TENNIS / DANA HADDAD : Connors, 41, Championing New Tour for Heroes Past

Jimmy Connors appeared to be playing bully on center court at the Infiniti Champions tournament in Thousand Oaks last weekend.

With his 6-4, 6-0 dismantling of Johan Kriek at Sherwood Country Club, Connors won for the second time in as many events on the inaugural Champions Tour and left no doubt he could win the third and final stop at Hilton Head/Sea Pines, S.C., later this year.

The Champions Tour--for former top pros 35 and over--is sponsored by Net Assets of Washington, D.C., but it is primarily the brainchild of Connors. He is the tour's most popular and most visible player.

On opening night, Connors' voice was echoing from walkie-talkies: "How's everything going? What's the score of the match? Does anybody need me?"

The following evening, five-time U.S. Open champion Connors was routing Larry Stefanki, 6-1, 6-1. Goodwill ambassador off the court, champion of the Champions on it. But Connors, 41, said it won't be that way for long.

"Hey, I'm just trying to keep pace," Connors said. "Once these guys get used to match play again, look out."

Connors was convinced he could attract capacity crowds if his famous foes of yesteryear came out of retirement for a specialized tour. He was right. Sherwood sold out four of five days, most of them coming to see Connors.

Connors, once ranked No. 1 for 160 consecutive weeks by the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, was a top player on the pro tour for 20 years and far outlasted such contemporaries as Bjorn Borg, who was upset in Saturday's semifinals. If he's beating up on them now, well, it's personal.

"I'm upset at all these guys," Connors said. "They left me out on the tour all by myself. These are the guys I grew up with. The last seven or eight years, I've just been waiting for this."

But Connors doesn't expect his dominance to last. The crowds have inspired Roscoe Tanner of Westlake Village, John Lloyd, Vitas Gerulaitis, Dick Stockton, Guillermo Vilas and Harold Solomon to play again.

When the Champions Tour returns to Thousand Oaks next year, Connors expects John McEnroe to be aboard.

"This is a new beginning for me," said Kriek, who upset Borg and Vilas to get to the final. "This was my fifth singles match in four years and I didn't know what to expect. Now I think I can get back to 100%."

Kriek, 35, a two-time Australian Open champion who made more than $2 million on tour, is coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery. Like Connors, who had wrist surgery, Kriek thought at one point his career was over.

"I would like to play all the tournaments next year," Kriek said of the Champions circuit, which will expand to from eight to 10 events. "I think this will just build in the future. But Jimmy Connors is the only guy who could have pulled it off."

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Amritraj rejuvenated: After playing in the Davis Cup for 20 consecutive years for his native India, Vijay Amritraj, 39, hung up his racket in 1989 and started a career as a television executive. He had not played competitively since, but his 6-4, 7-6 loss to Larry Stefanki in the Champions event at Sherwood might soon change that.

"I felt great out there," said Amritraj, who took the court as late replacement for Jose-Luis Clerc one day after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong. Amritraj, who lives in Encino, did not appear in top condition but he gave Stefanki a scare with three aces, 12 service winners and several impressive returns.

"I wasn't even tired at the end," Amritraj said. "It was so amazing. I had (seven) chances to break. If I had played a few more matches, the outcome would have been different, I think.

"This tour's got great potential and I think it will be successful once sponsors realize that both the players and fans have a good time. I hope to free up my schedule to play more.

"I think a lot more cities would love to have this. (Southern California) is the toughest market in the world, yet there is more room for events like this."

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Nice gesture: Bryan Medders, 9, of Camarillo worked his first tennis tournament as a volunteer ball boy and Connors was so moved by his hustle and determination that he called Medders' name as he accepted his $40,000 winner's paycheck.

Medders, the son of John and Mardy Medders, suffers from a condition that affects only 2,000 people worldwide. The boy was born without hip and thigh bones.

Connors gave him his racket. "I felt so surprised," Medders said. "My heart was beating fast."

Medders, who worked Connors' semifinal victory over Lloyd, said he plans frame the racket, which was autographed by Connors and several other players.

Asked if he knew of Connors before the tournament, the fourth-grader from Pinecrest Elementary School said, "Yeah. He's really famous. He's a cool guy."

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