspended and fined for walking off the court during a match earlier this year. It's been a rocky road, but also one of his own making.
The question for Connors now is does he want to continue down the road he paved for himself in professional tennis 13 years ago.
Matches such as Sunday's factor in the decision making. Connors likes to talk about "grinding it out on the court" and "spilling blood out there." It's thrilling imagery but it implies a battle, a fight. There was little battling Sunday.
"The tennis was flat, the zest for the game was flat, I was flat. That equals flat," Connors said. "Flat as a day-old beer. He (Witsken) didn't do anything today to do anything. All he was doing was keeping the ball in play."
That was Witsken's assessment of Connors' game.
"I knew he wouldn't hurt me that much from the baseline," Witsken said. "He lets you hit a lot of balls. He hits the ball very hard, but he doesn't have a huge forehand like Lendl where it could be a winner at any moment."
Witsken is No. 84 in the world and Connors is No. 5, but Witsken has come a long way from last year, when he was ranked No. 211. Only six months ago, he was traveling around Nigeria on the satellite circuit, trying to accumulate enough points to get into a Grand Prix event. Yet, on the strength of his win over Connors, Witsken is not ready to say he's arrived.
"It takes more than one good tournament to establish yourself and to feel that you belong in the top ranks," Witsken said. "I'm getting there, and I feel more comfortable. So, it's just a matter of time."
Witsken broke Connors serve in the first, third and fifth games to take a 5-0 lead in the first set. Connors woke up long enough to break Witsken in the sixth game, but Witsken easily won the first set.
In the second set, Witsken broke through in the third game and broke again in the ninth game.
Overall, Witsken broke Connors seven times and was broken only three.
"I was just flat and I went out there and played like it," Connors said. "I couldn't do anything to get myself pumped up. If I can't get excited in the last game, then I'm flat."
Late in his postmatch interview, Connors grew tired of discussing his future. "That's none of your business," he said on several occasions.
"I play because I enjoy the tennis. I enjoy the battle. I don't feel like coming out to play tennis to struggle, that's for sure. If I don't play tennis for the battle, then I would prefer to do something else. The battle is something I enjoy."
When and if Connors chooses to do battle in another arena is something he's not disclosing at the moment. The only certainty is that as long as Jimmy Connors does remain in tennis, he will find plenty of battles.