Connors' win sets U.S. Open stage for semifinal act


NEW YORK -- The 20-year-old defending champion lost and said he was relieved. The 22-year-old Wimbledon champion ended a summer of promise and pressure by flinging his racket in defeat.

But the old man with the fluorescent lime green racket and the bionic body kept winning.

Jimmy Connors strapped the U.S. Open onto his back again last night and took it for a wild ride through the quarterfinals. He aimed for the bright lights of Louis Armstrong Stadium, driving the crowd of 20,541 into a frenzy and confounding Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands, 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-2.

The victory moved Connors into the semifinals for the 14th time. The first wild-card entry to reach the semifinals, Connors also became the oldest man to advance to the final four since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1974.

Tomorrow, Connors will meet Jim Courier, who toppled defending champion Pete Sampras, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5).

The other semifinal will match Stefan Edberg against Ivan Lendl, who came back in a rain-suspended match to defeat Wimbledon champion Michael Stich, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1.

"If someone gives me a second chance, I'm not going to blow it," said Connors, the five-time Open champion.

He is showing the young players how to win. In the afternoon, Sampras gave away his title and then gave a strange concession speech, talking about having a monkey taken off his back, and saying, "Maybe I can go back to my normal lifestyle."

At night, Connors stormed on the court, followed by an army of cameras and trailed by Haarhuis, and walked off 2 hours, 55 minutes later, triumphantly pumping his fists.

Then, he took a shot at Sampras.

"I cannot believe a guy could come in here and be relieved losing the U.S. Open," he said. "That is the greatest feeling you can have -- being a U.S. Open champion. If these guys are relieved, something is either wrong with the game or wrong with them."

This was Connors at his best and his worst. He started the match by winning only three points in four games, and looked like a goner.

But then here came Connors in the second set, snarling and cursing and scaring Haarhuis, who would say later, "You don't want to give this guy an inch."

And then there was the point that made the whole tournament, Connors backing into a wall and Haarhuis trying to save a break and serve out the set at 5-4, 30-40.

The overheads kept coming and Connors kept blocking them away with lobs, sending the ball four times up into the lights. And now there was Connors taking a short ball and wrapping a forehand, and then, there he was at the net, lunging now, going for the backhand down the line, smacking the ball by Haarhuis and running straight for his seat while the crowd was up and screaming.

"The point of the match," Connors said.

It got him into the tie-breaker, and kept him in the tournament.

"It's not over," he said. "The only way it will be over is if someone steps up and beats me. And they'll have to play darn good tennis to beat me."

Unfortunately for Connors, he gets the guy on the roll. Courier, the French Open champion, who covers his red hair with a baseball cap and sweats through his T-shirts, ran right through Sampras.

Best friends off the court, Sampras wouldn't even give Courier a set in their first three meetings. But yesterday was different. Courier pinned Sampras to the baseline and blasted him out of Flushing Meadow.

While Courier worked and progressed this summer, Sampras regressed. He was hit by a string of injuries running from his feet to his stomach to his back. He was adjusting to life as a new millionaire. He was struggling to reclaim the magic of his game.

"Really, how much pressure does Pete have?" Courier said. "He will never have to work another day in his life. He has got millions in the bank. He is 20 years old. I really think that he should just be able to go out there and swing freely and have fun with the game. Everybody in the world would trade positions with him. He has got the world at his feet, and I don't think he has to worry about too many things."

Stich also had difficulty coping with fame and new-found pressure after winning Wimbledon. He claimed to enjoy playing in the United States, where he could remain almost anonymous. Over and over, he said that people knew his name, but didn't know what he looked like.

But yesterday, Stich's summer came to a skidding end against Lendl. When rain interrupted their match Wednesday night, the players had split the first two sets but Stich was up, 4-3, 40-15, in the third.

The match turned in the fourth-set tie-breaker. Lendl, trailing 0-3, came from behind, busting two service returns and muscling Stich from the baseline with six straight points to eventually win the set. As the players walked back to their chairs, Stich threw his racket, and Lendl calmly reached for a towel.

"I just gave it to him on the plate, and he took it," Stich said. "I was just stupid. When you're up 3-0 you don't have to rush anything. To lose six points in a row, that's really bad. It shouldn't happen at a tournament like that when you have a chance to beat Ivan Lendl. I just choked. I just couldn't make it."

While Stich choked, Lendl played, and the crowd roared.

The Final Four is finally assembled: Connors, Courier, Edberg and Lendl.


Featured matches at the U.S. Open (seedings in parentheses):


11 a.m.: Steffi Graf (1) vs. Martina Navratilova (6), women's semifinals

After men's doubles final: Monica Seles (2) vs. Jennifer Capriati (7), women's semifinals


Times for the men's semifinals and women's final have not been announced.

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