The fire still burns within Jimmy Connors. But even though the heart and the mind are still more than willing, the body -- ever so slowly -- is slipping.
Today, Connors lost a match he wanted desperately to win, a match that, two or three years ago, he almost certainly would have won. For three sets and more than two hours he dueled with Ivan Lendl.
Once, Connors dominated their rivalry. This afternoon, in the semifinals of the Volvo International, he lost to Lendl for a sixth straight time, 6-0, 4-6, 6-4.
Sunday, Lendl will play John McEnroe for the championship. The world's No. 1 player looked a little bit like the dominating McEnroe of 1984 this afternoon, wiping out Robert Seguso, 6-2, 6-3. McEnroe, who didn't serve well at the French Open or Wimbledon, got in almost 70 percent of his first serves today and won 37 of 49 points.
McEnroe's victory was full of artistry and shotmaking. Lendl's was full of rancor, tension and comedy. There is perhaps no more idyllic setting in tennis than this mountain resort, the 10,000-seat stadium sitting amidst a grove of trees with the ski slopes of sun-drenched Stratton Mountain rising in the distance.
But when Connors and Lendl square off, scenery and setting become irrelevant. The two don't like one another and tempers flare often. Today, Connors successfully had one line judge removed. Lendl failed to have another removed, and each player made several obscene gestures.
"I'm so upset right now I don't know if I'll even be able to see from the men's tees to the ladies' tees," said Lendl, a 16-handicap golfer who planned to play Sunday morning before the final.
That was from the winner. Connors, who slammed his racket into a chair after Lendl's ninth ace ended the match, was greatly chagrined at losing this way to this opponent.
"I let him off the hook," Connors said. "Playing him a best-of-three is like a sprint. If he gets off to a good start he doesn't have time to get nervous and start gagging. The tighter it gets, the tighter he gets."
In short, Connors still thinks Lendl is a choker. That is why losing a match afer coming from way behind to lead, 4-3, in the last set, irks Connors. He lost the first set today in about three minutes, winning a total of eight points.
"The thing about Jimmy is if you beat him, 6-0, in the first set, you still can't count him out," Lendl said. "If I had broken him in the first game of the second set, maybe I would have run away with it. But I didn't."
He did break in the first game of the third, though, and led, 3-1. But Connors came back, earning his break with two great backhand returns, the last one off a Lendl serve that looked untouchable. Instead, Connors hit a screamer that Lendl could only lift into the net.
Furious, Lendl slammed one ball into the back wall and flicked another into the stands, drawing a warning for ball abuse. He looked uptight, drawn, perhaps beaten -- especially when Connors held to lead, 4-3.
But Lendl didn't fade. He held for 4-all and then got the break he needed in a sloppy game. With Connors in a 0-40 hole, Lendl made three straight errors. Connors responded with two of his own, the last a too-deep backhand, and Lendl had the break.
A moment later, he had match point at 40-15 and hit a crosscourt backhand that looked good. It was called wide. Connors nailed one more return to save another match point, but Lendl finally ended matters with two big serves.
"I'd like to play him three-of-five," Connors said. "We'll see what happens at the Open."
The mind and the heart are still willing. Five days into the Open, the body will be 33.