Tennis: Connors' spirit lives on despite passing years

At 47, double Wimbledon champion still has the master touch to hold Albert Hall audience spellbound
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SOMETIMES IT is only when sportsmen grow old and slow down that you can see what it is that they do. Jimmy Connors, the Wimbledon champion of 1974 and 1982, arrived in London this week, and last night he gave a few thousand people in the Albert Hall a master class in the art of controlling a tennis ball.

At 47, and currently placed fourth - behind Henri Leconte, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander - in the ATP Senior Tour standings, Connors now uses skill and guile to compensate for the reduction of speed and the dulling of instinct. What is not missing is the competitive spirit that took him to victory in 106 of the 163 finals he contested on the men's tour in a 19-year career in the top flight.

In 1995, the readers of Tennis magazine voted Connors the most exciting tennis player of the previous 30 years. He was also placed high in six other categories. These were not specified in the bumph which greeted those who attended the first night of the Honda Challenge, but they might be assumed to include being the best at using nefarious means to breaking an opponent's concentration, and being the best at denying Ken Rosewall his clearest chance of the Wimbledon title that would have crowned his magnificent career.

Not everyone loved Connors in his heyday, to say the least. Some saw Arthur Ashe's victory over him at the All England Club in 1975 as just retribution for the young upstart's wanton destruction of Rosewall the previous year. And when he came back to take the title in a final against John McEnroe in a five-setter in 1982, McEnroe's riposte two years later, dismissing Connors in straight sets for the loss of four games, was all the more warmly applauded.

All the ancient wounds were forgotten last night, however, particularly since he was scheduled to open the tournament by meeting a British favourite, John Lloyd. The nostalgic element of this match-up resided in the fact that both men were early suitors for the hand of the young Miss Christine Marie Evert of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, America's tennis sweetheart.

The teenaged Connors courted her, and they were engaged to be married when both of them won the Wimbledon singles titles and opened the tournament ball by taking the first dance together. But it was Lloyd who married her, although not for long.

Both men are married to other people now. Connors has two children, a 20-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, and plays a lot of golf around his old hometown of Belleville, Illinois. Lloyd, who is two years younger than Connors, lives with his wife Deborah in Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles, and also has a son and a daughter, aged 10 and nine. Neither of them played last night like men whose greatest priority is the school run.

Connors had done his bit to drum up interest in the tournament by responding with appropriate asperity to some rather nebulous remarks allegedly made by McEnroe, whom he is scheduled to meet on Friday afternoon as part of the round-robin phase. But he was mostly sweetness and light when confronted with Lloyd, the former British No 1, and the attendance of numerous American businessmen on corporate hospitality tickets could not alone account for the fact he was given the greater reception.

He was always a grunter, but nowadays he propels a serve on its way with a cry of "Oooyer" that sounds less like a champion than the Owl of the Remove watching somebody steal his jam doughnuts. He understands the obligation to entertain at these occasions, and is not averse to following a particularly strenuous point by leaning back against the scoreboard and observing, in the stagiest of whispers, "I'm nearly 50, you know", or turning to the crowd, opening his arms in supplication, and pleading: "How much longer?"

The level of humour in these matches is not very elevated, but it hardly needs to be. When someone high up in the velvet-upholstered circle boxes coughed as Lloyd was about to serve, the British player took out his handkerchief and offered it. Connors joined in. "Are you feeling all right up there?" he inquired with mock solicitude. When he hit one spectacularly weedy volley, the American addressed the next serve with the campest of postures. Having chased an angled drive to send it down the line for a sublime winner, he declined to repeat the feat in a similar sitation on the next point but stood his ground and threw his racket across the baseline instead. When Lloyd dragged him out of position and finished him off with a drop shot, he responded with an old-fashioned look. "You know my game, then," he called across the net.

Nor could anyone complain about the manners on display. Serving at 4- 5 and 15-30 in the first set, Lloyd himself overruled a line judge to call Connors's scalding backhand pass in and give his opponent two break points, from which he profited to take the set on the next point. Two or three minutes later, defending a third consecutive break point at 30- 40 in the first game of the second set, Connors reciprocated by calling one Lloyd shot in and thereby forfeiting his own serve, although he went on to take the set 7-5, and with it the match.

But the real spectacle was in the way Connors shaped his shots, something much easier to see with the speed of the ball reduced to something close to a level familiar to ordinary mortals. The flat trajectory of his drives was simply breathtaking. He seemed to be using the air itself as a frictional material against which the ball could be stroked. Lloyd played well, mounting a fine comeback in the second set, but it takes more than that to extinguish the embers of true genius.