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He’s the Same Old Jimbo : Connors, at 32, Still Has That Fire and Isn’t Ready to Retire

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Connors was never meant to be old. He’s Peter Pan with a smirk. Forget all those stories about Connors as father of the year. He married a playmate, OK?

He won his first Wimbledon by destroying an old man’s dream, burying Ken Rosewall beneath All England Club grass. Connors never knew from nostalgia, as he’d be the first to admit.

What he has always known is how to walk out onto any tennis court--grass, clay, DecoTurf--and lay claim to it. Perhaps it’s in the walk, the Connors strut. Certainly, it’s an attitude; he’s always been a stubborn cuss.

But the years, they creep up on us all, no matter how stubborn we are. Connors is here trying to win another tennis tournament and all people want to do is offer him testimonials.

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For Jimmy Connors, it has come to this:

--One reporter asks him when he’s going to retire.

--Another asks him if thinks he might not sneak up on the tournament favorites.

--Worst of all, with an unintentional twist of the knife, a first-round opponent speaks of what an honor it is to play Jimmy Connors.

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When did the brassy young kid become curmudgeon? Where did the years go? He’s 32, the oldest player in the men’s draw, and time is not on his side.

“Just let me worry about it,” Connors says when asked about retirement. “I’m not out there for you. Now, I am enjoying the tennis and that’s enough.”

Of course, it isn’t quite enough. Sure, he’s seeded third, but Connors, who has won 105 tournaments, more tournaments than any man at any time, has not won a tournament this year. In his last tournament, at Queen’s, he went out in the first round to someone named Mike DePalmer.

“I’m the same player I always was,” said Connors, who has never been ranked worse than No. 3 in the world since becoming No. 1 in 1974. “No different.”

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He’s the same person, for sure, with the prominent lower lip ready to engage into a little-boy pout. He snapped at the question and he spit out the answer and wondered at the effrontery of it. Wasn’t anyone watching? Couldn’t they see this was the same old Jimbo?

A lot of people weren’t watching. There are other stories here. When the rains came for the third and final time, interrupting play Saturday, Boris Becker, the 17-year-old German whiz, was on Court 1, struggling to survive his match with Joakim Nystrom. John Lloyd was on Centre Court with most of a nation rooting him on. Their matches will be completed Monday.

But already Gabriela Sabatini had lost. Hu Na had lost. Slobodan Zivojinovic had lost. Mats Wilander was gone before you could say smorgasbord.

And Jimbo plays on.

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He was on Court 1 early Saturday afternoon when the terrible word spread across the grounds: Connors was losing. He had already lost one set and was trailing, 5-2, in the third to Ramesh Krishnan, an Indian whose serve wouldn’t make the grass bend.

“I kept thinking I should be breaking his serve every time,” Connors said. Because that’s the way Connors thinks.

And when it came down to it, that’s what Connors did. He won the next nine games and went to on to win the match, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2.

He wouldn’t lose to this guy at Wimbledon. It’s not Connors’ style; he’s too tough, he’s too stubborn. This is the same Jimmy Connors who has made it to at least the semifinal round of the U.S. Open the last 11 years.

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And when Connors saw he was in control again, he was the old Jimbo, strutting as if the court were a stage and he was Mick Jagger. He is the same, with the same act and the same killer ground strokes. He plays to the crowd and he plays like a terror, slashing at each ball and sounding the famous and feared Connors grunt.

Somehow, he’s almost a caricature of the old Jimbo. He is 32, and maybe you figured he’d be acting like a grown-up by now.

If you press Connors closely enough, he will admit that the notion has crossed his mind. He’s been around forever--he won Wimbledon before Borg turned pro and after Borg retired--but one day, there’ll be a Wimbledon, and Connors won’t be there to grace it.

“There will be a point in time when I don’t want to play any more,” Connors said. “I will wake up one morning and not want to grind out a match like today, which is probably not too far away. I won’t say it’s five years away. It’s probably closer than that.

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“I will miss the tennis and playing for the crowds. All around the world, the people have been good to me in a lot of ways, whether for me or against me.”

After he retires, Connors wants to stay close to the game. What else does he know? He figures he might want to do some TV, sitting, as he said Saturday to the media, “in your position, barbecuing all the players.”

But first, there’s this year. Don’t tell Connors he can’t win. Maybe John McEnroe destroyed him last year in the final, but at least Connors made it to the final.

Connors has made it through three rounds, and he has by far the easiest draw of the top-seeded players. His potentially most dangerous opponent before the semifinals would have been Pat Cash, who has already lost. Ben Testerman, a good grass player but not exactly a monster, is the best that stands between Connors and the semifinals, where McEnroe should be waiting to meet him.

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He probably can’t beat McEnroe anymore, but don’t bet against him otherwise.

He’s always been stubborn. Now he’s old and stubborn, and that’s the worst kind.

“I’ve always played every match like it was the final at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open,” Connors said the other day. “That’s the same way I play them now.”


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