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As he screamed and wobbled and slugged and mugged through yet another dramatic tennis match on the damnable bronzed dirt of Paris last week, it was fashionable to wonder which institution had just turned 100 years old, the French Open or Jheemee Konorzzz.
Even after the moonlighting TV commentator, who's known in his hometown of Belleville, Ill., and other equally sophisticated corners of the universe as James Scott Connors, was helped off Court Central on Friday evening—limping away to a prolonged chanting, stomping ovation from 18,000 fans in the stadium and millions more watching him (play, not comment) on televisions throughout the world—we were left to ponder whether this finally was the closing chapter of tennis's version of The Old Man and the C (for clay).
"Hopefully, I'll be able to come back here and do this again next year," said Connors after a torturous struggle with Michael Chang in the most compelling match of an otherwise desultory year in men's tennis. Then Connors giggled and rolled his eyes. He will be 39 in September, which makes him four years older than Bjorn Borg, who can't buy a dance ticket anymore; 11 years older than Todd Witsken, an American whom he vanquished in a first-round upset in Paris; and 12 years older than Ronald Agenor of Haiti, who lost to Connors in five grueling sets in the second round. And—hold on to your Geritol bottles, George Foreman, Mark Spitz, et al.—Connors is nearly 20 years older than Chang, the crown prince of patience, whom he beat in the third round in Paris.
Beat? Well, tied. Well, O.K., won the first point of the fifth set from. Which turned out to be the last point of the match, because Connors could barely move about the clay anymore, much less run or walk or scratch or claw or swing his racket. So Jimbo had to retire, the astonishing final score reading 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 0-15, aban. When a player cannot continue a match, the French say he has abandonne, meaning the player has abandoned the match. What an inappropriate abbreviation for a nonabbreviated match—three hours and 34 minutes in late afternoon heat—in which the only thing Connors may have abandoned in Stade Roland Garros was his senses. After dropping six straight games in the third set, after his back muscles had stiffened, Connors could have—maybe, should have—quit right then.
Mais non. Instead Jimbo, having been turned into Gimpo but sustained by some massage cream and the massaging roars of an adoring audience, not only staggered through the fourth set but won it as well. When he broke the 10th-seeded Chang's serve to go ahead 5-4, the roar from the stands was deafening as Connors gingerly walked with baby steps toward the sideline for the changeover respite. "Jheemee, Jheemee," chanted the crowd.
Connors sat down, dumped water all over himself and draped a towel over his head. It's surprising enough that Connors got up at the end of the 90-second break. What's more shocking is that he walked onto the court and served out the set to tie the match at two sets apiece. What followed was a surprise to everyone but Connors. On Chang's second serve of the opening point of the fifth set, Connors crushed a backhand return winner, then peg-legged creakily to the umpire's chair and said that he had had enough. "Quit while I was ahead," said Connors later, laughing through the pain.
Bud Collins, Jimbo's broadcast partner on NBC, was above the players' exit when Bill Norris, an ATP Tour trainer, helped Connors off the court. Jimbo turned and blew one last kiss to the crowd. Inside the stadium, as he was virtually carried up a stairway, a group of players stood at the top and applauded. "Jimmy Connors won the last point of the match," Collins said in a mock report, "but television commitments will prevent him from entering the fourth round."
Hilarity and courage aside, if Connors had somehow prevailed over Chang, a former and possibly future French champion, he would have faced the host country's No. 1 player, seventh-seeded Guy Forget, on Sunday in a match Jimbo was scheduled to work for NBC. Quel problème! "Forget about your body," Collins told Connors one day last week, when the possibility loomed that he could still be in the tournament on the weekend, when NBC began its coverage. "I want to know, How's your voice?"
Because of numerous injuries, Connors had played only 10 matches since January 1990, losing seven of them, and his ranking had fallen to 324. Although he beat the 67th-ranked Witsken in straight sets in the first round, the match exhausted him. Afterward, Connors was asked what it was like to compete in a tournament in which he also was a television commentator. "It means I have to go to work in 15 minutes," he said, laughing yet again.
Connors Jusqu'au Dernier Souffle ("Connors Until the Last Gasp") screamed the daily France-Soir after Jimbo's epic battle against Chang and Father Time. "Hey," Connors said after defeating Agenor, a tough clay-courter, mixing his tenses as well as he always has his shots and personalities, "this is my hometown. I was in the trenches where I have to work and grind. When I was in my prime, I played matches like this because I'm supposed to."