Jimmy Connors came to Roland Garros Stadium Wednesday to enjoy the waning moments of an illustrious career, but left fatigued and defeated, unable to persuade his body to carry the torch a little farther.
Before about 15,000 cheering and adoring fans, Connors tried but could not muster the strength to advance to the second round. After 3 hours 52 minutes of sometimes brilliant, sometimes sloppy play, he succumbed to his aging body and lost to Germany's Michael Stich, 7-5, 3-6, 6-7 (7-4), 6-1, 6-2.
After winning a third-set tiebreaker, it appeared that Connors, three months shy of 40, was primed to recapture the spirit that made last summer one of his most memorable. His body refused to cooperate.
"I think I made my first excursion in a dark hole today, and it was scary," he said.
As the fourth set started, Connors walked onto center court looking disheveled. His drenched shirt hanging out, Connors played meekly, losing the first four games. Stich passed him almost at will.
"I think I was beyond the wall," said Connors, who virtually gave Stich the fourth set, trying to conserve energy for a fifth and deciding set.
During the changeover, Connors sat in his chair, head down. An aching shoulder got a spray of anesthetic from a trainer and Connors stretched his arm, trying to loosen muscles. Then he took the court and held serve.
Connors seemed to be galvanized, attacking and changing pace as he had the first three sets. Like a veteran junkball pitcher, he hoped to confuse and frustrate fourth-seeded Stich, the defending Wimbledon champion.
But nothing worked. Not the chanting crowd, and not Connors' revived spirit. Stich's shot selection might have been questionable, but his booming serves were overpowering.
"I played terrible," Stich said, not far from the truth.
But it hardly mattered. Connors said he was so physically and emotionally spent that he could no longer continue to challenge.
Shortly after the match, a storm blew through the grounds and play was suspended for the second time in three days. Connors had been aware of the forecast, and during the fourth set pointed to the approaching clouds. He said a rain delay would have given him time to recuperate, "But obviously (the gods) didn't understand my French."
After 20 years of tennis, Connors has been characterized by his relentless desire to win. The "old lion," as the French are wont to call him, grabbed the headlines during the first week of the tournament last year. He defeated Ronald Agenor in a five-set second-round match, then defaulted in the fifth set of the third round against Michael Chang because of stiffness in his lower back.
Later in the season, he advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open before losing to Jim Courier.
A four-time French Open semifinalist, Connors said he might return next year but added that four-hour matches are too difficult. Still, he does not want anyone telling him when to quit.
"It would be better for people to just let me wake up one morning and tell myself, 'I've had enough,' instead of telling me that I'm too (old)," he said.
On Wednesday, Connors criticized today's players, saying no one has replaced veterans such as him and John McEnroe, who has said he will retire after this year. Connors said modern players are more concerned with making money than winning consistently. Athletes today can supplement their livelihood with endorsement money unavailable in the 1970s.
"Isn't it time for somebody else to take over?" Connors said. "When they handed the ball off to me and McEnroe and (Bjorn) Borg, we took it on the 40 and got it down to the three. . . . Now we want somebody to take it in from (there)."
It probably will not be Stich, 24, a serious-minded young player from the serve-and-volley production line. Stich, a semifinalist here last year, said he has no desire to play for 10 more years.
"Why?" he asked. "I mean, I enjoy playing tennis, but not for the rest of my life."
If he has many more matches like Wednesday's, no one would blame him. Stich, like Connors, had 68 unforced errors. But unlike Connors', his game was flat throughout. When Connors made a run in the second and third sets, Stich was unable to respond with an erratic forehand.
That he was playing against Connors, the showman, did not help. When Connors talked to the ballboys, plucked a marigold from the sideline and presented it to a fan, Stich chafed with impatience.
"I wouldn't do that because I don't think it is right," Stich said later.
The French Open is not among Jimmy Connors' eight Grand Slam titles, but he will be remembered here as one of tennis' legends. Connors likes to say he has no regrets about his career, but his grudge against French Open officials from 1974 to 1978 might be the exception. Connors was banned from the 1974 French Open after signing a contract with the now-defunct World Team Tennis. All WTT players were disqualified. It might not have been such a problem except that Connors won the other majors in '74, thus losing a chance to win the Grand Slam. He vowed never to return to Roland Garros and tried to sue the French tennis federation. "I held a grudge for five years," he said. "I think that was five years of my best tennis."