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Connors Just Keeps Coming Back for More to Win at Wimbledon

June 26, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Week I at Wimbledon ended with the championships poorer by the early exit of John McEnroe, still struggling to reclaim his game, but richer by the survival of Jimmy Connors, still struggling. At least one legend endures.

Struggle, of course, is what Connors does best, and to the greatest appreciation. Struggle is what he did Saturday, trying to tie up a guy 13 years his junior, a guy who thinks nothing of 16-14 tiebreakers and who travels the tour by Volkswagen bus. Derrick Rostagno is that kind of guy.

Connors is 35 now, his prime well behind him. He hasn't won a tournament since 1984 and every quarterfinal he makes any more is regarded as a miracle. Connors is that kind of guy.

Yet, what do you know? Connors saves another five-set performance at Wimbledon, four hours of vintage, grind-it-out Jimmy-ball, the kid finally double-faulting on match point, as if to say what's the use. Connors, implacable as ever, withdraws a Coke from the box by the umpire and walks off the court and into the round of 16, the cheers raining down on him.

"It's never over till it's over," explains Connors, who went up on Rostagno, 7-5, and then let the next two sets escape, 4-6 and 4-6. Rostagno is already known as a player who will not wilt under pressure. The other day he chased down Marty Davis in five sets, finishing off a five-hour match with that 30-point tiebreaker.

But Connors, even at his age and state of disrepair, has a daunting will in these affairs. He hit a remarkable streak in the fourth set, winning, 6-2, and after losing momentum once again midway in the fifth, he came back to finish off Rostagno, 7-5. "I grind out four-hour matches like that," he said, "because you never know what will happen."

Usually what happens is Connors wins. It must be a disappointing thing, to be outplaying Connors--to be beating him!--and to look over the net and see him . . . just standing there. He never goes away. And then, at one point or another, you falter, you show him a gap. A ball hits the tape and just drops over. And he's rooting around for a Coke and telling you nice game and walking off. This happened last year, too. It was in the round of 16, and Connors was down, 1-6, 1-6 and 1-4, to Mikael Pernfors. Pernfors had done everything but drive a stake into his heart. Then Connors won the final three sets, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2, got a Coke and walked into the tunnel.

Saturday's match with Rostagno, who played a couple of years at Stanford and who now calls Brentwood home, wasn't quite as heroic. "This was much different," he said. "I wasn't down as far." Against Pernfors, he was down and out. "Down two sets to one is down," he said, "but not out."

Nevertheless, it was an impressive show of will. The stands at Court 1 were not filled to begin with but, at each switch, seemed to swell a little. For all of Connors' reputation in matches like this--he is 8-2 in five-set matches here--there is the unspoken insistence that he can't do this forever. By the fifth set, the stands were filled, some drawn by good tennis, some as if to a roadside wreck.

But Connors refused to satisfy morbid curiousity. Up, 5-2, he allowed Rostagno three quick games, making it 5-5. Then he held his serve in a tense game and went up, 6-5. But Rostagno, serving, had so far showed no lack of nerve himself. Then, down, 30-40, Connors rifled two service returns past Rostagno. Rostagno's double-fault to end the game was anti-climatic.

Later Rostagno, whose most recent ranking was No. 86 to Connors' No. 5, sounded more appreciative than defeated. "One of the joys of tennis," Rostagno said, "is it can change any time. He hit shots, if you don't appreciate that, you don't appreciate the game of tennis. He comes up with things nobody's ever seen before and does them so solidly, so casually. That's the beauty of tennis. Good tennis is an art, and he's an artist."

For Connors, who has now reached the fourth round in 16 of the 17 years he has played here, it was not an all-time performance. "I wasn't quite ready to go home," he said, recalling his little comeback in the fourth set. "My game has always been to stay in there till I die because you never know what will happen. He might fall down, I might hit a patch. Once I hit that patch in the fourth set . . . "

One remembers Connors trying to save a point with a rather lame lob, Rostagno timing and sending it, well, right at him. "He guessed right," Rostagno said, recalling that Connors not only returned the smash, but sent it on a line, to the far court for a winner. "And for 15 shots he was playing unbelievable tennis. It was great to see him and it was great to be on the other side, even though I lost that set, 6-2."

If Connors can, he always plays to a point in the game where, he said, "nerves enter into it: Am I going to go for the shot or not." For him, up to now, that has been a good point. Let's put it this way, he said: "I've never had nerves to the point I've not gone for my shot."

Connors' nerves, or his legs or something else will someday fail him on these courts. Down two sets, he will finally lose the third. But for now, he is enjoying an appreciation that has long been denied him. Finally, now, the top winner on these courts with an 81-14 record, he is hearing the cheers and his young opponent the jeers. "It's because 90% of the people up there are over 35," he said, but that is not quite right. He got off on the wrong foot back in 1972 when Connors, then the kid, beat Ken Rosewall, a popular legend himself at 39. Wimbledon wouldn't forgive him until Bjorn Borg was gone and he was the only alternative to McEnroe.

Now Connors is the legend, his greatness not so much certified by his longevity but by another five-set match he refused, simply refused, to lose.

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