Connors set to return for doubles date with Mac

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Jimmy Connors yesterday marked his first visit to Wimbledon for 12 years in the most spectacular fashion, when he announced he was planning a mouth- watering doubles match between himself and John McEnroe on one side, and Pete Sampras and another great champion of more recent times on the other.

It was a typical Connors moment, as the former Wimbledon champion chose a wet and miserable day in SW19 to sweep back on to the tennis radar. "To get me back in the sport was always going to take something very special," said Connors, who walked away from the game following his second-round exit at the 1992 US Open and has not looked back since. "That's why I've been looking into a special, one-off doubles match that will capture the world's imagination.

"The idea is for John Mac and myself to be on one side of the court against Pete Sampras and another player from his generation, say someone like Andre Agassi. The match would be played over three sets and would be a one million dollar challenge. Winner takes all, of course. It could be just the boost tennis needs to reclaim some of the limelight that other sports have taken from the game over the years."

Nice idea, but when and where would it take place? "I'm looking to do it in the first quarter of 2005," Connors said. "There's a hotel that's very interested, in Las Vegas, and we have a sponsor who's talking seriously with us."

The match would unquestionably capture the imagination of tennis fans, young and old, not least because Connors and McEnroe were never on the same side during their playing days. "We were tough at 90 feet apart," Connors smiled, "so how are we going to cope at five feet is anybody's guess. I hope we're not going to be butting heads."

Responding to Connors' big announc-ement, McEnroe said he was equally excited about the prospect of the doubles showdown. "Jimmy's the ultimate hustler," he said, "and this is a mad idea. But it would be fun, especially as neither of us would have to run around too much. Put it this way, at least there's less court to cover when there are two of you on one side."

Did McEnroe believe that a handicap system would also be required, particularly if Sampras was paired with someone like Agassi? "If it was Pete and Andre, for example," the three-times former Wimbledon singles champion said, "I think it would be interesting if they played with one serve. We want to make a match of this."

Perhaps suffering from cabin fever, having been cooped up in the BBC studios all day while waiting in vain for a tennis ball to be hit, McEnroe even went as far as to say that he was warming to his one-time nemesis. "I'm starting to like Jimmy more now," McEnroe joked, no doubt contemplating the impressive prize fund on offer. "Our rivalry brought out the best in us on the court, but we just didn't see eye to eye off the court. But we're older now and I have the utmost respect for the guy."

Seeing Connors again on court would be a thrilling prospect for those tennis fans who have missed his competitive, never-say-die attitude. "People ask me why I kept going for so long," said Connors, who did not retire until he was 41, "and the answer is that I loved putting my game on the line.

"It was particularly exciting when I wasn't at my best, because winning when you're at 60 or 70 per cent of your capacities is the real challenge. That's what keeps you going."

That, and the intense rivalry he enjoyed with the likes of Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg and McEnroe. "If Ilie had been a bit more focused," Connors said, "he might have become the greatest of all time." So who does win the accolade? "Well, there are two. One is [Pancho] Gonzales, because of his size and the way he moved. The second is a tie between Borg and McEnroe. To have a rivalry with one player is something special, but to have two at the same time is incredible. We brought the best out of each other. They helped me push myself to the limit and I would hope they would say the same thing about me."

Connors still talks so passionately about the game that one cannot help feel that, despite his protestations, he must be missing the game. "No, no," he insisted. "That's my past. I put everything into tennis at the time, but that was it.

"That's why when I walked away I never came back. I had no regrets, so wanted to move forward. To sit and dwell on the past is not in my nature. Nor is sitting in the stands and having a camera point at me with people saying: 'Hey, he used to be a good player'. I don't want to live in the past."