NEW YORK -- Whaddya mean Jimbo's not playing? So he cramped up over the weekend against Lendl, so what? Give him some salt tablets. What, is he afraid the next step is mixed doubles with Lot's wife?

The U.S. Open without Jimbo? Puh-leeze. He's a dalmatian. He's played in 20 straight; he'd already done eight at Forest Hills when they moved the tournament here to Flushing Meadow in 1978. Jimbo's spent more Labor Days in New York than the AFL-CIO. The Open without Jimbo? I don't think so. That's like a bar without stools, like turkey ham without cholesterol-free egg substitute, like Scorcese without DeNiro, like Capital Centre without toll booths.

I'm sorry but I didn't come all this way because my heart was aching to see Jay Berger and Jim "Purolator" Courier. And this is no easy trip anymore since big time tennis fan Mayor David Dinkins got the FAA to change the landing patterns at LaGuardia to accommodate the tennis crowd. The good news is, you don't hear those big jets screeching over low enough to part the streaks in Andre Agassi's hair. The bad news is, now you're landing in Albany and grabbing a bus down. After all that trouble, at least you'd like to see Jimbo. Not to belabor the notion, but the Open without Jimbo is kind of like fat-free pound cake -- what's the point?

Tell you the truth, I think that's why it poured so bad yesterday afternoon -- came down sideways, hailing, like the clouds had exploded. God must have had tickets and got angry when Jimbo didn't show.

Jimbo was supposed to have played the ever popular Kevin Curren. You may remember Curren from the shellacking he applied to Jimbo in the 1985 Wimbledon semifinals: 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. The whole thing lasted about 25 minutes. Curren's serve was timed at approximately the same speed as an F-15. He'd toss the ball up and the umpire would yell, "Incoming!" Jimbo, who endlessly boasts that he leaves his "blood and guts" on the court, didn't even leave an impression. (I've heard him say that line so many times, "I leave my blood and guts out there," and I wonder what else Jimbo leaves out there. I picture two groundskeepers sweeping the courts late at night, and one finds a set of keys, an address book, a cassette of "Porky's," half a salami sandwich and a small vial of hair dye, and holds them up, saying wearily, "Jimbo's.") Or you may remember Curren from his 1985 encapsulation of what ailed the U.S. Open -- the deafening planes, the snarled traffic, the sneering fans -- and offered this sensitive solution: "They ought to drop the H-bomb on this place." Had Jimbo shown up, his match with Curren would have been on Center Court. Lacking Jimbo's candlepower, Curren was exiled to the anonymity of Court 6, where he quickly eliminated Shahar Perkiss and, presumably, drove his courtesy car straight to a fallout shelter.

I suppose there are other players worth watching. Agassi managed to fit this into his busy schedule; it was touch and go, though -- Andre panicked when he saw the courts were green, but Nick and those adorable Bollettieris promised him the surface wasn't grass. The ghost of John McEnroe is here, however briefly. Becker, Lendl, Edberg, Graf, Navratilova, Seles, and Jennifer "The Money Store" Capriati are too. But I miss Jimbo. He wasn't a poet like McEnroe and Borg, his strokes weren't as precise or as exquisite. But nobody in the open era won as many titles here as Jimbo. And on a late-summer night when you get caught between the moon and New York City, you could feel him prowling these hard courts like a wolf.

Granted, it made sense for him to drop out. He's a week shy of 38, and he hadn't played a regulation tournament since February; he could hardly be expected to go five sets for as many as seven matches in suffocating heat and humidity -- just a thought: Do they give you extra time during the changeover to insert a pacemaker? I hoped they might make an exception and shave Jimbo's matches to three sets, just so we could see him do that Stoke Me, Baby Boogie again. Full speed ahead and damn the arthritis.

If this is goodbye, I'll miss so many of Jimbo's signature gestures on the court: Jimbo waggling his rear end; Jimbo flipping somebody the bird; Jimbo grabbing his crotch. Jimbo sold himself short going into the broadcast booth -- Fox would have built a series around him.

And, of course, I'll never forget Jimbo's typically cheery courtside banter, which went something like this: "You {expletive} {expletive} are an {expletive} {expletive}! No {expletive} way, you {expletive} banana. Get {expletive} royally, and tell your {expletive} {expletive} {expletive} to leave me a dry towel." Jimbo's image doctors did a fabulous job transforming him from a street corner hooligan into Mr. PaineWebber. But I always found it amusing hearing Jimbo say, "Thank you, PaineWebber," knowing Jimbo's usual coda was a crude three-worder.

In closing, a Jimbo story: At the French Open this year Jimbo was working for NBC. A producer, seeking to get Jimbo on camera more, suggested he interview a particular player. Jimbo declined, saying, "That guy's a jerk." The producer suggested another player that Jimbo could interview, and again Jimbo declined, saying, "That guy hasn't talked to me in years." Other names were proffered. Jimbo had reasons for shunning each. Exasperated, the producer asked Jimbo, "Is there anyone you like? Is there anyone who'll talk to you?" Jimbo thought for a moment, then said: "Yeah. Eddie Dibbs."