This was the morning after Jimmy Connors had been eliminated from Wimbledon by Robert Seguso. It had been, for those who remember Connors at his zenith, a melancholy evening. The fire was there but the shots were not.
Arthur Ashe, who played Connors when the shots were still there, sat on a balcony outside the Wimbledon players' lounge gazing at the sunbaked courts, remembering how it felt when he was at the stage in life that Connors has reached.
"Athletes don't want to think about the end," Ashe said. "They rationalize. They say, 'If I think about it too much, it will happen sooner.' So they pretend that it won't ever happen. Of course, it does. I think Connors knows he's not the player he once was.
"But it's very hard for an athlete to leave center stage. It's such a high percentage of their self-image. What the hell do you replace it with? Once you stop playing, you will never again in life do anything as exciting as this. Never again. Never."
Everyone remembers Willie Mays floundering around in the outfield at age 43, Gordie Howe trying to skate at 50, Johnny Unitas trying to pass at 40 and Muhammad Ali trying to box at 38. But at least in a team sport, one can be protected from humiliation for a while, becoming a designated hitter, a third-down specialist, a 15-minutes-off-the-bench player.
Not in tennis. As in boxing, the sport punishes the athlete who loses a fraction of his reflexes. And that loss is there for all to see. Connors is still a superb tennis player. But he is not the man who won eight Grand Slam titles and a record 105 Grand Prix tournaments.
"Aging is part of life," Connors, 33, said philosophically the week before Wimbledon began. "I know now that balls I used to get to in the air I may only get to on the bounce. I know everybody gets older. But I've taken care of myself the last 10 years and I haven't run myself into the ground.
"I'll know when I can't play anymore. I'm not used to losing to a lot of guys and if it starts happening, I'll know. If I don't know when to get off, I hope somebody will grab me by the hair and pull me off."
But that is the trouble in tennis. There is no general manager to tell a player he doesn't fit into a team's plans. Maybe at the time that seems cruel, but it is also a braking mechanism. It forces the older player to look at himself and say, "Maybe I really am getting too old."No One Tells Them to Quit
In tennis, the opposite is true. The entourage most top players develop has little interest in seeing a player quit. A coach is out of a job, an agent is short of a client. The top players can keep getting into tournaments as wild cards because of their names, and can play lucrative exhibitions. Rarely will an agent or a coach drag someone off by the hair when they still can make money.
Case in point: Ilie Nastase. Considered by other players to be perhaps as gifted a player as has ever lived, Nastase partied himself out of the top rankings in his early 30s. But kept playing. Now, about to turn 40, he still plays. A wild card here. An exhibition there. He is still a draw because of his sense of humor, his court presence and the memories.
But he can't play.
"I know that," he said recently. "Sometimes when I'm out there, I'm embarrassed by the way I play. But I've played the game 25 years. It is my whole life. How do you stop doing what you have always done?
"I know I used to be a great player. I remember. The people remember, too. That is what matters. As long as they know I could play, it's okay."
Okay for Nastase, perhaps. For those who remember the magic Nastase playing here in the 1972 final against Stan Smith or against Ashe in the U.S. Open final in 1972, it is painful.
"There aren't any timeouts in this game," Ashe said. "Nastase can't do anything else. He's a prisoner of his own self-image. So is Connors. That's where John McEnroe is different. He's intuitively brighter than they are. He understands that you slow down, that you change.
"Connors loses to Seguso and says, 'I ran out of time.' Or, 'If he had given me one opening I would have been all over him.' Seguso did give him an opening. He missed an easy volley on match point. Jimmy couldn't take advantage. Once, he would have, definitely would have."
Ashe says all this only because he went through the same thing Connors is experiencing. At 34 he underwent heel surgery. Some friends urged him to quit. He had won Wimbledon. He had won the U.S. Open. But he didn't think he was through. "I could still serve and volley," he said. "So why not? I won three tournaments the next year and that justified it in my mind. But I wasn't the same player." Living to Compete
Only a heart attack finally got Ashe off the court for good. Lots of players hang on -- when it's all over, very few consider themselves lucky to have done so. There are exceptions. Guillermo Vilas is almost 34. Nine years ago, he dominated tennis, winning the French and U.S. opens. He won 50 straight matches in one stretch. Two years ago, he was finished. Washed up. But he didn't think so. He began a new conditioning program. Now, his ranking, in the 70s last year, is back up to No. 17. He feels vindicated.
Vilas is a bright, sensitive man. He could walk away from tennis, unlike many others, and do many other things. But in truth he can't walk away. He understands that.
"An athlete's life is very short," Vilas said. "I am a competitor. I live to compete. It's my life. I don't think I could play weekend tennis. I need to win. I need a ranking. I need to know who is ahead of me and who is behind me. I can't do anything for the fun of it.
"There are other things I could be doing in life, but there are still things I want to do in tennis. I will never play like I did in '77, I know that. But I can still play. I can still compete. It's part of me."
So much so that Vilas is an example of the Ashe theory of refusing to look ahead. "What will I do when I stop?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know. It's so far away I have never thought about it."
Not everyone who hangs on in tennis does it for reasons of the psyche. Some, such as Sherwood Stewart, do it for the money. Stewart is 40. He is a doubles specialist, has been for most of his career. He can still play well enough to make $100,000 a year -- or close to it -- playing tennis.
"What other job can I go into and make that kind of money?" he asked. "I'm getting to a point with my family where my kids are going to school and won't be able to travel. I may have to quit then because I'd miss them too much. But as long as I can play and make this kind of money, I'll play."
At the other end of the pole are Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova. They have won everything there is to win many times over. They have more money than either will be able to spend in a lifetime. Yet, they play and play and play.
"I still think my best tennis is ahead of me," Navratilova, 29, said. "I still like to practice, I still like to feel I can get better. If that feeling goes away, I'll know it's time to quit. There are sacrifices. I don't like being away from home anymore. But it's all still worth it."
Evert says the same thing. "I remember when I was first playing and people would ask me about Billie Jean King and I would say, 'Oh, I'll never be playing when I'm 30. No way.' But here I am, 31 and still playing. I think I appreciate things more because I know the end is near. I enjoy practicing more. I may be more eager to play when I play. I know I'm not ready, at least not right now, today, to stop."
In fact, none of them is ever really ready to stop, whether it is Evert and Navratilova who still dominate; Connors still good but slipping; or Nastase, washed up but still out there. Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat, disappeared into the dugout and never came back. But usually, it doesn't happen that way. Steve Carlton gets released. Rod Carew isn't asked back. Julius Erving misses the last shot. And Jimmy Connors loses to Robert Seguso.
"I'll know when it's time," Connors insisted. "I'll wake up one morning and say, 'I don't want to play. This is a joke. I don't want to work anymore. I can't do it.' "
Ashe doesn't think that happens very often. "There are two retirements for everyone," he said. "There's the physical one, where someone says to you, 'No, you can't go out and play anymore.' Then there's one that comes later, sometimes much later. That's when you're sitting watching on TV or something and you see something and you say, 'Even at my best I couldn't have done that.' That's when you're retired. But for some guys it takes years."
And sadly, for some others, it never happens. They just keep playing even though the music has stopped.