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Red, white and blue Liberty Bell dishware being all the rage, it was terribly fitting that when Jimmy Connors, that Yankee Doodle Dandy, finally won a tennis tournament the other day, he chose to do so in Philadelphia. It took place at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships and was Connors' first important victory in what seems like, oh, maybe 200 years. Bicentennial madness strikes again.
When Connors got through demolishing what may have been the strongest field anybody will see until Wimbledon, it was clear that reports of his demise in a Las Vegas baccarat den were exaggerated. Look out, Arthur, Newk, Guillermo and Jack Ford. As Jimbo himself likes to put it, "The kid is back."
Of course, this is not the old Jimmy Connors who is back. Not the old screaming, pouting, gesturing Connors who was last seen losing in the finals of five major tournaments, including Wimbledon and Forest Hills; losing the deciding match in the Davis Cup meeting with Mexico; losing to the likes of people named Adriano Panatta. No. This is the new Connors. Polite, kind, respectful, chipper, able to leap tall questions in a single bound ("Is it tough playing against lefthanders, Jimmy?" "Yeah, it's like playing me. I'd hate to play me"). He seems much more relaxed and finally at peace with himself as well as with the world. The funny thing is, this new Connors looks like the real thing.
After he defeated the infant Swede, Bjorn Borg, in the finals, dashing from 2-5 and two breaks behind to win a tiebreaker first set 7-6, then running out the match over his discouraged opponent 6-4, 6-0, Connors said, "It's like the Christians and the lions down there, but I'm saying to myself, 'Be nice, be nice.' I'm changing my image. To what? How about from awful to fair?"
Throughout the days of his impressive victories over Dennis Ralston, Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Dick Stockton on the way to the finals, Connors managed to mix with the players, mingle with the media, cooperate with the officials, amuse the galleries and absolutely stun everbody with some estimable behavior that actually smacked of grace. If a baby had toddled forth, he would have kissed it, if a yarmulke had appeared, he would have worn it. Connors insisted, however, that he was staying out of the early primaries.
The champion's explanation for the apparent change was a rather succinct "I don't have anything to prove anymore." But others read more into it.
"We all grow up," said Ralston, who has had experience with that as well as with some volatile differences with Jimbo. " Connors always had the wrong advice. He's on his own now, getting back with the real players. He's learning it's easier to be liked than hated."
"It's brutal being alone out here," said Erik van Dillen. "Jimmy found out the wins are more fun when you can share them."
Connors has split with his former manager, Bill Riordan, and has toned down his unholy alliance with the vampire prince, Ilie Nastase. As one result, Jimmy was the picture of stability in Philadelphia.
"I'm serious from now on," he said early in the week. "What kind of an ass stays out till 3 a.m. the night before the Wimbledon finals? I did that all over Europe. Hanging around with Nastase, chasing, messing up. I was still making it to finals that way. But I want more. This is a new commitment. I play and then go home. Nothing but tennis."