Right after the customers sang, "There's only one Jimmy Connors," the one Jimmy Connors hit two shots so homely that purists averted their eyes in sympathy. Poor Jimbo. Play some soft music, maestro, the party's over. With one last chance at Wimbledon, the poor fellow's collar has grown tight. Aye, mate, the bloke choked.
Two and one-half hours later, the one Jimmy Connors hoisted high the gold cup they give the Wimbledon champion. He had beaten John McEnroe, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. Eight years after winning his first Wimbledon, Connors, 29, won again in a match memorable more for the champion's perseverance than for the brilliance of its tennis.
Against the best server in tennis, a man who today served 19 aces, Connors yet accomplished the only service break of the last two sets to go up, 2-1, in the last set. After three mediocre sets, Connors won the fourth set in a tie breaker, which always favors the better server. On his own serve, reputedly mediocre at best, Connors was so good that the genius McEnroe not only couldn't break him the last 12 games, he never got to break point in the last 10.
On his serve to win it all, Connors sent a screamer down the middle line so powerfully that McEnroe weakly waved a forehand at it with no hope.
As the ball squiggled away under McEnroe's racket, Connors leaped high at his end and threw both arms overhead in celebration, a celebration joined in by most of the 14,000 customers at Centre Court.
For a long time afterward, Connors stayed out there, standing under a roaring waterfall of applause in the same spot where, eight years ago, there was only obligatory recognition of the brat's straight-set triumph over nice guy Ken Rosewall, then 39 and never a Wimbledon winner.
It has come full circle for Connors now, for today they sang for him. They wanted for the old champion what he had denied Rosewall, one last sentimental victory, made all the nicer if achieved over a brash upstart. From around Centre Court today came cries of "C'mon, Jimmy!" Someone once shouted, "C'mon, John," and McEnroe, 23, the defending champion, called back, "Shut up."
It mattered not a jot to the serenaders that this sentiment stuff, delivered as if Connors has a cane and knee blanket, has gone a bit far.
"I don't have any frustrations," said Connors, who hadn't won a Grand Slam championship since 1978. "I'm used to winning big championships but because I didn't win the U.S. Open or Wimbledon doesn't mean I've failed. I've had success all along. I'm not a one-timer. I haven't slipped any."
By the time Connors came to Rosewall, the old fellow's skills were fading. Not yet 30, Connors isn't the Jimbo of '74, but neither is he in decline. As proof, McEnroe played well today and yet lost because when it mattered most Connors made the shots he most needed.
"It was kill or be killed," said Connors, who sees his work in terms of war. Today with a Wimbledon title at stake, he called in the artillery of an explosive serve added to his arsenal only this year. So it was disturbing, even suggestive of a fellow paralyzed by the moment, when Connors hit the two homely serves that crashed into the net about halfway up. Double fault.
It was double fault on game-point, with Connors leading, 5-4, in the third set, the first two sets even.
It was a big deal. To lose such a game by double-faulting is to risk the kind of psychic injury a golfer suffers when three-putting from five feet. A poor fellow's first thought is to throw himself in front of a train. No trains passing through Centre Court at that hour, Connors did the next best thing. He remembered another moment of such pain.
"A double fault cost me the match with Borg in '77 at 4-all," Connors said. Bjorn Borg beat Connors in five sets in the Wimbledon final that year. "At 15-love, somebody in the stands made a comment to me and I made a comment back to them--and then double-faulted. I wasn't going to let it affect me that way today."
Connors said he had been tossing the ball too low. The technical error put him off his serving rhythm. He had played poorly early on, even botching the ground strokes that made him the world's No. 1 player from '74 to '79.
"Maybe it was the occasion," he said. He needed to regroup quickly, or McEnroe, also off his game early, would run off.
"We both picked up at the end," McEnroe said. "The last three sets were pretty good tennis, pretty intense."
The men exchanged point-blank volleys three times. They sent each other scurrying for perfect lobs (McEnroe returned one for a down-the-line winner, striking a backhand at knee level with his back to the net). Connors had no aces, but he put 63 percent of his first serves in, to McEnroe's 56 percent.
Afterward, Connors didn't talk about shots or statistics.
Many of us wear our hearts on our sleeves. Jimmy Connors wears his guts on his sleeve. Give him a choice of Ali and Frazier, he'll take Frazier. His speech is vintage football pep talk: "All-out guts play . . . Life or death situation . . . Grinding it out."
Go back now to that homely double fault that so offended purists, convinced them the poor old fellow was choking.
"I just needed to walk around and let it go out of my mind," Connors said.
Two hours later, the one Jimmy Connors, for life or death, grinding it out, had moved ahead in the fifth set, 4-3. And at 30-all on his serve, he caused a surpassingly beautiful forehand passing shot to fly from the stretching reach of McEnroe.
"Yes!" Connors roared as he returned to the service line, his every step full of the gunslinger's bravado that marks him.
Now silence owned the place. A bird chirped somewhere. A baby cried. The 14,000 customers watched Connors toss the ball up for his serve. Came a grunt, "Unnggh," a microsecond before Connors' racket exploded against the ball, sending out a powerful shot that McEnroe could only wrestle back weakly to Connors.
He put away a killing backhand volley.
"One more!" Connors screamed.
Two hours after he couldn't beat a rug with that racket, he was about to beat John McEnroe. Now he led, 5-3, in the fifth. He needed to win one more game.
"One more!" he said, clutching his racket by the throat, pumping his right fist.
McEnroe made it 5-4 by holding at love, as if Connors wanted nothing more than to get his hands on the ball again. Connors quickly went up 40-love before making his 13th double fault of the day.
"Shhh," came the sound from the crowd as Connors rocked into another serve, and the silence lasted only the time it took Connors' rocket to skid under McEnroe's racket.
McEnroe walked wearily to the net to shake Connors' hand. They hadn't shouted at each other, hadn't spit water at each other's feet. They had played tennis, and McEnroe said something to the champion. "I told him, 'Helluva effort,' " McEnroe said later.