LONDON -- Mikael Pernfors thought of everything except the wooden stake to drive through Jimmy Connors' heart. And so Jimbo lives. Oh my, yes, Jimbo still lives. He has been left for dead more times than the slasher in the Friday The 13th movies, and just when you think it's safe to go back to the draw sheet, you look up and there he is again. Smiling. Grinding. Digging the ball off the grass, slamming it back at you and wagging an admonishing finger in your face to punish your impudence. It's a lesson Connors has taught us so often over these last 16 years we all ought to have memorized it by now: You never stop fighting until the fight is done.
There may have been greater comebacks at Wimbledon than the one Jimbo made against Pernfors Tuesday afternoon -- Henri Cochet against Bill Tilden in the 1927 semis; Ken Rosewall against Stan Smith in the 1974 semis -- but the ledge is so thin you wouldn't want to balance on it. They were each down, two sets to none. Cochet faced 5-1 in the third; Rosewall 5-2 in the third and, later, a match point; Connors, 4-1 in the third after losing the first two sets, 6-1, 6-1. Who's to say which was the most remarkable resurrection, which most stirred the soul? How do you measure glorious and unforgettable? But unlike Cochet or Rosewall, Connors wasn't simply getting beat, he was getting undressed.
Connors against Pernfors: The Old Man and The Swede. Jimbo, at 34, giving away 11 years and struggling vainly to bridge the gap. What a contrast in looks: Bert and Ernie in tennis whites. Jimbo with the sensible Pete Rose circa 1987 haircut; Pernfors with the Marine Hell-Night Rose cut, circa 1963. The first two sets were so quickly done, brief notes on an ancient piano: 29 minutes apiece. Pernfors was on the base line like a mole, scurrying for everything. Balls he hit hard seemed to come from a cannon. Balls he hit soft seemed coated with cotton. Connors was being jerked around Centre Court like a puppet. With every variation of pace, each new and different winner, Pernfors was taunting him: A drop-dead lob sighed, Come and get me, Dad. A laser passing shot screamed, Hey, Jimbo, you using a new racket? Can it hit as hard as this?
It appeared that Connors was busy composing his obituary: Here lies the once great Jimbo. Thirteen years ago in the final here, at 21, he bulldozed the 39-year-old Ken Rosewall, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4; left him as flat as Kansas. Now, some punk kid from Sweden with a Frankenstein haircut was leveling him. Say goodnight, Jimbo. Turn out the lights on your way out.
But the oddest thing happened on the way to extinction. Jimbo was lying down, all right, but he never closed his eyes. At 4-1 in the third, he raised his game like Lazarus from the dead, rolling off three straight games at love. At 5-5, 15-0, he pumped his fists for the first time, the old Jimbo Stoke Me Baby Boogie, and the crowd, which adores him regardless of the score, spread the fever. They saw it twice more during that game, ending with Jimbo rearing his head back, clenching his fists and prancing off the court like a carnival horse, ahead, 6-5, and looking for daylight on the rail. Somewhere in the middle of that third set, Connors made his deal with the Devil. Connors would get a foot more on his ground strokes, and we can only guess at what he'd give in return. "He's known for doing things like this," Pernfors said. "Maybe not from 6-1, 6-1, 4-1, but he's such a great hustler, if he gets the opportunity, he'll take it."
Connors fell behind, 3-0, in the fourth set and again began the grinding and digging he insists defines him. By then he had his talisman -- a Wimbledon purple and green towel he clutched to his breast whenever he felt a key point loomed. At 3-1 in the third, he'd adopted the towel strategy apparently as a delaying tactic born of desperation, something to blunt Pernfors' vicious pace. Rather than throw in the towel, Connors embraced it. Coincidentally or not, his play improved, and from then until the end of the match Connors treated the towel as something sacred, committing his faith to its holy softness. From 3-0 in the fourth, he won five straight games -- at one stretch taking 14 of 16 points. The fifth set was academic. "Then, it was who was strongest mentally," Connors insisted. Case closed.
Connors may not have won Wimbledon with this victory, but he sure as shooting owns it. All guts, all glory. Nothing, certainly not a stretched muscle in his right thigh, would stop him. "I was going to finish that match if I had to crawl," Jimbo vowed.
And that is the Jimbo we've seen for so long: self-reliant, self-absorbed, defiant and utterly relentless. Often crude, he was nevertheless always compelling. Even now, almost 35, he scares people. "He's always been hard to beat, and he still is," Stefan Edberg said. He has won 105 professional tournaments, more than any man ever. He has been so consistently excellent -- 10 times in the Wimbledon semis or final since 1974; 12 times in the U.S. Open semis or final since 1974 -- that perhaps we take him for granted.
There was a time when Connors talked openly of his goal: to be the best tennis player ever. And there was a time -- before Borg and McEnroe exposed his limitations -- when you might have tried to mount that case, particularly after 1974. That year, he won 99 of 103 matches, including Wimbledon, the U.S. and Australian opens -- the Grass Slam -- and didn't play the French only because he was banned for playing World Team Tennis. It's a delicious irony that 13 years after he won his first Wimbledon, he's still America's top-ranked player, the only Yank left.
His worthy rivals are gone: Borg, long ago, to retirement; McEnroe, to anxieties and dreaming. Jimbo is still here. Like Tom Seaver, he will wring every pitch from his fabulous arm and walk away secure that there was nothing left. Billie Jean King, who walked that way herself, watched him leave Centre Court, shook her head appreciatively and said, "Borg and McEnroe, they didn't play long enough. Jimmy, he's given all he has to give. When he's 45, he'll never have to wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'What if?' "