LONDON -- Jimmy Connors was formally eliminated from the championships at Wimbledon by Pat Cash in straight sets on Friday, but Connors' influence will retain its grasp on this tournament's spirit no matter who should eventually win the title. After the withdrawal of John McEnroe, an oppressive, persistent rain and the precipitous elimination of Boris Becker conspired to neuter this Wimbledon, it was Jimbo who came along in the second week and rescued it from tedium. Jimbo, pushing 35 but still doing the Stoke Me Baby Boogie, who gave the people someone to cheer for. Jimbo, no longer quite so antagonistic or invulnerable as he was when he first took Wimbledon's tradition of civility and crushed it between his fingers like a gnat. Jimbo, who suddenly became its savior.

First, there was the fact that he is an American, and the British like Americans; they're drawn even to the ones they don't like. Second, there was his age and his circumstance: He was growing long in the tooth and short in his chances. Everybody roots for an old man to have a last hurrah. Third, there was the vulnerability factor; he'd been humbled here lately: McEnroe glued him, 1, 1 and 2, in 1984; Kevin Curren tattooed him, 2, 2 and 1, in 1985; Robert Seguso shooed him in the first round in 1986. But here he was again, a night shift worker with a chip on his shoulder as big as a loaf of bread daring somebody to do it again. Fourth, there was the way he played the game. Grinding. Digging. Grunting. They said it in the pubs and they said it in the Underground: Jimmy was their kind of guy. He had guts -- not like their wimpy players. He'd stay out there all night bleeding if he had to. They looked at him and saw Davy Crockett at The Alamo. So when Jimbo came back like Lazarus from two sets down and 4-1 in the third against Mikael Pernfors, they had him ready for knighthood.

"They were grasping for somebody, or something to liven it up, to give it a shot in the arm," Connors said. "They hadn't taken a bite of it yet. And when I made that comeback, not only the people here but the whole country kind of got into it and felt they were into Wimbledon now."

What a tribute to British capacity for forgiveness -- or short memory -- that they'd choose Connors as their champion. It was only 10 years ago when Wimbledon held its centenary, celebrating its 100th year by inviting all its former champions to participate in the ceremony. Connors skipped it to practice on a side court with Ilie Nastase. The other former champions who were absent had better excuses -- they were deceased.

But the turning point for Connors may have been McEnroe. Connors was the preeminent bad boy of tennis before McEnroe -- he still acts like a brat in a schoolyard who'd knock a smaller kid down just to watch him fall. But even Connors, as self-absorbed and meanspirited as he was, couldn't touch McEnroe. McEnroe is a loose cannon lashing out at anyone and everyone; he frightened people. Connors was equally vicious in his outbursts. But his targets were easy and acceptable, and his actions seem contrived and somehow part of the overall theater. When his gestures were vulgar, it was seen here as bawdy. Any country that likes Benny Hill will like Jimmy Connors.

"When I first came over here, I had a different rapport," Connors said, apparently forgetting that he had no rapport at all. "We had clashing attitudes, them and me. But over the years we've kind of had a very nice meeting in the middle." Which is to say Connors was a twit, but the older he got and the more boring the rest of the male players became, the less it seemed to matter.

Connors is obviously through as a threat to win a Grand Slam title; he hasn't won any tournament at all since 1984. He went out meekly to Cash, the first seeded player he faced here and a man, indeed, seeded four places below him. No comeback this time. No magic towel. No major stokes. You want symbolism? At 0-5 in the third set, an alarm -- it had the sound of a classroom bell -- rang out, unmistakeably through Center Court. Connors waited for the sound to die before serving, but he did not have to ask for whom the bell tolled, it tolled for he. He protests that he accomplished nothing here. He's "not satisfied getting to the semifinals;" he's still in the game to win tournaments. But the record suggests otherwise. He's still in the game for the same reasons all the veterans hang on: for love, money and ego. Making the semifinals here was an unexpected notch on an antiquated gunbelt, and in his heart of hearts Connors is vastly proud of it. Like a good chip on 18, it'll bring him back next year.

But what of this year in his wake? Now that the lead actor is dead in the second act, who moves to center stage in the third? Lendl and Cash. Lendl, a robot, a solitary, mechanical man who lives with his dogs behind towering walls at his estate in Connecticut. And Cash, with his thatched hair and his earring and his checkerboard bandanna, a look that all in all reminds you of one of those soldiers in the South Pacific who didn't find out World War II was over until 1954. Lendl, who wants so badly to have a more human image that he's having surgery to remove the bolts from his neck. And Cash, who announced his life's goal is the very ambitious: "to lie on the beach, getting a good suntan and vegetating, and getting 30 stone {280 pounds} overweight and having a good time. I'd like to be going to the pub with the boys and be a real Yobbo," an Australian slang term for a no-account, our equivalent of a kind of saloon couch potato.

Is America eager for Lendl-Cash and Breakfast at Wimbledon? Or would it rather have Johnny Cash and sleep in until noon?