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Jimmmmeeee!!!" cried a shrill voice in the New York crowd.
"Whaaatttt???" Jimmy Connors bellowed in reply.
If his comedic sense is one reason the starving pack loves Jimbo, other reasons also became clear during his first-round match last week at the U.S. Open, a marathon that lasted until 1:35 in the morning, courtesy of Connors's tenacity. What became most apparent, though, was the sad difference between American tennis's past and future, as the most flamboyant symbols of their respective eras passed like drips in the night.
To be fair, Connors only used to be a drip. Now, having ceased his on-court practice of grabbing his privates and flipping his middle finger, he is a national hero. The more twisted irony is that at 39, Connors seems only to be arriving, while Andre Agassi, 21, or at least the Image of Andre Agassi (with this guy, one can never be sure), may well be leaving.
Old versus young. Substance versus style. Never were the contrasts between how much Connors means to the game and how little Agassi cares about it so obvious as they were in New York, where, in the wee hours of Aug. 28, Connors thrilled yet another Grand Slam audience with a Methuselahian comeback, this time against Patrick McEnroe. On Aug. 26, the tournament's opening day, Agassi, the No. 8 seed, had meekly folded his neon tent against unseeded Aaron Krickstein and sauntered away in search of his lost forehand, his faint heart or the nearest rock 'n' roll sound studio.
Agassi rolled over in three pitiful sets. Connors won in five sizzlers, though at one juncture Jimbo's numbers were 0-2, 0-3,0-40 (that's sets, games, points). About then, on the TV broadcast, CBS's normally prescient Mary Carillo was saying that McEnroe was coasting. "Patrick's just keeping the ball in play" is how she put it. "He's going to let this match die."
Oh, Mary! Oh, Jimbo!!!!
By the time Connors pulled out his 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory, a miracle that took four hours and 20 minutes to complete, he not only had taken another step toward legendary status but also had stamped his name on the two most riveting matches of this tennis season. Who will forget his dramatic default, because of back spasms, to Michael Chang at the French Open?
Meanwhile, there was Agassi's continuing failure to fulfill his vast potential. When an athlete is as talented, charismatic and exciting as Agassi is—strip away the glitter, and he is still the game's most watchably brilliant player—he must take some responsibility for his performance. Which means Agassi is obligated to get himself prepared physically, mentally and spiritually for his sport's major events.
Instead, Agassi, after playing Wimbledon in '87, snubbed the tournament for three years, until this summer, and it set him back on grass immeasurably. More's the pity, because his marvelous hands and ball-on-the-rise dexterity make him a natural for the lawns. As for the French, Agassi should have won two championships; he is simply a better player than Andr�s G�mez and Jim Courier, the men who beat him in the '90 and '91 finals at Paris. Finally, after reaching the semis twice at the U.S. Open and the final last year (when he was, more understandably, taken apart by a zoning Pete Sampras), Agassi bombed out last week against Krickstein, 7-5, 7-6, 6-2, even before Maria Maples could slither out of her limo. He was heavy, slow, out of focus, off-target. Worst of all, he appeared as if he couldn't care less.