King for a day: Connors reigns over Centre Court But Rostagno defeats him, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4, in third round


WIMBLEDON, England -- If Jimmy Connors never comes back to Wimbledon, at least he will have this day.

He gave this place so many good years, so many finals, but, for once, Wimbledon gave him something back. On Sunday, bloody middle Sunday, Connors and the masses had the run of the joint. He was the street kid again, playing to the tennis barbarians on Centre Court, and not to the usual snooty cast of royals who shake their jewelry and take their tea.

This was between Connors and Wimbledon.

So what if he lost yesterday to Derrick Rostagno, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, 6-4? The man is 38 years old, with a bad wrist, a bad back and a bad knee, and he goes out swinging in a third-round match.

It was perfect, really. They never play on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, but after five days of rain, the officials had to scramble and bust tradition to break a gridlock of matches. So they opened the gates and let in whoever showed up, and then they gave everyone Connors on a cloudy day.

"My kind of crowd," he said. "Wish it was like that the last 20 years. Where have they been?"

The crowd chanted his name and did the wave. They counted in unison as he hit in practice. When they shouted "five," Connors whiffed and laughed.

He showed them flashes, the stuff that helped him win two titles and reach four more finals. No one ever returned serve like Connors, low speedballs that cut at the knees. No one ever went deep on the backhand like that either, twisting and digging out shots, sending them flying back down the line.

He gave them tricks, too. Taking out two rackets on the changeovers, using the heavier one on his serves, the lighter one on his returns. It was a changeup really, a way to keep Rostagno guessing while giving himself a few extra seconds of rest.

In the old days, Connors would have chewed up a player such as Rostagno, an inconsistent journeyman who has a habit of rising up and knocking off seeds in big tournaments. Rostagno had his one great upset here, blasting out reigning U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras in the second round.

But, at 38, Connors can't create everyday miracles. Not after two matches in two days. Not after running from the interview room to his new job broadcasting for NBC-TV, joking that he'd like to announce one of his matches live, "but they'd have to put in a seven-second delay."

"I loved playing the game when I first started," Connors said. "I love the game now. This was a lot of fun. I probably had more fun this year than in 19 years preceding. I've done my duty here. I broke my back for them. I didn't mind bleeding for them."

He didn't want to leave. He blew off three match points on serve, and the crowd stood and cheered, a touch of Wembley and Woodstock come to Centre Court Wimbledon. But Connors' legs were gone, and Rostagno came back on serve to close out the match, punching a volley to close the show.

Once again, the crowd stood and cheered, the roar echoing across the grounds of the All England Club. One more for old times' sake.

Even after it was over, Connors would not say whether he'd be back at Wimbledon again to play. "You'll be the first to know," he said to a reporter who asked.

"Jimmy will be back," said John McEnroe, 32. "You know, my goal now is to outlast him. I don't know if I'll make it."

Connors will hang around Wimbledon this week, analyzing this soggy tournament. Wimbledon is finally playing itself out after the rain.

McEnroe is still around after a 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 win over Jean-Philippe Fleurian. But he goes into the round of 16 against defending champion Stefan Edberg, a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 winner over Christo van Rensburg. Lurking in the shadows of the top half of the draw is Michael Stich, who survived with a 7-6 (7-0), 6-2, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4 win over Omar Camporese.

A hole was almost blown into the bottom of the draw. Ivan Lendl was given a second-round scare by MaliVai Washington. Shoved on Court 2, the tightly packed "Graveyard," Lendl had to come back from two sets down to win, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

"There are no graveyards here," Lendl said. "I don't believe in myths."

But, at Wimbledon, they believe in legends. Connors gave this place years. For once, the place gave him a day.

"That was a good atmosphere, whether it was my last match or my first," Connors said. "I doubt very seriously whether it's my last time here. Hey, I'm working out this year to play next year."

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