Change of Heart : After Emotion of Paris, Connors Tries Wimbledon

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

At 38, he is still the young and the restless. In others his age, the fire that burns in his stomach would probably be indigestion. And if the rest of him hurts the hurts of increasing years, his heart has yet to turn 25.

His name is Jimmy Connors. Not James, or Jim. Those are names reserved for guys in three-piece suits, with touches of gray at the temples. Older guys.

No, this is Jimmy the younger, and he is back at Wimbledon for a 19th try at the most coveted title in tennis. He has won here twice, in 1974 and 1982, but he has never been one to rest on his laurels, numerous though they may be.

That he is here is no surprise, but that he is here in a uniform other than an NBC-TV blue blazer is a stunner. As recently as the last day of May, Connors was committed to being behind the microphone, not the baseline, at Wimbledon. He was struggling to make a comeback from a wrist injury that left him with an 0-3 record and a ranking in the 900s in 1990.

His plan was to play a few tournaments in Europe, including the French Open, do some television commentating at Wimbledon and keep working himself into shape for the U.S. Open in September, his favorite tournament and one he has won five times.

But then he beat Todd Witsken at the French Open, and stayed in against Ronald Agenor in a match in which he lost the fourth set, 6-0, but, remarkably, still had enough left to win it in the fifth. That set up a match against Michael Chang, the young Californian who had stunned the tennis world with his victory over Ivan Lendl and his eventual title in the 1989 French Open.

Thus, on the slow red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, on May 31, 1991, Jimmy Connors, three months and two days shy of his 39th birthday, faced Chang, who was born in 1972, the year Connors played in his first French.

When it was over, nearly four hours later, there was no loser. Connors won the first set, lost the next two, then came back and won the fourth, 6-4. Chang served the first point of the fifth set and Connors lashed a winning return past him. Then Connors, his back stiffened by fatigue to the point where he could barely bend over, walked to the umpire's chair and announced that he could no longer continue.

Connors had won the last point, Chang had won the match.

But for Connors, walking off to a standing ovation from 17,000 in a city that loves Americans the way it loves taxes and traffic jams, the thought of playing Wimbledon again this summer became a desire.

"That was the most exciting time of tennis for me in a long time, maybe ever," Connors said recently. "I won the five-setter against Agenor, and the thought of maybe Wimbledon this year kind of came to me. And then the Chang thing, to play that kind of tennis and get all those people rocking in the stands, well, it's a feeling like you just can't believe.

"I don't think Chang really knew what was going on, really understood it, even after it was over. One of my friends was sitting right near his parents, and he said they didn't get it, either, didn't know exactly why this was grabbing the fans so much.

"But even so, I was happy he was out there with me, happy that if I couldn't win, somebody like Chang did. He is such a gentleman, and his heart is so big. I've often said that if I had to pick somebody to play for my life, it'd be either Pancho Gonzalez or John McEnroe. I think I'd throw Chang in there, too."

It is an overcast Sunday, June 16, in suburban Santa Barbara, the Montecito Country Club, to be exact. The golfers are lofting their nine-iron shots to the green, the late Sunday brunch crowd is lingering over coffee, and a mixed doubles game featuring wristy forehands and chopped lobs is proceeding at a leisurely pace on the lower hard-surface tennis courts.

But up above, on the nicely manicured grass that sets Montecito apart from most other tennis clubs in California, or the United States for that matter, there is very little that is lingering or leisurely. Jimmy Connors is getting ready for Wimbledon.

There are 30 people or so watching the practice match. In a week or so, they would have to pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to see this kind of grass-court competition; pay, that is, in the unlikely event that they could even find an available ticket for Wimbledon.

His opponent is Marty Riessen, a world-ranked player and winner of nine tournaments in the early 1970s. Riessen, a former tennis and basketball star at Northwestern University, will turn 50 later this year, but he has continued to play on various senior circuits and has kept himself and his game in shape. Connors is clearly better, but it is no walkover.

Connors works hard--even the grunts are pre-Grand Slam tournament quality--and the grass stains on his white shorts blend nicely with his sweat-soaked shirt. The preparation even includes playing to the crowd, something he has raised to an art form.

"The people who come and watch me now, most of them are my age," he says. "They saw me play before, they see me play now. And I try to make them feel like they are a part of it.

"It doesn't hurt to smile once in a while out there. It doesn't cost a thing."

