Open and Shut
Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles won the U.S. Open titles, but the tournament belonged to Jimmy Connors
By Curry Kirkpatrick
Issue date: September 16, 1991
Stefan Edberg may have won the U.S. Open on Sunday, but he didn't win the other tournament -- the real tournament, the tournament that will be recalled, replayed and revisited in memory for as long as there remains a tennis racket to knock the fuzz off a tennis ball: the United States for Jimmy Connors Open.
Edberg's only shortcoming in New York was that he wasn't Connors. Seldom, if ever, has a winning performance in a Grand Slam event been such an afterthought, simply because from the time His Jimboniness stalked off the green cement of Flushing Meadow that first night way back in -- when was it, April? -- the 1991 Open was closed. Gates locked. Tournament over. Hearts and souls and minds were thereafter hopelessly impervious to anyone who was not a 39-year-old wild-card entry ranked 174th on the computer, slashing a neon chartreuse wand through the air and mesmerizing an entire nation.
Connors was on the burning deck, at the stairway to heaven, pick your imagery. Not once did it matter that he wasn't about to win the tournament he had won five times before, the first 17 years ago, the last a mere eight years past. Even Edberg seemed to sense that Connors was Ted Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention, Madonna at Cannes, Fidel Castro at the Pan American Games and, yeah, the King of 'em all, too: Elvis, alive, and refusing to leave the building. In sum, Jimbo was the only thing in tennis anybody cared about.
"Mr. Open" is what Edberg called him. "Jimmy really gave the tournament a boost. I thank him. He let me sneak in the back way -- as usual. But 50 years from now I'll look back in the record book and see my name."
Throughout the tournament, both men's finalists -- being the low-key, laid- back and totally excellent dudes that they are -- actually welcomed the fact that Connors was upstaging them. Less attention. Less noise. Less pressure. Of course, Old Man Jimbo had laid his scene-stealing number on this pair before. At the U.S. Open in 1989, Connors, then a mere stripling of 37, granted Edberg, the Wimbledon and French Open runner-up that year, only six games in a fourth-round humiliation. And earlier this summer Connors's dramatic fifth-set default to Michael Chang at the French Open all but drowned out Courier's first victory in a Grand Slam tournament.
"How can you not like what Jimmy is doing?" Courier said one day at Flushing Meadow. "He's great for the game."
Connors began both taking the tournament and leaving it in a quivering, emotional heap with his enervating first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe, who had led 6-4, 7-6, 3-0, 40-0. The match lasted nearly 412 hours and ended at 1:35 in the morning. Afterward Connors grabbed a sandwich at a deli near his Manhattan hotel and went to bed at about 4:30 a.m. "What Jimmy has is what we all would kill for," Ilie Nastase said a few days later. "Just one more time."
Nearly a week later, Connors defeated Aaron Krickstein, extending his stay three more times. The match against Krickstein fell not only on Labor Day but on Connors's 39th birthday as well. It, too, was a marathon -- four hours and 41 minutes -- that featured a remarkable comeback. This time Connors rallied from a 2-5 deficit in the fifth set before winning a stirring tiebreaker, 7-4. "There's something happening here," sang Buffalo Springfield, ancient peers of Connors's. "What it is, ain't exactly clear."
Undeniably, what was quite clear was that Connors had taken over the Open: to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in defeat or -- could it possibly be? -- in victory. As defending champion Pete Sampras said on the middle weekend, before he fell to Courier in the quarterfinals, "It's Jimmy's tournament now, no matter what happens."
There was a veritable explosion of Jimbomania, with Connors turning up everywhere -- in person, name or spirit. Here was Jimbo at Sampras's press conference after Sampras's third-round match, at which 11 of the 16 questions asked were about Connors. Here was Jimbo on a practice court with hundreds of people crammed around to catch a glimpse. Here he was at a men's doubles match during which Carling Bassett Seguso screamed to her husband, Robert, and his partner, Ken Flach, "C'mon! Do it like Jimbo!"
Here he was on Park Avenue being, excuse the expression, "interviewed," by Vitas Gerulaitis for the USA Network. Here he was on Entertainment Tonight. On CBS This Morning and Today. And on Nightline, on which that old serve-and- volleyer, Ted Koppel, abandoned the doubles team of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and assured America that what Connors was doing was "a metaphor for life ... a victory over mortality." Whew! And America once thought Jimbo was nothing but a vulgar tennis stiff.
