"He's a crush monster. I know what he can do; I've seen it. He'll kill you or worse, if possible. It's, 'Take no prisoners, 37 seconds, I want to go home.' That's what makes him a champion." --Drew Gitlin on Jimmy Connors
Everybody's talking Jimbo here. He used to be the obnoxious winner we loved to hate. That was before J.P. McEnroe Jr. raised the art of obnoxiousness to levels unimagined. Then Junior and Bjorn Borg deposed him as No. 1. But now, as his latest victim says, Jimmy Connors is again a crush monster.
The difference is that with the passage of time, Connors has become--you ready for this?--a venerable figure. He's even a sentimental choice to win here. With Bjorn Borg in self-exile and with McEnroe's rage turned down a notch, some people believe this is Connors' last best hope for a second Wimbledon title. Even he admits, "My time is running out."
Still the game's best returner of serve, still a heavyweight slugger with the two-handed backhand and now the owner of a new serve that is a sign of mature consideration, Jimmy Connors at 29 is the lion in winter, still the cold predator who won Wimbledon in '74 and the U.S. Open in '74-76-78.
Q. Jimmy, did you meet Drew Gitlin in the locker room before the match?
Connors, unblinking: "That's not the time for introductions, is it?"
Q. When he won a set, were you worried that the match might slip away?
Connors, stone in his voice: "It never slips away until it's gone. If I'd lost, then I'd say I was worried."
Q. But . . .
Connors, so as to leave no doubt: "I don't get worried. I play with no fear. If I ever play with fear, then I'll quit, because that's not my style."
If you like Pete Rose sliding head first, you'd love Jimmy Connors flying around Centre Court. He brings an extra pair of shoes to each match, so often has he shred the originals. Twisting in midair, he leaps in pursuit of every shot, punctuating each with a grunt, "Uuunnnggh," while his quasi-Prince Valiant hairdo flops in the jetstream of his effort.
"I still play with the same attitude," Connors said to someone asking if the old fellow has mellowed. "But now I play it, I don't say it."
He plays it smoothly, all around. Drew Gitlin, a rookie on tour, won't forget his moment on court two nights ago with Connors, a moment made nicer by far when Connors stood at the net and waited for him so they could walk off together, the Crush Monster and the crushed sharing a standing ovation.
Billie Jean King on Jimbo, new and old: "It's very difficult to see being No. 1 slipping away, and it's been pretty tough on Jimmy, but he's handled it well. He's a real entertainer, he likes to be on stage, and the players really respect him because he puts so much effort into every shot, no matter whether he's ranked No. 3 or No. 1."
Vijay Amritraj, long a second-tier pro, says there are only four players he ever would have paid $100 to see: Connors, Ilie Nastase, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. "I won't include Borg. He has zero imagination. Jimmy gives himself more to the game, though McEnroe demands more of himself. It is Jimmy's enthusiasm I like. Even when he loses, his enthusiasm bubbles."
The most convincing evidence of Connors' concern that time is running out is the major change in his service game. Once a falling-sideways contortionist who had no choice but to stay on the baseline even on grass, Connors now gets his toss out front and follows the stronger serve to the net.
"I haven't ever served like this," Connors said happily. "Definitely, he'd have won Wimbledon several times if he'd done this before," said Australian pro John Alexander. "When he lost to Borg in that very close five-set match in '80, if he had served and volleyed half as much as he does now, he would have won quite comfortably."
Can Connors win Wimbledon this week, eight years after his only championship here? Can the erstwhile brat, now a husband and father who is content, if not serene, win Wimbledons farther apart than any player since Bill Tilden won his second in 1930?
Amritraj: "First, Jimmy was unlucky to lose the '80 final to Borg. There's not a better player on grass today than Connors, and Jimmy is playing the best on grass he's played in the last five years. But as much as I, like a lot of other people, would like to see Connors win again, I still think if they did play in the finals that McEnroe would have the edge. McEnroe is such a genius."
Alexander: "Winning last week, Jimmy was as good as he had been in '74 and better than anything in between. If Connors' form holds, I would definitely pick him."
Although Connors beat McEnroe two weeks ago in the final of a grass-court tournament used as a warmup for Wimbledon, the new brat on the block will be the betting favorite. Winner of three straight U.S. Opens and last year's Wimbledon, McEnroe is the game's preeminent player, even if he hasn't won a tournament since October.
Connors' record, in contrast, is one of only partial success lately.
He has not won a semifinal match in a major championship since the 1978 U.S. Open. He is zero for 12 the last three years in the semis of the Open, Wimbledon, French and Australian.
In this year's French Open, he lost in the quarterfinals, failing to reach the semis of a major for the first time since 1974.
Q. Jimmy, would you compare your game now to what it was in '74?
Connors, with an indulgent smile: "I would never do that. Why should I? '74 is long gone."
Q. You hit a peak in '74 . . .
Connors, interrupting: "One peak in '74, huh? And the rest is one long valley?"
The old smirk came back for a second.