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 is a quiet, tough and admirably swell fellow who, after eight years of failure at Flushing Meadow, stayed out on Long Island, away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, and played two nearly flawless matches, beating Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals and Jim Courier 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the championship round. No winner has given up so few games in his last two matches since Frank Sedgman also lost 16 in 1952. In so doing, Edberg played textbook serve-and-volley tennis, dropping only 15 points on his serve in the final. Moreover, in adding a fifth Grand Slam title to his two Wimbledon and two Australian crowns, he regained the world's No. 1 ranking.
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 after-thought, 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, laidback 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 4½ 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."