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U.S. Open Notebook : Connors Still Puts Up Numbers in September

Times Staff Writer

It is an appropriate quirk of the calendar that Jimmy Connors’ birthday annually passes during the second week of the U.S. Open. If birthdays are meant to be celebrated, Connors could find no better setting than this tournament.

The U.S. Open is to Connors what the All-Star game is to the National League. Connors has won the U.S. Open five times, has finished second twice and has lost in the semifinals three other times. In this, his 16th Open, Connors remains in contention for a sixth championship.

And Tuesday, one day after turning 33, Connors moved into the history books as the man with the most singles victories ever in the U.S. Open.

Victory No. 76 came in the round of 16 against Stefan Edberg, another one of those young flashes who are supposed to drive Connors out of the game. Yeah, any year now.

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Connors turned back Edberg--and the clock--with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 decision. That enabled Connors to pass Vic Seixas on the Open’s all-time victory list and pretty much clear the way for another berth in the semifinals.

His only remaining obstacle is unseeded Heinz Gunthardt of Switzerland. Gunthardt advanced to the quarterfinals with a 7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 win over France’s Henri LeConte.

Expect Connors to reach the Final Four. And once there, Connors is liable to do anything--especially if his opponent is Ivan Lendl, which is probable.

Remember what Connors did to Lendl in the 1982 and ’83 finals at Flushing Meadow.

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“My record here at the Open is one I’m more proud of than anything,” Connors said. “Winning goes along with it, but more than anything is my performance here--the way I’ve played my matches here and how I’ve come through when maybe I wasn’t supposed to. That means more to me.”

The consensus Tuesday was that Connors wasn’t supposed to beat Edberg. Tennis has been waiting for Edberg to break through to superstardom, ever since he won the juniors Grand Slam in 1983.

The arrival was put on hold. Edberg’s greatest weapon, his serve, was nullified in typical Connors fashion--with Connors returning serve the way Ken Dryden used to tend goal.

Then, after dispatching one Swede, Connors looked back over his career and focused on his rivalry with another.

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"(Bjorn) Borg was my greatest rivalry,” Connors said. “We grew up together--I was 19 and he 16. McEnroe came after I had been on the tour six years. Borg and I came at the same time, and we’ve had great matches and began playing great at the same time. Our matches here, at Wimbledon and around the world were exceptional.”

Connors played long enough to see both the beginning and end of Borg’s career. At 33, he is seven years older than Borg’s retirement age of 26.

“I outlasted him, I think, because I let my emotions out and he held his in,” Connors said. “I fought through slumps, a whole three-year drought of no Grand Slams.

“My whole career has been like a roller-coaster, which has made me a better player in the long run. Maybe Borg didn’t want to fight through that.”

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Connors is still fighting, a fact that has earned him comparisons to Pete Rose.

Connors likes those comparisons.

“His reputation for breaking his back and staying in there at his age are great,” he said. “It’s great to be compared to him.”

Then, with a grin, Connors added, “And, he’s even older than me.”

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Serving Notice: Standing in the way of a quarterfinal meeting between Ivan Lendl and Yannick Noah were a couple of junior players named Jaime Yzaga and Jay Berger. And Tuesday, neither junior particularly wanted to step out of the way.

Yzaga, seeded first in the U.S. Open boys singles draw, decided to default his regularly scheduled second-round match because he wanted to conserve energy for Lendl in the men’s bracket. It was a decision that may have cost Yzaga a juniors title, but it paid off in a surprisingly strong effort against the men’s No. 2-seeded player.

Yzaga won the first set and battled Lendl almost evenly for three sets before eventually dropped a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 decision.

Earlier in the day, Berger proved as big a pest to Noah. Berger also won the first set and extended Noah to four sets in a 6-7, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 loss.

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“It was a great experience,” Berger said, “for such a young player to go out there and play against such a great player. Maybe next time, I play out there, I’ll be more prepared for the match and the results will be different.”


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