It was, as Brad Gilbert so eloquently put it, "the kind of day when someone could die out there."

Certainly, it was not the kind of day fit for a 34-year-old man who long ago accomplished about all there is to achieve in the game of tennis; far too much, anyway, to be out on a too-hot tennis court trying like hell to win a match that almost no one will remember six months -- make that six weeks -- from now.

It was the kind of day on which a 23-year-old kid who wins the second set should roll through the old man in the third. Todd Witsken seemed to know that. Maybe that was why he was so snappish yesterday evening when the match was over and Jimmy Connors had walked away a 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 winner.

Witsken has beaten Connors before on a much larger stage than the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic. That victory came at the U.S. Open last September and was the biggest of Witsken's life. This would have been No. 2.

Did Witsken ever think about Connors fading because of his age? "No." Why not? "Because I didn't."

Maybe he should have thought about it. The thermometer that sits in the shade of the umpire's chair on the stadium court read 104 degrees during the third set. The humidity was thick enough to peel. The crowd was lifeless, partly because moving was painful, partly because the players just couldn't produce much tennis worthy of applause.

"The heat took a lot out of both of us," Witsken said. "Neither of us could play hard on every point. It was just too hot."

If Connors had wilted, no one would have complained. When Witsken won the second set, Connors looked dead. When Witsken broke back to 2-all in the third set, Connors looked comatose. When Witsken had a break point in the next game, Connors should have been looking for an exit. Yet, when it was over, Connors had won.

Witsken is younger, presumably stronger and -- most important -- he needed to win more. To date, Witsken is 105 tournament victories behind Connors -- 105 to zero. Put all that information in a computer and pick a winner and Witsken's name undoubtedly would pop out. There were the factors of age, weather, strength, motivation . . .

But James Scott Connors can't be computed. He is 33 days shy of 35 and eligible right now to play -- make that destroy -- the 35-and-over tour. He has no interest in doing that. He is still ranked sixth in the world and feels there are more miles to run before he drops his racket and walks away.

"When I quit, I don't want to have any regrets," he said yesterday. "I don't want to look back and think I didn't get the most out of the time I've had. I wonder if {Bjorn} Borg won't do that someday. I never want to sit at a tennis match and turn to somebody and say, 'Hey, when I was playing . . . ' That's bull. I want to play until I've got nothing left and walk away and never look back."

Yesterday, he played beyond having nothing left. It was just too hot for tennis but Connors hung in, picked his spots and stole the match. "You reach a point out there where it goes beyond the tennis," he said. "It isn't even something I can explain or articulate. I try to. I talk about hanging in and grinding it out and all that, but that isn't it. It's something else. It isn't something you can be taught or given, it's something you just have. I wish you could give it to someone, because, if you could, I'd give it to my boy.

"But the important thing is, if you have it, you know it. And so does the other guy."

It is that intangible, untouchable something that keeps Connors out there competing with -- and beating -- Todd Witsken and his ilk. It has been almost three years since Connors won a tournament, but he is playing better this year than he did last year or even two years ago.

At a time when U.S. tennis is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, Connors is the highest-ranked American in the world (sixth) and was the only American to make it past the round of 16 in the French Open and at Wimbledon. Ironically, at a point in his life when, as he puts it -- "I don't have to win another match" -- Wimbledon may have been a turning point for him. Specifically, his dramatic comeback from the dead in the fourth round.

"I think maybe that match put a little fear back into people," he said. "It reminded them that I'm 34, but I'm not a dead 34. My legs aren't dead, my mind isn't dead. I can still play.

"The key for me now is attitude. For a while, I put a lot of pressure on myself to win another tournament. Hey, who am I kidding? For me to win again -- anywhere -- would be huge right now, really huge. But I went around saying, 'I must, I must, I must.'

"Last year, after I was suspended {for 10 weeks after walking off the court during a five-set match with Ivan Lendl in Florida}, I came back played one good week at Queen's, hurt myself a little, didn't practice much before Wimbledon, then lost in the first round. So, I went 14 weeks and played one. You can practice and play exhibitions all you want, but it isn't the same as a tournament.

"This year, I almost didn't go to the French. Finally, I just said to my wife, 'Let's go and look at it as a vacation.' It turns out that was the best attitude I've adopted yet. I don't mean I go out to play and don't care. The tennis is the same, exactly the same. Off the court, though, it's different. I don't take the matches home with me as much as I used to.

"I played well at the French and I've played well since. I was about an inch" -- he held his fingers that far apart -- "from really doing something at Wimbledon. I mean really doing something; not just making the semifinals -- winning the thing."

Yesterday, he won a match no one else his age in his sport would have won. Go a step further. No one over 30 in his sport would have finished, much less won. That's why it really doesn't matter whether Connors ever wins another tournament.

"Shed no tears for me," he said yesterday in a whimsical moment, referring to age and infirmities.

He's right -- but wrong. The tears should be shed when the day finally comes when he drops the racket and walks away. Because, imperfect as he may be, tennis will never see the likes of Jimmy Connors again. He proved that one more time yesterday afternoon.