Jimmy Connors said his fifth U.S. Open tennis championship "wasn't quite as beautiful as others." The truth is, if the others were sunsets, this one was a car wreck. Its only redeeming feature was that it gave us one more chance to see what Connors does best. The guy would walk through hell in a gasoline suit if that's what it took to win.
Look, Connors is a flaming jerk a whole lot. Three times today he made obscene gestures at linesmen and, as always, his scatological vocabulary ran without a leash.
"Wake up down there," he shouted at a linesman, adding, "What you got a woman on the line for?" He's Archie Bunker in shorts, and somebody should strain the meathead through a racket.
But when you pay $100 to watch two guys send yellow fuzz back and forth over a waist-high net, you get a bargain if James Scott Connors swaggers into view. It makes no difference if it's Wimbledon or Memphis, the U.S. Open or the South Succotash Classic. Jimmy Connors comes to play. "There is," Connors says, "no tomorrow."
You hear of tank jobs. Guys tank a match, take a dive, do a splash. They lose on purpose to set up an easier match, or to get out of town for an exhibition, or to cut short the pain of an impending defeat. You've heard such talk in the same sentence with names such as, oh, Ivan Lendl. You've never heard it about James Scott Connors, to whom the honest fight is the breath of life.
Purists covered their eyes this afternoon. When Connors beat Lendl last year, he lit the darkness with brilliance from both sides, the yellow fuzz bouncing off the lines. Today Connors won with a weapon far greater than the two-handed backhand or even the astonishing return of serve that discombobulated Lendl so much that by match's end a heartless soul was heard to say, "Is Lendl from Chokeslovakia?"
Connors won today, on an off day, not as beautiful as others, because his greatest weapon is his heart. He came to work today with diarrhea that forced him to leave the court once. He worked with an aching right foot. But none of it mattered because Jimbo felt just great where he needed to feel great.
Think of this match's turning point. Lendl has never won a Grand Slam tournament, is now zero for three, winning only four sets in the process. This failure at the ultimate moment has earned Lendl a reputation, fair or not, as a choker. In today's match, the turning point was so obviously a failure of nerve that even the heartless felt sympathy for Lendl.
Needing a single point to win the third set at 6-4 and take a 2-1 lead in sets, Lendl double-faulted. The 20,000 customers here cheered Lendl's failure, a great explosion of applause that told Connors what they thought of him and, yes, stole Lendl's heart.
He would say later that the wind bothered his second-serve toss, a loser's lament. And soon enough, he lost the set. There in front of everyone, Ivan Lendl held a towel against his face and sadly, as if hiding, leaned on his hands against the fence at the end of the court.
He was beaten.
His heart was gone from the fight.
He admitted it, sort of, saying, "I felt mentally down after the double fault . . . I never recovered mentally."
Now, think of Connors. Had Connors double-faulted, would he bury his face against a fence?
More likely, Connors would have ripped the Empire State Building out of the ground and said, "I'll serve with this now, buddy."
"I can understand it bothering him," Connors said of that double-fault point, "but you have to shake it off and go back and do it. You can't just fall apart. I double-faulted a couple times in the Wimbledon final last year. I thought about it, but you shake it out of your mind. You get the rattles and cobwebs out and get back into the match and try to do it."
A good player becomes a great champion because he won't settle for anything less. Had Lendl won that third set, taking the lead, Connors said it would not have changed his attitude.
"By all means I wouldn't have rolled over in the fourth set," Connors said. "I would have kept grinding because I still would have had another one to go if he'd won that one."
Connors raised his chin.
"I'd come out for the fifth set the same if I was two sets down as if I was two sets up."
There have been times when the world treated James Scott Connors the way a flaming jerk deserves to be treated. When Connors played Ken Rosewall for the 1974 Open championship, customers in love with the old Aussie cheered Connors' every mistake. In 1977 the crowd upset Connors so much that after losing to Guillermo Vilas he skipped the award ceremony and ran off the court into a limousine, the motor running for his escape.
Now the customers know that even a jerk can be okay sometimes, such as when he arm-wrestles a tiger for lunch.
"If you're playing under those conditions," Connors said of the bad times that came down on Lendl tonight as they came down on him before, "then you have to fight through it and get to the point where no matter what you do, they have to look at you and respect you for it."