Tennis: Jimbo back in the hunt for Mac

Ronald Atkin finds Connors ready to rant and rage in London
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THE MAN who has taken Father Time into a tiebreak is back in Britain this week. At 47, Jimmy Connors will be strutting his incomparable stuff at the Albert Hall in the Honda Challenge, an eight-man seniors event, along with John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, his rivals from those heady times 20 years back.

This will be Connors' first tournament on the European segment of the seniors tour he was instrumental in founding six years ago and which he astonishingly continues to dominate as he closes on his 50th birthday. Jimbo last played in London at the 1992 Wimbledon. He lost in the first round to a Mexican journeyman, Luis Herrera, in four sets, celebrated his 40th birthday at the US Open soon after and then decided to quit the professional circuit. He had won 109 titles, eight Grand Slams, including the Wimbledons of 1974 and 1982, and had been world No 1 for five straight years and a total of 268 weeks.

Most would have reached for the carpet slippers, or at least the golf shoes. Not Jimmy Connors, the kid from Belle-ville, Illinois. "Why, he couldn't wait to kick the slats out of his playpen and get started in life," said his formidable mother, Gloria. Jimbo has been kicking ever since. The considerable Connors energy was directed into nursing the seniors tour through a stuttering year or two, ploughing in time and zest to such effect that he has collected another 38 titles and only saw his four-year reign at the senior summit halted in 1998, by McEnroe, a stripling of 40.

Now Connors, who told the crowds in New York (where he won five US Opens) that he would cut open his chest to show them the size of his heart, is back in town on Tuesday to make the draw for a tournament which, in addition to the Big Three, will also feature the Frenchmen Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah, John Lloyd, Mansour Bahrami and wild card Jeremy Bates.

Be assured that, somehow, somewhere down the line this week Connors will line up against McEnroe in the round-robin event. It has been 15 years since they last squared up in London, at the 1984 Wimbledon final, and Connors explains his absence of the last seven years thus: "Once I stopped playing the ATP Tour I got heavily involved starting up the seniors circuit, as well as doing a lot of things outside tennis. Because of my family it was more convenient to play in the States, but now my son Brett is 20 and at college, while my daughter Aubrey is 15 and has just started high school. So I figured before I stop over the next six, eight or 10 years I had better get back to Britain and play."

Playing McEnroe is what Connors particularly relishes. "We have had a lot of great matches," said Connors from his home in California. "Hopefully, we will continue that and play the same type of tennis people saw at Wimbledon 15 years ago, when we were playing to be the best in the world. Continuing that kind of excitement is what I am coming to London to do."

That the rivalry remains white-hot was shown just over a year ago in a seniors final in Texas, when Connors walked off court for half an hour after an argument, came back to win and then declined to shake McEnroe's hand.

"Sure, there have been a number of conversations between us on court over the years, but they all run together after a while. He is the one who likes to carry it on, I'm afraid. We have gone through our times of rant and rage and tirade but it's time to move on past that, time to compete hard and do what it takes to entertain the crowd. But maybe one of us doesn't see it that way.

"Anybody who says we are just kidding is crazy. Of course it's serious. We have been at each other's throats for the last 25 years. This is not an issue of money. Whenever I see Mac the other side of the net I want to beat the hell out of him. Things like that never go away, especially between Mac and myself. You throw Borg in there and that's the rivalry we had for many years, through many great matches and many Grand Slam titles.

"To have carried on a rivalry with McEnroe and Borg over this many years and for people still to be talking about it means that we must have left our mark somewhere along the line.

"Characters like Nastase, McEnroe, Gerulaitis and myself don't exist any more. It's a different game now. It is treated as a business, and rightly so, because the amount of money coming in has changed attitudes and changed the players themselves, even their size."

Interestingly, Connors feels it was these changes, rather than advancing age, which persuaded him to turn his back on the professional circuit in 1992. But, 47 summers down the road, he will be playing the same old way, what he describes as "all-out reckless abandon" this week. "I play as hard as I can every time I go out there and suit up. My style will never change, nor will my attitude towards the tennis.

"I stay in very good shape and still enjoy what I do, so why not continue going about it the same way I always have? Once it becomes too much of an effort, then it will be time to stop and get into other things." Connors concedes that the time to stop "is very close, unfortunately. I'll wake up one day and wonder why I even think about doing this."

So at the Albert Hall this week he will be offering the familiar several percentage points in excess of 100. The only sign of a bottle job is his reddish-brown hair. Hailing from a country where winning never goes out of fashion, James Scott Connors is mindful of the fact that grey is not a helpful colour if you are a champion taking Father Time down to the wire.