There they are again—Jimmy and Patti embracing near the stands, and baby Brett, asleep back in the hotel room, makes three. And the U.S. Open makes four. One man's family. Aren't they fantastic? She, the former Patti McGuire, Playmate of the Century, or something; he, James Scott Connors, the former pain in the sport's butt. Ain't it funny how time slips away?
Well, time stood still this summer. Just when tennis seemed about to be taken over by John McEnroe, Connors beat him at Wimbledon. And last Sunday at Flushing Meadow, just when the game was ripe to be ravaged by that one-man forehand horde from Czechoslovakia, Ivan Lendl, Connors beat him to win his fourth U.S. Open. The only other year Connors has won both Wimbledon and the Open is 1974. Eight years—a long time between dinks. Connors turned 30 on the third day of this year's Open. The big 3-oh. Now everybody else is dour or sour or sick or injured or misunderstood or some kind of ornery critter or rebel, and Connors is the good guy. Ain't it funny how slime slips away?
The Open began to slip away from Lendl and toward Connors early in the final, when Lendl realized he couldn't rely on his oppressive first serve, which had handcuffed McEnroe in the semis. Nor could Lendl loosen up to whip out his slingshot forehand. McEnroe had seemed transfixed by that stroke, like a rabbit in the glare of headlights. But against Connors, Lendl knew that the hard stuff would come back just as hard. So he was tentative. Worried about the final, Lendl didn't sleep the night before, and his anxiety showed in the first two sets as he got in only 42% of his first serves. Those sets were lost quickly, in 42 and 37 minutes, respectively. Lendl had enveloped McEnroe with a devastating delivery, winning 48 of the 57 points in which he got in his first serve. By contrast, Connors, the game's finest serve returner (for how long now?), held Lendl to a virtual standoff, winning 32 of 67 such points.
Connors, in fact, was the Jimbonian oracle of old, just as he had been throughout a tournament in which he was pressed only by the high-bouncing topspin of Guillermo Vilas, whom he beat 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the semis. When he wasn't pumping his fists or wagging his fingers at Lendl, Connors was skidding low balls deep into the corners, which precluded Lendl from applying any power or aggression. Also, in his "crossroads year," as Connors kept saying, Jimbo had a new serve. He tosses the ball more out front and less to the side so he can get more body into the delivery as well as an initial thrust forward for the volley. Connors said his serve is what won him the tournament.
Two years ago, when Lendl blatantly tanked to Connors in the Masters to avoid facing Bjorn Borg—whoever that is—Connors referred to Lendl as "chicken." It's no secret that the animosity lingers. Jimbo had beaten Lendl eight times in a row until last month in Cincinnati, where Lendl routed him 6-1, 6-1. But there were whispers that Connors hid in the brush in Cincy as psychological preparation for just the meeting that took place Sunday in New York.
Clucking noises may have been heard early in the third set at Flushing Meadow after Connors mimicked Lendl's sulking over a call. Lendl then became irritated and swatted some mindless shots to fall behind 3-1. He was obviously frustrated at his inability to end the points sooner, not to mention end them at all. Afterward, Connors said, "Nobody likes to see a ball coming back at you faster than you deliver it."
Yet Jimbo couldn't put Lendl away. Just after one of the worms in the Big Apple screamed at Lendl to "go home," he broke back for three-all and then broke to win the set 6-4. Now Lendl finally was taking a full windup and confidently hitting out from both sides, and Connors knew he was in a match.
But when Lendl nailed a backhand pass to break back for two-all in the fourth set and then crushed one of his 14 aces for 30-all in the fifth game, Connors stiffened. A long baseline rally ensued. Suddenly, Connors darted in, lunged to intercept Lendl's bullet off the backhand wing and volleyed the ball into the clear. On the next point, Lendl tried another backhand pass, this time down the line, but Jimbo covered that one, too. He had another break, and he carefully protected serve to run out the match, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
"I made one comeback," said Lendl. "I needed one more. You think Jimmy would go out there now and try it again?"
Even before he encountered McEnroe and Connors, Lendl's swashbuckling style and strange sense of humor seemed to pervade the Open. Item: target practice. While Lendl passed up a chance to pummel Connors with an overhead in the final and an even better opportunity to part McEnroe's forehead in the semis—Johnny Mac cowered behind the net after granting Lendl a setup, but Lendl blithely pushed the ball over his head—he has been known to ignore gentility and deliberately smack a rival at close range. Witness the WCT finals in Dallas last April, when he sent McEnroe to the carpet four times for an automatic TKO. At the Open it was everyone into the pool. Even Hana Mandlikova drilled Pam Shriver in the stomach. And after Chip Hooper, the towering (6'6") new black star, knocked Roscoe Tanner down a couple of times en route to beating him in a macho power orgy over five sets and 61 games in the second round, he answered Tanner's protests against being hit by quoting Lendl: "Nobody ask him to come to net." Hooper even feigned a Czechoslovakian accent.