John Lloyd is an observer of champions. He married one and today he lost to one. He understands what makes them different from himself and from everyone else. He knows how hard it is to manufacture what they've got.
"You can work toward attaining that," he said, after losing to Jimmy Connors, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0. "I don't know if you can get that absolute fire that some people have -- Chris (Evert Lloyd), (Bjorn) Borg, Jimmy. In these people, it's there. They'd be champions if they were born in Afghanistan and there were no tennis courts. These people have it. Other people work hard toward achieving it. I'd like to get to the level of a (John) McEnroe or Connors. I've watched them. It's incredible -- they never waver for a second. I have wavered, and you can't do that at that sort of level."
McEnroe and Connors, different kinds of champions, will meet for the 29th time in the semifinals Saturday. Connors reached his 11th consecutive U.S. Open semifinal the way he reached all the others, by doggedly making the most of his opportunites and never giving up. At age 30, Lloyd is trying to learn not to waver in those moments when something or someone has to give; at age 32, Connors never has.
At age 25, McEnroe is trying to banish the perfectionist demons within. He behaved impeccably and played impeccably at Wimbledon and dismantled Connors in the final. "I think he better be ready on Saturday," McEnroe said.
Tonight, his resolve wavered. He reverted to ill-tempered form, beating Gene Mayer, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. His tongue was sharper than his game and he struggled with his concentration.
He was angry with himself and with umpire Ken Slye. His first serve abandoned him at 1-1 in the second set. On the third deuce point of the game, McEnroe served a ball that both he and Mayer thought was long. Cyclops, the electronic machine that calls the service line, did not make a beep. McEnroe did not play Mayer's return, which gave Mayer a break point.
Mayer called for a linesman. Cyclops was banished. McEnroe saved a break point. "You're really lucky, you didn't cost me a game," McEnroe told Slye, before double faulting to give Mayer the break.
McEnroe collected himself enough to break back twice and win the set but he and Slye were not through. When he went to the side after the first game of the third set, McEnroe asked Slye to quiet the crowd and said something Slye didn't like. Code violation, warning, Mr. McEnroe. "Tell me what I said?" McEnroe said. "For abusing me," Slye replied. "I'm tired of it. I will not be intimidated. 'Incompetent' is the main thing."
Later, McEnroe said he would be willing to pay for professional officials. "The attitude that he's more important than the players. That's not healthy for the match," he said.
Attitude is so much of the game. All week, Lloyd has been studying players like McEnroe and Connors to see how they negotiate the pressures and emotional vicissitudes of a Grand Slam event. It's a matter of stoking and quelling fires.
"It's really showed me how the top players, how they have to get themselves up for a match," he said. "And if they don't play doubles, they have one day to come down again and then you have to get yourself up again and then back down."
Lloyd does play doubles. Today, in the mixed doubles, he and Wendy Turnbull, seeded No. 1, lost to 10th-seeded Scott Davis and Elise Burgin, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
Three years ago, when he arrived at the Open, Lloyd's career was in tatters. He had lost 16 first- round matches in a row. He was ready to quit. "And I drew Jimmy Connors, who was probably the worst guy I could have played," he said. "Jimmy always wants to win as easily as he can, which he should do. I remember going on court, scared out of my life. I was absolutely white, and the ball would come to me and I could not hit it on the strings. I lost the first 14 games in a row and the crowd was starting to whistle and I wanted to dig a hole in the court."
This time, there were cheers instead of whistles. New York turned out to see a reincarnation. After all, Lloyd had beaten two of the top 10 seeds -- Johan Kriek and Henrik Sundstrom -- and four players ranked ahead of him in reaching the quarterfinals.
Before his match, Lloyd tried not to think about the last time he played Connors on that court. For a set, Lloyd was almost his equal. Each had opportunities to waver, to bend with the gusty winds that played havoc with their shots. Each broke and was broken. Only Lloyd wavered.
Connors won the toss and handed Lloyd the opportunity to falter. Lloyd double faulted on the first point. He knew what he had to do. He was not going to beat Connors from the base line. In four attempts, he never has beaten Connors.
Lloyd was determined to attack, to come in as soon as he could, even if it left him vulnerable to lobs and passing shots. In his zeal to get to the net, Lloyd made mistakes that undid him, 34 unforced errors in all.
Lloyd broke first in the fourth game when a Connors lob sailed long. But he could not sustain the advantage. He fell behind, love-40, and struggled to save three break points. He fell behind again and saved three more.
He did not give up. But on the seventh break point, Connors put a perfectly placed lob just inside the base line and a permanent doubt in Lloyd's mind. His serve was broken, as was his conviction to attack at will. "The important thing after he broke me was to try to get right on top of him again and feel like I was right back in there," Connors said.
"That was in my opinion the most crucial game of the whole match for me," Lloyd said. "That was to go 4-1 up.
"It's very difficult to gauge him because you're playing against someone who hits the ball three times harder than any of the other people I've played. In the other matches, I felt like I could stay out there on the back and hit 10, 12 shots before I had to come in. But with Jimmy, I was sort of always on the back foot, and he was the one pushing me."
Connors served for the set at 5-4. He served a sloppy game, double faulting twice, once to give Lloyd a break point. He saved that one but lost the next and the set was even at 5.
Then Lloyd wavered again. He was up, 40-15, when Connors began to step into his returns. Forehand cross-court return: 40-30. Forehand cross-court return: deuce. Forehand cross-court return: deuce again. A backhand error gave Connors a break point. A forehand approach shot that caught the tape and bounced ever so softly back at Lloyd's feet gave Connors the break. Such are the things that make or break champions.
Again, Connors served for the set and again, Lloyd had his chances: four break points in all. His forehand betrayed him. He had 14 forehand errors in the set and it seemed they were all in that game, three, anyway, on the last three points. "I think I was a little bit overanxious there," he said. "I think that was my real chance. I had to get into that tie breaker."
Connors wouldn't let him into the match. He broke in the third game of the second set, asserting himself, hitting out, finding his rhythm. "I didn't want to let him in there after the first set and feel like he was still in the match," Connors said. "I wanted to get on top of him and stay on top of him and get off of there as soon as possible."
Just as always. But this time, there was no indignity in the effort. Lloyd, who came into the tournament ranked 49th, expects to leave it ranked in the high 20s. He wants to be in the top 20 by the end of the year.
Lloyd aspires to be where McEnroe and Connors are. Connors is cutting down. Lloyd talks about working harder physically with his coach, Bob Brett. "I think if I could turn the clock back, I would have been a little bit more dedicated," Lloyd said.
Connors talks about taking care of his aging body. When someone asked who his coach is, Brett, age 5, replied, "Right here."
His father smiled. "If I can't play by now, I might as well get out," he said.
Life goes on. Lives diverge.