Connors basks in return to top and in new crowd-pleasing role

Jimmy Connors is back on top, with no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

He underscored that message by beating Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in a little over three hours for his fourth US Open title here. Since he banked a Fourth of July victory over John McEnroe at Wimbledon, there could now be no question about his hard-earned status.

''I'm very satisfied,'' Connors said. ''I always believed I could do it again , even when a lot of other people thought otherwise. I enjoyed being on top before. The view was nice and I wanted to be there again.''

Connors was never meant to play second fiddle or simply be part of the scenery. That had become his station in life, however, as Bjorn Borg, McEnroe, and even Lendl stole the spotlight he once owned. Tired of lurking off their shoulders, he reached back for all the energy and emotion he could find.

''I start pumping just a little more each round,'' he explained, with the goal to be at his berserk best in the big matches - which he certainly was.

He first rose to the occasion in the semi-finals, taking a four-set match from Guillermo Vilas, who had beaten him twice this year. Then came the final exam against the 22-year-old Czech, who seemed ready to win his first major title.

Lendl, attempting to become the first right-hander to win the US crown since John Newcombe in 1973, looked fairly unstoppable in disposing of three-time champion McEnroe with relative ease in the semifinals. Perhaps more ominous was the memory of how Lendl had buzz-sawed through Connors only three weeks ago, demolishing the left-hander who had defeated him eight straight times 6-1, 6-1.

That, however, was Cincinnati. But now the venue was the huge tennis bowl in Flushing Meadow, the prize money $90,000, and the historical significance a hundred times greater. Furthermore, Connors has always felt right at home in New York.

''This is my tournament. The people here are nuts, I'm nuts, and we get along fine,'' he said.

The relationship has actually evolved over the years. New Yorkers originally gave begrudging respect to the brash kid from Belleville, Ill., but now they seem to like and understand him better than before.

''There was a time here when they didn't like me,'' Jimmy confessed. ''I don't remember 1977 being too good a year. (In fact, the fans cheered wildly when Vilas beat him in '77, as they had when Manuel Orantes did the same in 1975 ). But the last two years things have changed.

''I still do the same things I did 8, 10, 12 years ago, only now people realize I do these things only so I can get pumped up and give them my best tennis.''

Jimmy has always known how to play to the crowd, and in that regard he is one of the most theatrical of players.

There's never any doubt about what he considers his big shots. Whenever he makes one in a crucial situation, he calls on his patented wild-man reaction in which he leans backward and punches both fists into the air. This maneuver got more and more use as the Lendl match wore on, and really energized the 20,000 spectators after an especially sensational return. Ivan had Jimmy on the run in their next-to-the-last game, seemingly pulled too far out of position to reach the ball. But Connors reached across the baseline, and with his nose practically touching the ground, stretched out with his steel racket to make an incredible lunging return.

It was vintage Connors, the type of effort we associate with this quintessential court battler. For unlike such stoic competitors as Borg and Lendl, Jimmy likes to wear his effort on his sleeve, grunting, and leaping, and sending his Prince Valiant haircut in a thousand different directions.

His go-for-broke aggressiveness was really on display in his last two matches , when he knew that only all-out, daring tennis would accomplish his mission. ''Getting to the finals doesn't do me any good,'' he said. He'd had enough of being close.

Reaching the semi-finals was really old hat, with nine consecutive trips to that juncture, a men's record. But his last successful appearance in a final was four years ago, when he beat Borg. That victory, incidentally, made Connors the only player to win the Open on three different surfaces. (He beat Ken Rosewall on grass in 1974, Borg on clay in 1976, and Borg on asphalt in 1978.)

In winning this year he credited his serve plus his courage to hit out, allowing shots to tickle the lines or angle deep into the corners.

On the court, Jimmy is as ferocious as ever, but he thinks his role as a husband and father have mellowed him off it, and perhaps enhanced his image and his game as well.

''Those other things don't change the way I hit the ball, but now I don't think about my matches until it's time to play,'' he explains. ''I used to start some matches one quart low on tennis because of all the energy I spent thinking about them. Now I have a full tank.

''It's what happens away from the court that sometimes permits you to play the best tennis. Now I just come and shoot the tennis balls, that's all.'' That, however, is quite enough for the revitalized king of tennis clout.

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