It was almost midnight at the National Tennis Center and Jimmy Connors was trying to get the attention of his 5-year-old son Brett, who was happily bouncing around a TV studio.

"Come on Bretter," Connors said, his day finally over after a fourth-round match that had started at 9 p.m. "Let's go. Time to go home."

Brett Connors shook the floppy brown hair that has been his father's trademark. "No daddy, I don't want to. I'm having fun."

A slight smile crossed Connors' face. Floppy hair is not the only thing he has passed on to his first born. And, even at 32, there is enough little boy left that he quickly recognizes -- and understands -- a little boy's stubborness.

The presence of Brett and Connors' wife Patti illustrates most clearly the changes in the life of the long time man-child of tennis.

He is a father and a family man now. Connors recently bought a ranch in California to go with his home in Florida and he talks happily about the open spaces he and his family now enjoy.

"It's been a long time since I lived in anything other than an apartment or a condominium," he said today, after beating John Lloyd to reach the semifinals at the U.S. Open for the 11th straight year. "Five years ago I couldn't have lived the way I do because all I thought about 110 percent of the time was tennis.

"Now, when I play tennis, it's still 110 percent. But when I'm not playing, I don't think about it. I don't want to . . . Now I enjoy the struggle, the fans, the competition and the idea that the other guy knows the match is never over against me.

"Ten years ago I had to win, win, win because the pressure on young players is unbelievable. Win and grind, win and grind. Now I want to win, but if I don't, I just go on.

"When I'm out there in this tournmament or Wimbledon or whatever, I'll die to win because when you're 32 you don't know how many chances you have left. Age catches up with you sooner or later, but as long as I can compete at this level, I'll keep doing it."

Connors is the crowd favorite now, an entertainer who not only gives his audience great tennis but usually a good chuckle or two along the way. Today, catapulting over a railing in pursuit of a ball, he brought the house down when he paused to take a sip of a drink from a man in the front row.

He is still occasionally obscene, occasionally he misbehaves and occasionally -- especially after a loss -- he can be snappish and rude. But, more often, he is funny and charming. He remembers names, poses for pictures and plays his role as the game's elder statesman with ease.

But Connors' legacy likely will have little to do with his maturation as a person. "Jimmy Connors probably will be remembered as the best competitor of all time," said John McEnroe. "He may be the guy who's gotten more out of his ability than anyone."

Connors is 5 feet 10 and 155 pounds. He never has had a great serve and never has had the ability to volley someone off the court. But he may be the best returner the game has ever seen, and he is proud of the fact that "when I go out there, I'm prepared to leave my blood and guts behind to win."

He has won eight Grand Slam titles -- five Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian -- a record 103 Grand Prix tournament victories and his reputation as a player who never can be counted out. Ironically, he was counted out by many as far back as five years ago.

"A lot of people thought I couldn't win anymore," he said. "That was an interesting time in my life because I learned a lot about myself and about who my friends really were. I suppose a lot of people go through it, but I know it changed me."

During that period, when Bjorn Borg ruled the game, some people wrote off Connors. But Connors, hearing the whispers, still hoped. He lost a five-set semifinal to McEnroe here in 1980 and a five-set semifinal to Borg at Wimbledon the next year.

"Matches like that made me believe I could still do it," he said. "I wasn't ready to quit on myself because I could still compete."

Dick Stockton, who grew up in the game with Connors, is now his practice partner. To him, Connors' longevity as a top player comes from the joy he gets from tennis.

"I've never seen a player who gets more pleasure out of the game than Jimmy," Stockton said. "Watch him when he hits a great shot. He's like a little kid he's so excited. That's unique.

"When you practice with him, it's like with no other player. He may not practice as long, but he plays every point in practice like it's the Wimbledon final."

"Always he had that," said Pancho Segura, Connors' coach early in his career. "When I first saw him he was 15. It was in St. Louis and I liked him because he was small and weak like me. But he would die to win even one point. I knew he would be great even then."

Connors knows his reputation as a street fighter and he loves it. "I'm a public parks player," he said. "That's my game." He is smart enough to know it is to his advantage if an opponent thinks it will take forever to beat him.

"A lot of guys, when they get down in a match, they look for a quick way to get out," Connors said. "I look for a way to prolong it. I just think the longer I can stay out there, the better my chances. That gets harder and harder to do at my age, but I'm still that way."

What drives Connors now is pride, the notion that he still can add a Grand Slam title or two to his record before he quits.

"I've always loved to compete," he said. "I still do, whether it's tennis, cards with my kids or backgammon with my wife. I know I'm going to wake up one morning and say, 'The hell with it, I'm through, it's all over.' I'll just be too sore or too tired to get up and go practice and that will be the end."

On that day, Connors will warmly remember the affection he finally earned after his early years as the bad boy of tennis. It was not until January 1978 in New York at the Masters that he began to become a favorite. "I think it was because people saw what I was willing to do there to win," he said.

In that tournament, which is a round-robin until the semifinals, Connors lost a five-set match to Guillermo Vilas at 1 a.m. He came back at 11 that morning to beat Manuel Orantes to make the semifinals, then beat Borg in the final, coming from 4-1 down in the last set.

Ironically, Connors was nervous about playing the Masters that year because of the ugly ending to his Open final the previous fall against Vilas. In that match, in the last Open played at Forest Hills, Connors was trailing in the fourth set and saved seven match points. On the eighth, he hit a forehand that looked good. But it was called out and before Connors could argue, pro-Vilas spectators stormed the court and lifted Vilas onto their shoulders. Hurt and furious, Connors stalked out of the stadium, pausing only, as he put it, "When a guy's face got in the way of my fist."

This afternoon, seven years after that match, he still could describe it in exact detail. "As far as I'm concerned that match still isn't over," he said softly. "I hit a forehand approach, Vilas couldn't get it and I went to serve at deuce. The next thing I know a guy says, 'Game, set, match, Vilas.'

"That's wrong, It wasn't. I was down, but Vilas had blown leads before. It's in the record book, but as far as I'm concerned that match still isn't over. It will never be over in my mind."

Not surprising. Connors may be 32, a mellowed family man, but he still plays every match until the last point. Sometimes, even beyond.