Tennis nostalgia apparently extends its filmy gaze back to the heady days of bad-boy baseline pounders, or else how to explain the vast appeal of Jimmy Connors?
His first round match Tuesday night at the Infiniti Open at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA engendered the kind of enthusiasm and crowd turnout seldom seen for a match involving the world No. 104 and a No. 431 wild-card entrant.
Clearly, what tennis fans remember of the 42-year-old Connors is his pure dedication to winning and his zeal to do so. Those are characteristics so lacking on today’s tour that Connors is made even greater by comparison.
That he lost to Cristiano Caratti, 6-4, 6-4, seemed not to matter to entertainment-starved fans. In Connors, who invented the cutting edge of entertainment in tennis, the crowd found a fond memory.
The tone of the first set was established by the syncopation of baseline tennis and its rythmic pace. Connors’ two-fisted backhand was as reliable as ever, except in those moments when he chose too fine a path and the ball smacked into the tape.
Also familiar was the Connors grunt, which today is perhaps more an indicator of real effort. Ten years ago it was as much a growl as an exhalation and a way for Connors to let his opponent know that he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to win.
In fact, Connors has lately articulated his tennis philosophy, which can be condensed to: Find a Way to Win. It is a refreshingly novel concept in today’s tennis world, where huge servers rely on one cannon blast and if that should fail, concede the point. There is no Plan B.
If he got into trouble, Connors had a world of ideas to fall back on. Connors’ mind may have been his greatest tool. Tuesday night it was hard at work but, while he may have found a way to win on an intellectual level, the information didn’t make the voyage to his feet and hands.
Few in the stadium were unaware of Connors’ reputation as an architect of comebacks. Thus, there was confirmation but little surprise when Connors broke Caratti in the fourth game of the second set.
Connors’ 3-1 advantage ended after Caratti broke in the fifth game. That game had one of the match’s best points, each player maximizing court space to extend his opponent to the alleys. Connors showed he can still scamper to retrieve balls and both he and Caratti excel at hitting on the run.
Connors was the recipient of a host of what can best be called friendly calls during the match while Caratti said nothing, yet Connors chose to admonish a line judge for a call that went against him.
It came at a pivotal time, in the eighth game of the second set with Caratti serving at deuce. Caratti hit a ball that appeared to sail over the end line and both the crowd and Connors reacted vigorously. Caratti won the next point, which gave him the game.
He broke Connors’ serve in the next game, continued to glare at the offending linesman and, after he lost his serve, Connors hit a ball toward him and cursed at him.
Asked about the incident later, Connors affected a mock quizzical look and said, “What call was that? I don’t remember.”
Connors has spent a career in such skirmishes, which serve, he says, to release tension.
“That’s just me and the way I go about playing,” Connors said.
Whatever the virtue of his crusty behavior, Connors is still, in his 25th year in professional tennis, clearly a huge draw. Tuesday night’s match drew the tournament’s first sellout. The 7,721 fans even defied L.A. convention and stayed through the entire match.
Fourth-seeded Richard Krajicek withdrew on Tuesday, citing a muscle strain above his right elbow. Ignacio Martinez, a lucky loser from qualifying, took Krajicek’s place against Luis Herrera. Herrera won, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Sixth-seeded Mark Woodforde lost to Shuzo Matsuoka, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2. Seeded players who advanced out of the first round were No. 1 Goran Ivanisevic, 6-2, 6-4 over Kenneth Carlsen, No. 2 Michael Stich, 6-4, 6-2 over Gianluca Pozzi, No. 3 Jim Courier, 6-3, 6-2 over Alejandro Hernandez and No. 5 Thomas Enqvist, 6-1, 6-2 over Mauricio Hadad.