Here was Connors even invading the women's competition, where teen queens Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati admitted undying "loooooove" for Jimbo. Thirty-four-year-old Martina Navratilova, a self-described "spring chicken compared to him," latched onto Connors's archaic coattails and rode them into the sunset, declaring how Jimbo -- and herself, of course -- could "inspire a few people to get out of their wheelchairs or to get off their fat butts and get something going."
Faith healing by forehand? Jim and Tammy do Flushing Meadow? Hey, Martina, after watching Seles deflate you 7-6, 6-1 last Saturday to win the women's championship, some slim butt might have suggested: Practice what you preach.
In truth Navratilova had won three grueling three-setters en route to the final, including a thrilling semifinal triumph over Wimbledon champ Steffi Graf. In Seles, however, she faced the winner of the single most extraordinary match ever between two players -- male or female -- under the age of 18. In a baseline slugfest of devastating pace and accuracy, Seles, 17, defeated Capriati, 15, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. Seles prevailed only because she had a bit more courage and will to survive, especially after double-faulting to fall behind 3-2 in the tiebreaker. Seles then swept the last five points of the match.
Stadium Court audiences, rooting first for youth (Capriati) and then for age (Navratilova), cruelly hooted Seles in her last two matches. Earlier Navratilova had even mocked Seles after a reporter mistakenly addressed Navratilova as Monica.
"I need a haircut," she said before glancing down at her shirt. "I am wearing a bra. But it's Martina, thank you."
So what if Seles didn't wear a bra during her matches? Or if she seemed to change hairstyles every odd game? So what if she sat in the stands with actor Alec Baldwin, exchanged kissy-hugs in the stadium tunnel with Elke Sommer and, after winning on Saturday, told the crowd how much she had appreciated the support of Donald Trump ... well, O.K., let's not excuse that last one. Sometimes glamour-puss girls just want to have a little pretension as well as fun.
On the court Seles is a distaff Connors at heart, all grit instead of glitter, pounding, sweating, never giving up. You read it here first: She will become one of the great women's champions of all time. In the final, Navratilova stayed with Seles until the tiebreaker, which Seles won 7-1. The second set was no contest. Seles dropped only three points in the last four games.
This year Seles has reached the finals of all 11 tournaments she has entered and has won six of them. She's three for three in Grand Slam events. Only Wimbledon, which she withdrew from because of those mysterious and controversial shin splints, is "missing," as she said on Saturday, "from my collection." Maybe the rest of the women's tour should start playing with less underwear.
Meanwhile, back at the (Santa Barbara, Calif.) ranch, Connors's wife, Patti, was sending their son, Brett, 12, and daughter, Aubree-Leigh, 5, off to school. But back in New York, the rest of Jimbo's entourage was in tow. On hand were Lornie Kuhle, a California teaching pro and Bobby Riggs's running buddy; Doug Henderson, the burly Big Apple bag carrier; Bill Lelly, a longtime friend from St. Louis who fills/totes Connors's ice bucket; and a new hitting partner, John Lloyd, who is the player-coach of the Los Angeles Strings, the TeamTennis team Connors played on this summer. During the season the two of them drank a lot of beers together and got kicked out of at least one hotel swimming pool. And, lest anyone forget, Lloyd is also the ex-husband of Connors's ex-fianceé, Chris Evert -- who herself phoned Jimbo the night before the semis.
"I just climbed alongside for the ride," said Lloyd. "But is Jimmy's price rising by the hour or what? By the time he's finished, corporate America will be up for ransom."
Which is exactly what appeared to be happening when Pepsi quick-signed Connors to an endorsement deal and, along with the pain-reliever Nuprin, which had signed Connors just before the Open, served up TV and print ads, placards, buttons and patches for his sleeves. By last weekend fans high above the National Tennis Center's Stadium Court were shouting "Nupe him, Jimbo," while others wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words: SAY UH-HUH TO JIMMY.
As for the man-monument himself, Connors kept feigning astonishment. "I can't describe what this all feels like," he often said. "I don't know what to expect out of myself anymore. Imagine me beating these young guys. Is this real? How can you do anything but laugh at this?"
What was truly yukkable was the perception that Connors, tennis's original crotch-clutching, gutter-mouthed rude boy, had turned into an all-American hero. (One member of the suddenly fawning press corps suggested that Connors might be the answer to the Democrats' search for a presidential candidate.) Then there was the other mistaken perception that he was playing the same U.S. Open as everybody else. Whooooaaa! Are we talkin' favorable treatment here?
