Showman Connors escapes the past

A player recently voted the most exciting player in tennis in the past 30 years will be back on court in London this week

There were a few things that Jimmy Connors was not keen to talk about. His views on the modern tennis circuit in general, for one, and the women's game in particular for another - and then there were his golfing partners. He did not want to discuss them, either. Oh, and The Past. "I hate to do it," he said, "because there's nothing back there for me any more, it's all in front. I don't want to philosophise, or get into my feelings, but tennis was a blink in my life. It's gone by. I liked it and enjoyed it, but my life has become more than just playing tennis now."

There were a few things that Jimmy Connors was not keen to talk about. His views on the modern tennis circuit in general, for one, and the women's game in particular for another - and then there were his golfing partners. He did not want to discuss them, either. Oh, and The Past. "I hate to do it," he said, "because there's nothing back there for me any more, it's all in front. I don't want to philosophise, or get into my feelings, but tennis was a blink in my life. It's gone by. I liked it and enjoyed it, but my life has become more than just playing tennis now."

Which made you wonder why, exactly, the best part of 50 reporters had made their way to the 23rd floor of the Hilton Hotel in Mayfair to listen to him. The past, after all, is what the Honda Challenge, the Senior Tour of Champions event which starts today at the Royal Albert Hall, is all about. But perhaps when you have spent 10 months attempting to extract quotes from the cardboard cut-outs on the current men's Tour, any chance to hear from a paid-up character is something to snatch at.

And that is what Connors remains, in the mind of anyone old enough to remember his rivalry with Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, conducted with a mixture of grunts, jokes and occasional flashes of temper. He was even voted the most exciting player of the last 30 years in a poll for Tennis magazine four years ago, ahead of all his contemporaries in the game's golden age.

Cynics may point out that every sport from archery to zebra racing has a golden age, and it is always 15 or 20 years ago, moving through the generations as the fans get older and crustier. In tennis, though, its foundations seem more secure. It may be that fans will turn up at the Albert Hall in two decades' time, to watch a greying Pete Sampras and reminisce about that funny way he used to point his toe when he served, but it seems unlikely.

What the punters will want this week, when they arrive to see Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Ilie Nastase and their fellow travellers on the Senior Tour, is colour, which means lots of chat and a tantrum or two, just like the old days. Connors for one can see the irony.

"When we had those attitudes," he said, "you didn't want them. You criticised them, and said we should have been thrown out of the game. Now, you're begging for them." But he appreciates that no one can do it like the experts. "You can't take a personality like mine, or McEnroe's, and give it to a Sampras, a Rios or a Courier. It wouldn't be honest, and you can't fool the public."

Connors plays Borg tomorrow afternoon, and McEnroe the following day, in the round-robin phase of the Challenge. The last time he played McEnroe in London was in the men's singles final at Wimbledon, but there will be no nasty shock in store for fans who have not seen him since.

Nastase needs glasses to read these days, and has fat on his face and neck as well as his belly. Connors, though, must have a bewitched painting in his attic, wearing the careworn 47-year-old face which his birth certificate says should belong to Jimmy. He is merely a pound or so tubbier than we remember, and looks to have aged no more than a year or two since the 1980s. Tennis clearly has much the same effect on Jimmy Connors as it does on Sir Cliff Richard. And yes, in case you were wondering, his eyes still crease into a boyish squint whenever he smiles.

But can he still cut it on the court, even in an event which lies somewhere between tournament and circus? Above all, will the match with McEnroe come even close to the set-tos of the early 1980s, when they were at each other's throats week after week?

"I used to go out and play every match as if it was the final of Wimbledon," Connors said. "That will never change, and I think you can expect to see just about the same thing, tennis-wise and attitude-wise. We both want to go out and win. There's a lot of things that made that a great rivalry, to produce the kind of tennis and the atmosphere that we created. Does that ever leave totally? No, I don't think so."

He was, of course, trying to sell tickets, but the dauntless fighter in Jimmy Connors will force him to hit every ball as hard as he can. The fans at the Albert Hall will get what they have paid for, which includes a chance to grumble to no one in particular that things ain't what they used to be. And just for once, they will probably be right.

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