Tennis: Old campaigners become romantic heroes: Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, no longer the brats of tennis, launch another assault on the US Open next week. John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
REACHING an age when the candles cost more than the cake, Jimmy Connors, 40 next Wednesday, may experience difficulty summoning the energy to blow them out. His birthday coincides with the United States Open, a tournament which taxes his astonishing physical and emotional resources even when he is fit to begin with.

A semi-finalist at Flushing Meadow last September, when everything was achy breaky except his heart, Jimbo is easing his way toward the opening round this time after straining a thigh muscle while playing a tournament in Long Island, aptly named the Hamlet Cup. Dedicated supporters await progress reports. So does Connors' opponent, Jaime Oncins, a tall, talented Brazilian, aged 22, who stands between the American and a possible renewal of his rivalry with Ivan Lendl.

Whatever the immediate future brings, Connors has decided that a fair percentage of the younger players he competes against in future will be over 35. He plans to spend less time on the tour and muscle in on the veterans' events (a forthcoming handicap match against the over-35 Martina Navratilova in Las Vegas is, we trust, merely a diversion).

John McEnroe, 33, has also expressed an intention to ration his activity, so we may not be seeing too much of either him or Connors in all the old familiar places.

Of course, there is a risk of jumping to premature valedictions where these characters are concerned. There is life in them yet, even though nowadays they do slip rather comfortably into the reminiscence mode of old campaigners.

Connors: 'I think that when we played we absolutely brought out the best in each other. We were like two steam engines going at each other.'

McEnroe: 'We had some basic similarities that clashed. We were like two magnets, but the same poles, so we kept pushing against each other.'

A year ago Connors built up a head of steam for the US Open and took the spectators on an unforgettable journey. This year McEnroe has magnetised spectators at the Australian Open, where he advanced to the quarter-finals, and at Wimbledon, where he was a singles semi-finalist and concluded a splendid tournament by winning the doubles in partnership with Michael Stich.

Such achievements come as a bonus for American tennis, which no longer relies upon Connors and McEnroe to deliver the goods. Andre Agassi's triumph at Wimbledon completed the graduation of the nation's younger generation of male players as Grand Slam champions and guaranteed America three of the year's four major titles.

Agassi's success came after Jim Courier had retained the French championship in June, having won the Australian Open title in January and risen to No 1 in the world. Michael Chang achieved the initial breakthrough at the 1989 French Open, a triumph which was followed by Pete Sampras's victory at the 1990 US Open (they are the youngest winners of those respective titles).

Transition or not, Connors and McEnroe still provide much of the game's charisma, having matured, in the perception of a section of the public, from brats to romantic heroes. Essentially, they have not changed: McEnroe continues to berate, Connors to orchestrate.

'Connors is unique,' McEnroe said. 'He's got a way of working the crowd and he milks it for all it's worth. He's really unbelievable at it. He's able to laugh sometimes in the face of being in the position where normally people would be quite agitated. He's been able to turn that around. If there was one thing in my career that I would like to do, it is to do that, because this guy wasn't the nicest guy on the tennis court. I saw some things from him and he claims that he has seen some things from me that he couldn't have imagined. We've probably shown a few things to each other that we even surprised each other with.'

McEnroe was never more surprised than during a match against Connors in Cincinnati in 1983. After responding to a heckler with typical verbal abuse, McEnroe was dumbstruck when the spectator, a giant of a man, rose from his seat and started walking toward the court. Connors jumped over the net, pulled McEnroe aside, and said: 'Hey, I'm here to help you, but this guy is huge. Let's cool it out here, because he's so big he can beat both of us up at the same time.'

Whatever the mood of their matches, Connors never underestimated his rival. 'If he stops after this year, or cuts back a bit, that's his decision, his choice,' he said. 'He's been around the game for a long time and he has absolutely paid his dues. What he'll be remembered for will probably be not only his great talent and the way he caressed the ball, finessed the ball, and what he brought to the game of tennis, but, beyond that, for his attitude and the way he went about playing: the excitement that he created, the controversy that he created and the colour that he brought into the game.'

