Jimmy Connors won the toss and with customary modesty elected to receive. Why would Connors give a damn how fast Kevin Curren serves?
Hit me with your best shot. Fire away. The harder it comes in, the harder it goes back out, baby. We're talking about the best returner of serve in the business, or haven't you read the papers the last 12 years?
Curren missed with his first serve. His second was nothing frightening, and the short rally ended with Connors lobbing smartly and winning the point.
That's the Connors highlight tape.
Want to see it again?
Fifth game of the second set, Curren serving: ace, ace, ace, feeble return of first serve leading to piece-of-cake drop volley.
One more time?
Last game of match, Curren serving: ace, ace, ace, and after each ace Connors turns sharply and shuffles to the other side of the baseline as a mechanical target at a shooting gallery would; popcorn return of second serve leading to overhead crusher.
Yo, Jimbo! What's happening, man?
"The guy just throws it up and -- boom! All the time. Boom, boom, boom, boom!"
Is there an echo in here? Or is someone suffering from shellshock?
Wednesday, Curren served eight aces and blew away No. 1, John McEnroe, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. Friday, Curren served 17 aces and 20 more winners and blew apart No. 3, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. You couldn't blame McEnroe and Connors if, like Butch and Sundance, they turned to each other and asked in amazement, "Who is that guy? What's he stringing the racket with, piano wire?"
Against McEnroe, Curren's serve was like a fine, hot needle, but it drilled so many holes in the theory of Connors' invincibility as a returner of serve that Jimbo should have left the court wrapped in the Swiss flag and sitting on a cracker. Statistics out of context don't tell us much, but here's one that all of us can understand: In three sets Friday Curren put 43 first serves in play, as in, "The ball's in your court, Mr. Connors -- just where you want it, I presume." And of those 43, Connors got 10 back at him.
Jimmy Hoffa filed more returns than that and went to jail for tax evasion.
"Whaddya want me to say about it?" Connors, always a disagreeable loser, snapped after the match. "Bad day at the office." Bad 92 minutes anyway. People have spent more time changing a tire.
Curren a 27-year-old American, by way of South Africa -- he became a U.S. citizen only for the opportunity to play pro tennis without political reprisal, thank you very much; don't count on him to be here for the last installment of the mortgage -- has won three singles championships in six years on the tour. Almost unnoticed, he has become No. 9 in the world. Should Anders Jarryd defeat the Teen Angel, Boris Becker, when their semifinal resumes, you would have two mystery men playing for the bee's knees of tennis. Ask a kid in the District who "Jarryd Curren" is, and he'd probably say, "Third-round draft pick, Portland Trail Blazers."
But Curren certainly is deserving of his place in the final. He has lost only one set in six matches -- to Mike DePalmer in the second round -- and that, he said, was on "a bad call." More and more, on Wimbledon's grass courts at least, Curren is looking like a pitcher with an extraordinary fast ball who, after years of struggling along at 10-13 because he couldn't control the pitch, is now throwing shutout after shutout and striking out 12 a game.
Still, Curren is quick to point out that his game has gotten this high because of the grass; on another surface, where the serve and volley window wouldn't be so open, he might have been long gone. "I wasn't gifted enough to be great on all the surfaces," he said. "I'm too tall and too thin to be great on the slower surfaces." Even if he could be great, the probability is he wouldn't be. By his own admission: "I can rise to the occasion, but I don't think I can do it week after week like McEnroe or Connors. Championship quality is built-in, and I don't have it."
Nor, apparently, does he hunger for it. Certainly he doesn't hunger for the spotlight. "It's probably better that I play the low-key, low-profile role," he said. On that stage he seems bloodless on the court, diffident in the interview room. Curren's is a decidely mechanical game, a triumph of the technology of graphite research and development. There is no flair, no passion in his game, nothing for the crowd to hold onto and embrace. Admire? Yes. Love? No. It was most curious, the reaction to Curren's Centre Court executions of McEnroe and Connors: The audience was impressed by the craft, but knew it wasn't art.
How much passion Curren ever had, and how much, as a South African trying to avoid hostility in international competition, he deliberately strained away, we may never know. What we do know is that Kevin Curren can serve, and that he has served them off their feet here. Six in a row.
Boom, boom, boom, boom!
All the time.