Open cozies up to Connors


NEW YORK -- The diligent pupil saw his former coach outside the men's locker room, Jimmy Connors no longer the kid, Pancho Segura no longer the master. A chance meeting, nothing more, on the night before Connors was to make the U.S. Open explode yet again.

Segura, now retired, lifted Connors' shirt, then pinched his stomach. "Still a little flab there," Connors told his silver-haired mentor. "It's almost gone. Another couple of matches like this and it will be gone."

With that, Connors began making his way out of the National Tennis Center, a big place that right now feels as small as the bar in "Cheers." Connors, 39, keeps serving drinks from his fountain of youth. The entire country has pulled up a stool.

Last night he practiced on the stadium court for 45 minutes, retired to the trainer's room, then strolled right through an adoring crowd arriving to see an Ivan Lendl-Michael Stich match that was suspended by rain.

"Take it easy," someone said.

"Take it easy is right," Connors replied.

Tonight he plays Paul Haarhuis in the quarterfinals. The sound will be unlike any heard in sports. "Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh," is how Connors describes it. Pity poor Haarhuis, the guy who eliminated seed No. 1 Boris Becker. He has no chance.

Ask Patrick McEnroe, who led Connors two sets to none and 3-0 in the third, only to fall in five. Or ask Aaron Krickstein, who led Connors 5-2 in the fifth set, only to fall in a tiebreaker.

This is a fight crowd, not a tennis crowd, and Connors is George Foreman. Actually, he's doing old George one better. Foreman beat a succession of stiffs before losing to Evander Holyfield. Connors couldn't beat anyone in '91 until this tournament.

Jaime Yzaga. Cristiano Caratti. Cassio Motta. Malivai Washington. These are among the immortals who vanquished Connors in his previous nine events. Not once did he advance past the round of 16. Yet tonight is his 17th Open quarterfinal.

He's ranked 174th in the world. He hasn't captured a Grand Slam since winning his fifth Open in 1983. His first was in 1974. He beat Ken Rosewall in the final. Of course you remember. Richard Nixon had just resigned as president.

Back then Connors was something of a villain, and in many ways he still is. He called the chair umpire "an abortion" Monday, but waltzed away without so much as a warning. Right now he can behave worse than Roger Clemens. No umpire would dare pull a Terry Cooney here, for fear of risking a riot.

Likewise, his opponents have no choice but to tolerate his endless stalling between points. Fans dream of cheering hard enough to make a difference. Here at the Open it is actually happening. The crowd is fanatical, even tyrannical. Ask McEnroe. Ask Krickstein. Ask Haarhuis after tonight.

How can you not root for Connors? He missed 14 months after undergoing surgery on his left wrist, making last year a wash. "I can't swing a golf club, I can't throw a baseball. I can't play basketball," he said yesterday. "All I can do is play tennis."

"He wasn't sure he'd ever play again," said Vitas Gerulaitis, a former player who is now a commentator for the USA Network. "Everything now is gravy. The guy has come back from the grave."

And so the crowd is his. The McEnroe match lasted four hours, 18 minutes. The crowd dwindled after midnight, but those who remained were bowing -- yes, bowing -- by the fifth set. The Krickstein match lasted 4:41. "Twenty thousand making the noise of 60,000," Connors said.

That was Monday. Connors twisted his knee in that match, but he practiced 30 minutes Tuesday, and again yesterday. His hitting partner is John Lloyd. Yes, that John Lloyd -- the guy who married Connors' former girlfriend, Chris Evert, only to get divorced.

"I've been in shock from the first day," Lloyd said. "I shouldn't have been. I should be used to it by now. I've seen two matches this week that will be in my top five all-time epics. It sounds corny, but they're two to tell your children about. Bloody amazing."

How far can Connors go? Haarhuis, 25, is 14 years younger and ranked 129 spots higher, but Lloyd does not foresee a problem. After that would be Pete Sampras or Jim Courier in the semifinals. And after that . . . well, one match at a time.

"If it was a best-of-three set tournament, I'd fancy his chances," Lloyd said. "It's tough to see him winning three more five-set matches. Against people like Sampras, Courier and [Stefan] Edberg, it's going to be tough. But you just can't go against Jimmy. You get proven wrong too many times when you do."

Lloyd was standing next to a dark staircase leading from the men's locker room to the front of the tennis center. Connors had buzzed through moments before, greeting everyone in sight, smiling, waving, shaking hands.

"See you tomorrow," he told a young security guard.

"You bet," the kid said.

It's not tennis, it's "Cheers."

Everyone pull up a stool.

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