First of all, Connors requested -- and received -- extra night matches. Consequently he played three of his five matches before the semifinals in the cool of the evening rather than in the energy-sapping midday heat. Then there was the gapingly wide berth given to Connors by tournament officials for his toweling-off delays during the fortnight and for an ugly invective directed at the chair umpire in the Krickstein match. The rules specify that a player can take no more than 25 seconds between points. Against Krickstein, Connors seldom took fewer than 40 seconds. "There was no way play could have been resumed in 25 seconds with the crowd as excited as it was," said chief of umpires Jay Snyder. What Snyder meant was that there was no way Connors could recover in 25 seconds. In the same match Connors laced into chair umpire David Littlefield for overruling a call by a linesman. Among the things Connors said to Littlefield were: "Kiss me before you do that to me. ... You son of a bitch. ... Get out of the chair. ... You're a bum. ... Get your ass out of the chair. ... Don't give me that crap. ... You're an abortion." But Connors was neither warned nor penalized.
"Jimmy was about as gross as he could get," said CBS analyst Mary Carillo. "But I've heard him say it before. It's very tough to hear and very tough to take."
Said one former player, "Connors has always been an -------. It's just that now he's everybody's favorite -------."
The next day, when Michael Mewshaw, who wrote the definitive book on the men's circuit, Short Circuit, asked tournament referee Tom Barnes whether Connors would be fined for what he had said to Littlefield, Barnes replied, "Get out of my office."
"Excuse me? Are you the guy who decides on fines?" said Mewshaw.
"I'm the guy," said Barnes. "Now get out of my office, or I'll call security."
Later Barnes said, "It is our policy that the officials have to report any code violation after the match. They did not, so it is a nonissue."
Well, O.K. If you're a music store manager, do you send back the offensive CDs and tapes by the rap group N.W.A., or do you invite the louts to make a personal appearance so you can draw a panting mob?
In his quarterfinal match on Thursday night, Connors entertained the usual 20,000 enthralled customers, who included the Duchess of York, by strangling a Dutchman in a yoke. At least, that's what Paul Haarhuis, from Eindhoven, the Netherlands, must have felt like when he was serving for the second set at 5-4 after having won the first set.
Haarhuis had upset an injured or burnt-out or mixed-up Boris Becker -- who told The New York Times that he likes to read the biographies "of people who've been in my shoes. ... Marlon Brando's life is interesting to me" -- in the third round. But Connors broke Haarhuis in that 10th game by returning not one but four consecutive overhead smashes and then drilling a seeing-eye backhand passing shot down the line to win a remarkable point that turned the match. Connors went on to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2.
John McEnroe, who was moonlighting in the USA booth, was amazed by his old enemy-friend. "I can't imagine what my brother's thinking now [about Connors]," said Mac. "He created a monster."
In the semifinals on Saturday, however, Connors never snarled enough, never lit a fuse, never got to that bewitching hour of 6 p.m., when he previously had turned into a vampire and devoured anyone in his patch. The muscular, impassive Courier patiently cut Connors apart 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, keeping the crowd out of the match as much with his steel resolve as with his rapier forehand. "Nobody's leaving, Jimbo!" bellowed a voice from the upper deck late in the third set. But a few minutes earlier, Connors, while toweling off yet again in a corner of the court, had smiled and said to some friends in the crowd, "I guess this is the final frontier."
Along the way Connors made this U.S. Open as memorable as any there has been, because his essence, what he means to tennis, what the game means to him, was manifest at every turn. That was never clearer than when he was told that Sampras, after failing to successfully defend his title, expressed relief that the "bag of bricks" had just been lifted from his shoulders. "What? Don't tell me that!" said Connors in a rage. "That's the biggest crock of dump! Being the U.S. Open champion is what I've lived for. If these guys are relieved at losing, something is wrong with the game -- and wrong with them."
Well, then, Jimbo, what about Courier? At the end of your match, he had grasped your withered hand, called you "unbelievable" and later said, "I don't know if we will ever see anybody like [you] again." Courier fights. He hustles. He works hard. He wants it. Could he be the next great American champion? Does he remind you of anybody? Say, of Jimmy Connors?
"Nobody reminds me of me," said Connors.
Issue date: September 16, 1991