Jimmy Connors, the 1982 Wimbledon champion, was flirting with a monkey. "Gimme five," Connors said. The monkey put up her hand. "Gimme a kiss," Connors said. She puckered her lips. "If you tell me goodbye, I'm gonna faint," Connors said.
The monkey laughed.
They say he's matured. They say he's mellowed. Jimmy Connors was always nice to little kids and furry animals. But now, they're saying he's nice, period -- a great guy. Perhaps, the perception began to change two years ago at Wimbledon, when he scolded John McEnroe at Centre Court and said, with the fatherly wisdom of those who change diapers, "You're acting worse than my son."
At 30, the bad boy with the Buster Brown haircut is becoming a sentimentalized favorite. "Don't do it," he pleaded, smiling. "You're going to ruin my image. It took me a long time to build."
The image: the gunslinger, who coolly blows on his trigger hand between shots, the way Billy the Kid used to blow the smoke away from his revolver. Connors shoots it out with his bravado, his two-fisted backhand, his nerve. He will "fight to the death to win. That's what they love in New York: blood and guts."
Gunslingers don't blow kisses. "In me, that would be a loser," he said. "I'm still a stubborn S.O.B."
Arthur Ashe, who beat him at Wimbledon in 1975, said, "He relishes it. He works at the image. It sells. It distinguishes him. Eighty percent of it has been very good for tennis. We were stuck in an emotional straightjacket for 50 years . . . Jimmy doesn't want the nice image. It's two years too soon."
He had not won a Grand Slam event since he won the U.S. Open for the third time in 1978, had not won Wimbledon since 1974. After five years of being No. 1 (1974-78), he was third (1980-81). They said he couldn't pace it off anymore.
Then he beat McEnroe in five sets at Wimbledon. "A lot of friends came back on my side," he said. "A lot of 'em didn't come around for three years. They tried to come back. I said, 'How ya doin'? Nice to see ya.' "
A listener looked askance. "You think that's what I really said?"
He smiled hugely. "There are a lot of good talkers: 'Connors is through. He's not going to win another Grand Slam.' Now you don't hear anybody talking."
There is sweet vindication in this. But Connors didn't do it to show them; he did for himself.
"When everybody's written you off, there is no pressure, only the pressure you put on yourself. What I wanted to do is win Wimbledon one more time. I didn't want to be a one-timer."
His wife Patti says, "He wants to be able to tell Brett (their son), 'When you were 3, I won Wimbledon.' "
He has made a few variations in his serve, tossing the ball more in front of him and to the left, allowing him to come in more behind it when he chooses. He serves and volleys a bit more. He is 67-9 in 1982 (92 percent), his victory today over Rodney Harmon qualifying him for the semifinals of the Open for the ninth consecutive year, a record.
Connors, who is seeded second here and ranked second in the world, has won six tournaments this year. "It's by no means my last hurrah," he said. "I'm reborn. I'm on a roll."
Connors says he wants to play only another couple of years. He doesn't want to slide down the ladder, gracefully or otherwise. "The only thing I enjoy is the war, the war on the court," he said. "Why do battle off the court with people I don't even like?"
Off the court, the game is getting "too brutal," he says. "Pretty soon you will have to ask when I can eat, what time I can wake up, what time I can see my family."
No one is going to tell him to be out of town by sundown.
He's still liable to go "berserk" ("it's coming," he says, "it could come"), but "a lot of things don't bother me like they did six or eight or 10 years ago."
Patti Connors refuses to claim responsibility for mellowing her husband: "I think what happened is that he just started maturing. Everybody credited marriage and fatherhood.
"I think he likes the idea of everyone thinking he's such a mean guy," she added. "That's only as far as tennis goes."
"He's a nice guy off the court," Ashe said.
Connors says he doesn't care what people think: "I have to be at ease with myself. At home, I can't put on my tennis face. I put on another face. If you're my friend, you understand. If you're not my friend, then forget it, I don't need you. A lot of people have come around since Wimbledon. They have a different face now."
Those who wrote him off then can "look back now and say, 'What a fool I was.' They can say . . . "
He stops. "I don't care what they say. I care about one thing. That I can get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, 'You're a good guy, Jimmy Connors. I like you.' "
Patti says he gets up whistling.