Connors had returned home from the French Open on an airplane, as usual. But it really would not have been necessary. He could have floated back on his own cloud.

"You know, when I started trying to come back, I was No. 998 on the computer," he says, not mentioning what a hard pill to swallow that must have been for somebody who holds the record for the longest run at the No. 1 spot in the world, 159 weeks. "And I was thinking about working my way back into the top 200, maybe the top 100, before the year was out.

"But then, when I looked at it at the French, I realized that, had I gotten past Chang and then beaten Guy Forget, who I have had a good record against over the years, you know where I would have been ranked? In the top 50, that's where."

But there was also a short period when there was some doubt that, having decided he wanted to play at Wimbledon, Wimbledon would let him. Since his ranking wasn't high enough for automatic inclusion in the draw, he requested a wild-card spot. Then he waited.

"Everybody told me there was no way they wouldn't give a wild card to somebody who has won twice," he says. "But I knew that they are very careful about taking care of the British players first, and that Wimbledon is Wimbledon. At the French, they had me out there on the main court, or the second-show court, right from the start. But I bet you'll see, at Wimbledon, some Jimmy Connors matches way out on the back courts."

Eventually, the wild card was granted and Connors went to work on the grass at Montecito, each day driving the 40 minutes or so from his inland ranch at Santa Ynez.

He has one more workout scheduled after his match with Riessen, then will fly to England for more work on the grass at Wimbledon. His son, Brett, 12, will fly with him. His wife, Patty, and daughter, Aubree-Leigh, will arrive later, about the time Wimbledon officials will probably send him out to a back court to play somebody who will have more in common with Brett than Jimmy.

Life is good for Jimmy Connors. The young and restless heart that still compels him to run around a tennis court and play a young man's game is encased in a maturing spirit that also makes him a philosophical sort.

"I am very lucky," he said. "I do what I want, and I do it when I want to. I am doing something I like. I have fun going to work. With my tennis, and my whole family life, nothing ever gets to the point where it can't be handled."

The feisty side of Connors, the side that prompted occasional bursts of vulgarity during matches, the occasional obscene gestures to offending officials and fans alike, has softened now. The sharp edges seem rounded off a bit.

He talks about his mother, Gloria, his longtime coach and companion as he was growing up and learning the game in East St. Louis and later Belleville, Ill. He takes his children to see her twice a month, and he frets when she looks pale, adding with pride that, once he talked her into getting back out onto the tennis court four or five times a week, she looked better immediately.

He talks about how difficult it is for him on the tour now, since the age difference is so pronounced.

"I bet there aren't more than five, maybe 10 players out there now that I can really sit down and talk to, that I can consider to be a friend," he said. "It's all so different now. These kids travel with their doctors and lawyers and masseur and dietitian.

"They're nice kids and all, but they've got everybody worshiping them. Pretty soon, they'll be 30, and they'll have to drive their own car to the grocery store."

On one of the closing days of the French Open, a ceremony was held to honor past champions. Those in attendance were recognized by the public address announcer and each was greeted with warm applause.

Then Connors' name was called, and Jimmy, ever the showman, leaned out of the NBC broadcast booth and waved to an adoring crowd. The applause was louder than for any of the others, including some Frenchmen.

Connors, of course, had never won the French Open, the only Grand Slam event he hasn't won. But the mistake by the public address announcer turned out to be a mistake in content only, not in sentiment.

Springtime in Paris was special for Connors in 1991.

Sportswriter Sandra Bailey of the International Herald Tribune, wrapping up the French Open in a story in the Washington Post, wrote:

"Jim Courier and Monica Seles will always have Paris. But they could have rolled the tarpaulin over the red clay of Court Central the minute Jimmy Connors walked off on the arm of his trainer, with the loving screams of 17,000 fans cascading down, and few would have complained."

Springtime in Paris has turned to summertime in Wimbledon, and Jimmy Connors is here. And the young and restless heart in the 38-year-old body, although fully aware of the inherent realities of what it is about to take on, beats faster today in anticipation.

"I'm not going to kid you," Connors said. "I know I'm past my prime."

Then he paused, his mind drifting away for a moment.

"But I can still compete."

Times staff writer Thomas Bonk contributed to this story.

* OPENING DAY: Top-seeded Stefan Edberg faces Marc Rosset on Centre Court as play begins. C12.

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