PARIS -- In truth, he hasn't changed a bit. Throw out all the stuff about Jimmy Connors mellowing, because he hasn't. Don't pay any attention to the slick public relations image that has been created for him. And, most of all, don't buy the line that he's just out there still playing tennis because it's fun.

Jimmy Connors plays tennis to win. Always has, always will. Monday, Ricki Osterthun, the young West German Connors defeated to reach the fourth round of the French Open, said it was a thrill to get to play Connors before he retires. Osterthun is 23. Connors probably still will be playing when Osterthun hangs it up.

Exaggeration? Sure. And, while it is easy to make fun of Connors because he's hanging on at 34 when his skills aren't as sharp as they were, it would be foolish not to admire him. He has put together as extraordinary a record as anyone in the history of the game, and he still goes out every match and plays like a youngster who has something to prove.

"When I see him out there playing I am amazed," Boris Becker said Monday. "He may be the greatest player of all time. With all the titles he has won he doesn't have to play every point as hard as he does. He never gives up."

In all likelihood, Becker will beat Connors and end his French Open on Wednesday. But if he goes, Connors will go kicking and screaming just as he did on the rare occasions when he lost 10 years ago. Or 15 years ago.

Consider Monday. Osterthun looks like a baby on the court, but he is six years older than Connors' third-round opponent, Franco Davin. He beat Henri Leconte in the first round, and for two sets, Leconte looked like he was going to beat Connors. The old man wasn't pleased with himself at all.

"You shouldn't even be out here," he said to himself at one point. There was more that isn't printable, but that always has been Connors' way.

It also has been his way to find a way out if there is a way. Monday, down a set and 4-5, he faced set point twice. Two sets down at 3-4 against a fresh-faced kid isn't exactly an ideal situation. So, on the first, he dusted the sideline with a forehand winner. On the second, he nailed the base line with a backhand. Vintage stuff.

That, as it turned out, was the match. Osterthun began unraveling and the old lion just roared right through him. He won 10 straight games from 4-5 in the second to 1-0 in the fourth and became the only U.S. male to reach the quarterfinals. Twenty-nine started and the only one left is the oldest.

The next oldest are Bill Scanlon and Johan Kriek. Both are 29 and won't turn 30 until well after Connors is 35 on Sept. 2. Five years in tennis is a lifetime and Connors not only bridges the gap to compete but jumps over it to stay at the top. That is a tribute to him, but it is also yet another piece of evidence of the sorry state of U.S. tennis.

"If the weight of American tennis is on my shoulders, then that's a pretty sad situation," Connors said Monday. "My shoulders are sagging under the weight, if that's so. It's way past the time when I should be carrying that weight. The youngers guys should be doing it, guys like {Jimmy} Arias, {Aaron} Krickstein and {Brad} Gilbert.

"I don't really play, though, to carry the flag," he continued. "I never did. Maybe on the occasions when I played Davis Cup I did, but most of the time, it's been a job. And the job is to win. That's what I've always gone out there to do."

Exactly. Unlike John McEnroe, who always wanted to play Davis Cup, who reveled in playing for his country, Connors always has played for Connors. Always, Connors has been about winning.

Monday, Connors was bemused when he heard that Osterthun had considered it an honor to be on the same court with him. Was he honored or flattered to hear that? "I'm glad to hear it because maybe it gave me an edge out there," he said. "Maybe he backed off a little bit at a key point or moment. So, if that's the case, fine. If it helps me win and play another round, I'm glad."

Connors has won more tournament tennis matches than any player in history. He has won everything there is to win -- except this tournament -- winning two Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens and one Australian Open. He has won 105 tournaments, more than any Open era player. Second is John McEnroe, with 70.

Connors, McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were an era in tennis all by themselves. Connors may end up starting sooner and leaving later than the other two. And, interestingly, as he and McEnroe have grown older, they have come to feel a kinship. They have almost fought on court, shouted at each other off it and stand for completely different things.

But Connors has come to admire McEnroe. And vice versa. The reason is the competition. Each has been a jerk at times, but both have been good for the game. Each of them understands that. When McEnroe was on sabbatical and being attacked, his loudest defender was Connors. When he returned, McEnroe sought Connors out and thanked him.

There is one major difference: McEnroe is still playing because he hopes to be No. 1 in the world again. If he believes that is impossible, he will quit, just as his good friend Borg did. Connors, who was No. 1 five years in a row and in the top three for 12, knows his days at the very top are past.

But he can still play. "It's amazing that he's in the quarters," Ivan Lendl said. "I don't think too many people expected him to do that here."

"Amazing, huh," Connors repeated, incorrectly taking the comment as a putdown. "I wonder how these guys will be playing when they're 34." But then he smiled. "Maybe," he said, "I should be on 'Amazing Stories'."

Maybe he should. Because if he never wins another match, the story that has been James Scott Connors these last 15 years has, without question, been amazing. He hasn't won a tournament for almost three years. But he is ranked eighth in the world and he still competes.

"I would like to win again," he said the other day. "It would be a nice feeling . . . But if I don't, well, it's way past time for me to be worrying about such things."