If ever a stage has looked like the final act of Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, it was the Centre Court of Wimbledon today. This was the twilight of a tennis god, one named James Scott Connors.
In the dark mist of a rainy afternoon, Connors was served into oblivion by Kevin Curren, beaten, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, two days after Curren had done almost the same thing to John McEnroe.
Curren, who gave up his South African citizenship and became a U.S. citizen in March, must wait until Saturday to find out whether he will face Anders Jarryd or Boris Becker in Sunday's final. Those two played two sets this afternoon, Jarryd winning the first, 6-2, and Becker the second, 7-6 (7-3 in the tie breaker), and were 1-all in the third set when the second storm of the day stopped the match.
Today, Curren became the first man to beat McEnroe and Connors back to back in a major tournament. In so doing, he devastated a man who takes pride in never going down meekly. Curren served 17 aces. He broke Connors six times and faced break point once. He survived that with -- what else? -- an ace.
The match was over in one hour 32 minutes, making it about five hours shorter than Wagner's opera about the gods and oblivion, but the differences ended there.
Connors, twice the champion here, eight times a grand slam champion, looked very much like someone whose time has run out. The massive thunderstorm that delayed play for 90 minutes at the start proved to be merely a harbinger for him.
In the eerie gloom of Centre Court, with Princess Diana looking on and many of the 14,500 fans seemingly trying to will him into the match, Connors never had a chance. He was broken the first time he served and never caught up. As Curren blasted one serve after another past him, one almost could envision a younger Connors wading in and figuring out an answer for Curren.
Today, all Connors could manage was an occasional rocket, each one illiciting cheers from the crowd. But there was no rage in Connors, no genius.
This was Connors looking almost 33, being hammered for the third time in his last four grand slam tournaments. One year ago, he won five games in the final here against McEnroe. Four weeks ago, he won six against Ivan Lendl in the French Open semifinals. Today, he won five more.
"Bad day at the office," Connors said with a shrug. "He just throws it up and boom, boom, boom all the time. When he serves like that, he's tough."
Curren served 33 aces in beating Connors here in the fourth round two years ago, but then lost to Chris Lewis in the semifinals. Now, at 27, he is a much more consistent player. He has beaten Stefan Edberg, McEnroe and Connors while not losing his serve for 43 straight games.
"Jimmy Connors has the best return of serve in the game, so I knew I would have to serve very well today," Curren said. "I knew it would take a hell of an effort to beat him. Once I got my nose in front, I couldn't afford to let him get back into it."
Curren never even let Connors think about getting back into the match. He said he had thought that the heavy conditions created by the humidity that hung over the court like a curtain might hurt his serve. Instead, they slowed Connors' serve just enough to make it a virtual sitting duck for Curren.
Connors kept searching. He tried to make Curren wait to throw off his rhythm. He tried to stare him down a couple of times. He mixed up his pitches, coming in behind second serves, staying back on first serves.
Nothing worked. Curren had all the ground strokes he needed and anytime Connors sniffed a comeback, Curren slapped him down with a couple of big serves.
The match in microcosm: Second set, Curren serving at 4-2. Connors raced the width of the court and cracked a lunging backhand down the line to put Curren in a 15-30 hole. The crowd was ecstatic. A cry of, "Come on, Jimbo," came from the standing room area.
Connors went into his crouch, weaving back and forth. Curren leaned back, made his low toss and leaned into a serve. Connors lunged and got it back. Curren volleyed; Connors lobbed. Crunch -- Curren's overhead was past Connors before he could move.
At 30-all, Curren served and Connors swung. The ball was in the net: 40-30. Curren served again. Connors never moved: ace.
The sequence took about two minutes. Never did Connors have a chance to get to break point. Just as quickly, Curren broke for the set, rapping a forehand return down the line on set point.
Curren still had one more set to win, but the match was over. Connors didn't win another game until he was down 5-0. The applause from the crowd was half-sympathetic, half mocking.
"He kicked my butt," Connors said. "Everybody has their day. I've had a lot of them in my career, this tournament may be his. We'll see."
Whoever faces Curren will have to find a way to get into service points. Neither McEnroe nor Connors figured that out. Curren said bluntly today that he would rather play Jarryd in the final because, "I think I would have an edge on serve against him."
Perhaps. But Jarryd is also one of the best returners in the game. That was evident against Becker as he raced through the first set. Small and fidgety, Jarryd is extraordinarily quick, scampering around the court, retrieving apparently unretrievable shots.
Becker, the 17-year-old West German wunderkind, is a power player. He has also become more of a hot dog. Today, he was doing his fist-pump, where he almost shakes his fist at his opponent, after hitting a big shot.
As the rain began to close in again, Becker kept himself in the match with several brilliant shots. Twice facing set point at 4-5 in the second, he hit winners, one an ace, the other a reaching forehand volley.
He followed that with a superb tie breaker, running off the last six points from 3-1 down to win the set, ending it with an ace. After the last ace, he shook his fist one more time and drew a glare from Jarryd, by far the most temperamental of the Swedes.
But before anyone had a chance to get angry, the gray sky turned black, the clouds opened and everyone went home for the night.
By that time, Connors had departed. He had admitted to feeling as if an opportunity, one created by McEnroe's loss, had slipped past him. Curren, one would have thought, could not play so fabulously twice. He had made McEnroe feel old on Wednesday. Today, he made Connors look old.
Rain also interrupted three semifinals in men's and women's doubles. The only match completed was Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver's 6-4, 6-2 victory over Hana Mandlikova and Wendy Turnbull. McEnroe and Peter Fleming, top seeded among the men, trail Pat Cash and John Fitzgerald, 5-2, in the second set after losing the first in a 13-11 tie breaker.