Connors' bypass is matter of Open heart


NEW YORK -- Four times Paul Haarhuis launched overheads, four times Jimmy Connors managed returns. "The whole match, in my opinion," Connors would say later. The point of the year, it was suggested. "Why, thank you," Connors replied.

Four times he rose from the trenches, four times he would not yield. The miracle point finally ended on his bullet backhand down the line, and Connors did his crazed victory dance, and 20,000 hearts pounded, and Haarhuis was a charred house, never to be heard from again.

Connors, 39, was on the verge of going down two sets to none, but he broke Haarhuis' serve, then his spirit. His 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory last night made him the second oldest semifinalist in U.S. Open history. He beat the oldest, Ken Rosewall, to win the tournament in 1974.

Now what? Many believe Connors' spectacular run will end tomorrow against hard-hitting Jim Courier, who yesterday rocked defending champion Pete Sampras 6-2, 7-6, 7-6. Does it matter? The miracle point was a microcosm of the Connors phenomenon. He plays on guts and emotion and fire, mystifying younger players who check off none of the above.

Yesterday Sampras spoke of his relief over no longer being champion. Connors replied in disgust, "That is the biggest crock of dump I've ever heard. The greatest feeling you could have is to be the U.S. Open champion, and to try to do it again is what you live for. Don't talk to me about these guys who are relieved. Something is wrong with the game and with them."

He's absolutely right, of course, and that's why he stands out in a sport that seemingly lacks a backbone. Who else can you possibly root for in men's tennis? Sampras? Needs a good cry. Andre Agassi? Disappears in Grand Slams. Ivan Lendl? Complains about blimps flying overhead.

Then there is Connors, who looked beatable last night, winning only three points the first four games, falling behind 5-1 in the first set. Haarhuis, 25, is the guy who knocked off No. 1 seed Boris Becker. He was powerful enough to dominate, but little by little, Connors reeled him in.

The miracle point, of course, is where everything turned. Haarhuis had just broken Connors' serve at love to take a 5-4 lead in the second set. His own serves were registering over 100 mph, but Connors fought back, returning all those smashes for his first break.

The Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd roared with each defiant lob, but it wasn't as much a factor as in previous matches. As Haarhuis said, "I handled the crowd. I just couldn't handle Jimmy Connors." This, from a man who served 10 aces to Connors' none.

The second set eventually went to a tiebreaker, but Connors won it 7-3, taking the final four points, one off his best serve of the night. The third set also progressed to 4-4, but by then the damage was done. Connors won it on a service winner following a delay caused by an argument between two fans near center court.

The match lasted only two hours, 55 minutes, a light jog compared to Connors' earlier four-hour epics. "In the fourth set, he had an unbelievable lull," Connors said. "I saw it in his face, in his stride, and in his game. Once that happened, I said, 'Come on, get on this guy, and get it over with.' "

So he did, moving Haarhuis all over the baseline, playing the angles, finishing him at the net. When it ended, he pointed twice at the crowd, then pumped his fist submarine-style toward heaven. Someone held a sign, "Connors for President." No way he beats the French Open champion Courier. No way, right?

You bet against him. Less than a year ago Connors underwent surgery on his left wrist. Now he's trying to win his sixth Open. "I had no idea I would ever be able to play again," he said. "But if someone gives me a second chance like that, I'm not going to blow it. There's just no way."

There are athletes like him in other sports, athletes who return from career-threatening injuries, athletes who will not quit. Cycling's Greg LeMond is one, basketball's Bernard King another, football's Joe Montana a third. But in tennis Connors is unique. He's absolutely indomitable.

In fact, it's almost like he has the younger players scared, though it certainly didn't seem that way last night in the first set. "Everyone knows me by now," Connors said. "I'm not going to give up, and that is a lot pressure to contend with."

He added, "For me to come here and play this kind of tennis and be in the semifinal, there is no describing this. How can you not laugh at this? I can't even spit it out. I'm playing well enough to be here. I'm playing against the best players. But is it real? Is it?"

Oh, it's real all right.

As real as his heart and soul.

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