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Connors's performance in Paris was an inspiration even to the game's current stars. "[Connors] feels no pressure out there at all. It's obvious he's having a lot of fun," said Stefan Edberg, the No. 1 seed.
"I saw him, and I was pleased to have someone that famous and that good and 38 win in a clay court tournament," said No. 2 Boris Becker. "That just shows how good he must have been 10 years ago."
Or 19 years ago, when Connors played his first French Open—four years before Jennifer Capriati was born. We're talkin' un vieux garcon here, folks. And like the rabbit in the battery commercial, he keeps going...and going...and going. The rejuvenated Connors says his goal is "to make the top 100, to be a factor. I want to get my game to a level where I have a chance to win anytime I walk out there."
Connors's primary business in Paris was with NBC. "But I came with the purpose of playing into shape, too," said Jimbo. (He will skip Wimbledon because NBC wants him to be a commentator exclusively, but Connors will rejoin the circuit later this summer to prepare for the U.S. Open in August.) "I would have preferred not to kill myself."
Let's consider Connors in relation to the sport's other old heroes. After saying he would play the French Open, Borg, who'll be 35 this week, changed his mind and did not ask for a wild card; Guillermo Vilas, 38, was denied a wild card; Harold Solomon, 38, lost 6-3, 6-0 in the qualifying tournament for Roland Garros to the immortal German (that's his name, not his country; he's really from Spain) Lopez; John McEnroe, 32, was eliminated in the first round by Andrei Cherkasov of the Soviet Union; Mats Wilander, 26, after being embarrassed in the second round by French teenager Fabrice Santoro, waved disgustedly to his wife in the stands, as if to say he had finally decided to retire; and Yannick Noah, 31, France's own dreadlocked, Cameroon-born heartthrob, has practically retired. Just before the tournament, he announced that he would pursue a music career, which was recently launched with an album entitled Black and What.
In black and white, what it all means is that the only tennis comebacks—discounting pregnancy hiatuses—that have ever counted belong to Connors. That is, if you believe he has ever been away, which Connors says he hasn't. In any case, the man won his two Wimbledon titles eight years apart (1974 and '82) and his five U.S. Open crowns over a nine-year span (1974, '76, '78, '82 and '83). In 1974, Connors also won the Australian Open. Fifteen years later, he routed Edberg, 13 years his junior, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 at Flushing Meadow. That's Edberg's worst licking in a Grand Slam event.
If that isn't enough history and longevity, Connors also holds the men's record for most consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 (159, from July 1974 to August 1977). He's the only man to win the U.S. Open on three surfaces (grass, clay and hard courts). He has won more tournaments (109) than any other man in history—Tel Aviv in 1989 being his last one, if you're scoring at home. "A man of endless surprises," says 20-year-old Jim Courier, the ninth seed in Paris. "Connors is the Nolan Ryan of tennis."
While rolling along in late '88 toward the seventh-inning stretch of his career, Connors was knocked out of the box by foot surgery and, in October 1989, repairs to his left wrist. This year he has lost to the likes of Cassio Motta, but in April in Tokyo he extended Edberg to three sets in a best-of-three encounter and announced, "I'm back in business."
So with his wife, Patti, and their two kids back on the ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., off Connors went to Roland Garros to compete in the one Grand Slam event he has never won. Never even come close to winning, in fact, although he might have won Paris—and thus the Grand Slam—in 1974 had he not been banned from the tournament for having played World Team Tennis. The farthest he has advanced is the semifinals, in 1979, '80, '84 and '85. For the most part, Connors and the French Open have given each other, in a term that a baseball man like Ryan might appreciate, the raspberry. To wit:
•1980. Connors was fined $1,000 for swearing and otherwise acting nasty while coming from behind to beat homeboy Jean-François Caujolle, who led two sets to none and held a match point.