Connors and McEnroe dominated the US Open men's singles for seven years after the tournament changed its New York location from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow in 1978. Connors, who had already won the title twice at Forest Hills - on grass and also on clay - instantly adapted his game to the concrete Meadow, triumphing against Bjorn Borg in the inaugural final and defeating Lendl in 1982 and 1983. McEnroe's victorious finals were against Vitas Gerulaitis (1979), Borg (1980 and 1981) and Lendl (1984).

At this point Europe took control, and in the past seven years only Sampras has kept the trophy out of the hands of Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg (Lendl was granted US citizenship in July, and has been a resident for years, but his three successes came when he was still a Czechoslovak).

There is justifiable optimism that the position will be redressed. 'It's almost laughable that a couple of years ago people were saying, 'What's wrong with American tennis?', ' McEnroe said. 'People who wrote that it was dying didn't realise things go in cycles, and they got a little bit spoiled, maybe, by the fact that they had Americans on top for years and just automatically expected there were going to be others.

'What happened was there was a big boost in popularity in Europe. The bottom line was they had better programmes and were giving more kids the opportunity to play. You saw a big shift of where the power lies.

'Then something incredible happened, and Courier, Agassi, Sampras and Chang came along at the same time, and three of them were down at that acadamy of (Nick) Bollettieri's in Florida. Maybe because they were around the same age, they helped each other.

'Now all of a sudden you see all of these guys have won a major title. You're not going to see someone that is really on top and dominating with a lot of titles, because the mentality is different. But you're seeing four guys right there that are Americans.'

McEnroe has a particular affinity with Agassi, who overwhelmed him in the Wimbledon semi-finals. 'He's an unbelievable student. I can talk to him, what I feel, man to man. He and Boris Becker remind me most of myself, as far as the way they operate. In my opinion they're two of the most interesting personalities in tennis. I think they are very smart, which makes it more difficult in a sense. They think things through too much. Sometimes when you're not thinking you do better. Andre struggled with that for a while. He's working through some things now. Hopefully, he'll come out of it in a good way.'

Connors tends to regard the new generation of players, whether American or not, with an old soldier's scowl. 'I don't think being No 1 means quite as much to a lot of these guys as it used to, only because of the amount of money that's in the game,' he said, having amassed his millions over 20 years.

It is a recurring theme, which rides in tandem with another: 'I play tennis because I love it and it's my fun'.

Not much fun, perhaps, at Wimbledon and the French Open this summer, when Connors was greeted with first-round defeats. He sounded as if had booked his trip with Star Trek, boldly going 'on my first excursion beyond the wall and into a dark hole.'

He regrets the venture. 'I guess there comes a point in time when you push youself and do so much that you kind of wear down. And that's what happened to me at the French and Wimbledon, two events I should not have played, as I look back. I was 50-50 whether to go over there or not, and then I kind of got on a plane and was heading in that direction and decided to go, which really was not the right decision.'

As with Connors, McEnroe cannot imagine 'going cold turkey' from the professional tour. 'The toughest thing for any athlete is when you start considering seriously the possibility of doing something else. All I ever did was basically play all different types of sports, and I was fortunate enough to fall into something that I did well. You do that for 15, 16 years as a professional, and then all of a sudden you're in your mid- thirties, which is considered old by tennis standards but it's young by other standards.

'People in their thirties are usually just sort of really getting an idea of what it is they are going to be doing and start becoming successful at it. And here we are, sort of fading down and getting worse at it, and then having to decide to do something different entirely. But I'm lucky in the sense that I don't have to go out there tomorrow and look for a job. I can sort of think about it and look at it and say, 'What do I really want to do? What is it that will make me happy?' '

We await the answer with fascination.

(Photograph omitted)