A Grand Non-Slam Victory : Tennis: Connors beats Navratilova, 7-5, 6-2, in a match in which the only speed involves money changing hands.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Who says the economy is in bad shape? Jimmy Connors played patty-cake tennis with Martina Navratilova for 1 1/2 hours Friday night and took home an estimated $1 million. Rockefeller never had it this easy and probably never made as much this quick.

Actually, Rockefeller probably could have hit a tennis ball as hard as Connors and Navratilova did in this made-for-pay-TV, made-for-the-Vegas-glitz match. In the end, when Connors had out-patted Navratilova, 7-5, 6-2, the sellout crowd of 13,832 in the stadium behind Caesars Palace had witnessed several things:

--Public address announcer Michael Buffer, dressed in a white tuxedo and intoning introductions to the Theme to Ben Hur, calling Connors "Jim."

--A frequently shaky-under-pressure Navratilova take a 2-0 lead and play a fairly solid first set until crumbling on set point with a second serve on break point that landed closer to the baseline than the service line.

--Connors, who as recently as last year's U.S. Open was successfully exchanging baseline blasts with the best and strongest in the men's game, pushing the ball gently from corner to corner and actually coming to the net behind 65-m.p.h. serves and winning points. In a warmup celebrity doubles match before the main event, pitting Cathy Lee Crosby and Donna Mills against Dick Van Patten and Sugar Ray Leonard, most of Crosby's serves were in the 70s.

This so-called crapshoot in the desert turned out to be a tennis match flavored vanilla, the soft-serve variety.

It was hard to determine exactly what this proved. Nearly 20 years ago, an aging Bobby Riggs played a young, sprite Billie Jean King and had crow stuffed into his mouth all over the Houston Astrodome. But they played that one straight up--no strange rules--and the anticipated hype and glitz and electricity were truly there, as well as a properly earned boost for feminism and female athleticism.

In this one, Connors was allowed only one serve and had to give Navratilova about two additional feet on each side of the court. Those rule variations really didn't matter much in the match because Navatilova got only seven points by hitting in the wide court, and Connors only failed to get his first serve in five times.

So, even with the two talking afterward about how this may have attracted new tennis fans and how they felt all sorts of electricity out there, the evening and the result seemed mostly to establish that a 35-year-old female star soon to be in the twilight of her career can't pitty-pat a tennis ball around the court as effectively as a 40-year-old male star who has arrived at his twilight.

The match had a $500,000 winner-take-all element to it. But the Associated Press reported earlier in the week that each player had been guaranteed $500,000 in appearance money.

The sellout crowd may have contributed as much as $750,000 to that. With the house scaled at $100, $75, $30 and $25, the average ticket price from that of $57 would have produced a take of $788,424. The main revenue producer was expected to be the pay-for-view patrons, who were charged $24.95 by their cable companies. The totals produced that way won't be announced for a couple of days, and those totals will have a great bearing on whether this sort of thing is tried again.

Connors said he might do it again, but that he wouldn't give up that much court space. "That was just too much running for a 40-year-old man," he said. "It was just too much ground to cover."

Navratilova said she probably wouldn't be involved in something like this again, but that it might be done "with maybe (Stefan) Edberg playing (Monica) Seles, or something like that."

One wonders how many seconds it would take Edberg's agent to sign on for that. His client might even try to hit the ball hard.

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