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Tennis' Old Guard

A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years

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Bjorn Borg smiles.

It is a friendly smile, a nice, appreciative opening that reveals more of his teeth than we'd ever seen back in the old days. Because it's so rare, the smile comes off as strikingly genuine, neither as posed as Connors' nor as anguished as McEnroe's.

Borg takes the first set, 6-4. Connors and Lloyd are among those enjoying the action from up in the Nuveen box. At five-all in the second, with the sun shining over Monterey and the intimate crowd of 3,000 packed in nicely, with the ABC crew moving in for close-ups and the national TV audience savoring the sounds delivered by several on-court microphones, it's hard to imagine a better tennis moment.

McEnroe squeaks through the second set, 7-5. Borg goes up a service break in the third, but the lefty continues moving forward, striking his volleys, coaxing Borg into awkward positions, and at last, after two-plus hours, wins the match, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Connors-McEnroe is also entertaining. Time was when the old guard attendees at this event would have considered each a punk. But now, the revolutionary is the familiar, an athletic Golden Oldies program. Early in the match, Connors initiates his customary banter with the crowd. To the introverted McEnroe, it comes off as demagoguery.

"If you don't go along with Jimmy's thing," says McEnroe, "you're the heavy. He makes jokes at your expense. It gets to be a little frustrating that people can be manipulated so easily."The clay that helped Borg also aids Connors. Jimbo's returning serve well, picking up McEnroe's service toss and ripping it back, pounding his ground strokes and charging forward.

"You the man, Jimbo!" shouts one fan after a long rally.

Five seconds elapse without a comment. Connors is wandering behind the baseline.

"Man, oh man," exults Connors, "I bet you stayed up all night thinking up that one."

Even the guy who shouted the remark is laughing.

The Chairman can still give the people a ring-a-ding time. Nuveen Tour colleagues believe Connors' serve has actually improved from the old days, when it served as little more than a point starter. The rallies are lively, the artistry is impressive, and Connors wins, 7-6, 6-4, pocketing $150,000.

Though Connors plans to keep playing until 2002, when he turns 50, it became increasingly clear throughout 1996 that he would no longer utterly dominate the circuit (he won 19 of the tour's first 30 events). While in his youth he felt as territorial about his champion's crown as a dog with a bone, the promoter in Connors realizes that for the tour to succeed, others must step up and help fill the seats.

McEnroe's intermittent appearances and Borg's return to tennis have helped. The Nuveen Tour's biggest new star in 1996 was 36-year-old Ecuadoran Andres Gomez, the 1990 French Open champ. Though a top-10 player on the ATP Tour, Gomez was never in the same league as Connors or McEnroe. He's emerged as a Nuveen tour star, beating McEnroe four times and Connors twice. Another fan favorite coming on board, albeit sporadically, is the passionate Frenchman Yannick Noah, who won his country's championship in 1983.

But playing on the Nuveen Tour is not just a matter of picking up a racket and showing up. McEnroe, Noah and Gomez are among many who've been surprised at the high level of tennis. Not everyone who plays a tour event is committed to the requisite fitness regimen, a particularly challenging requirement in a sport like tennis. As McEnroe puts it, "We're tennis players, so we can't do what golfers do, make the course shorter and drive the cart up."

Benton insists the circuit has reached the maturity level to flourish without Connors' potent name value. But save for McEnroe, the current crop of eligibles aged 35 to 40--among them Gomez, Noah, Mel Purcell and Johan Kriek, and non-Nuveen Tour players Kevin Curren, Tim Mayotte, Brad Gilbert--are far from headliners. A back injury prevents former number one Ivan Lendl from playing tennis. Meanwhile, the Nuveen Tour is eagerly awaiting the day when such greats as Mats Wilander, 32; Stefan Edberg, 30; and Boris Becker, 29, can join. There's even been talk of lowering the eligibility age to 30. "That's the thing about tennis," says 45-year-old Dick Stockton, an occasional tour player. "Every year makes a difference, so you're only really appropriate for this tour until about 40. Jimmy's an unbelievable exception."

Marquee value has always been the name of the game in an individual sport like tennis. The sport simply does not command the sizable following necessary for supporting a financially lucrative circuit. While 20,000 fans will come to Yankee Stadium no matter who is playing, tennis needs its Connors and McEnroes to continually expand its audience beyond the tennis wonks who'd recognize John Lloyd at a restaurant. Once the spectators arrive, though, they're often surprised to see just how friendly and dazzling the likes of Lloyd, Kriek, Gomez and other Nuveen Tour players are. "I want people to come here, love the show we put on and then tell their friends about it," says Connors.

Yet the very selling point of the Nuveen Tour reveals a potential shortcoming. When you bank as much on nostalgia as senior tennis, you cut off one of the greatest attributes in all of sports: the capacity for surprise, for new plot lines that involve the audience. From business and politics to movies and TV, so much of our culture is prechewed and predictable. We like safely knowing the outcome of a business meeting before it begins. Surf your cable TV enough and you'll build a reasonably good record forecasting the results of everything from TV movies and sit-coms to political struggles and court-room theatrics.

But sports is different. Sports is real-life drama--compelling conflicts where something big (sort of) and clear is on the line. No matter how much the success of the Nuveen Tour matters to him athletically and economically, no match Connors plays will have as much at stake for him as his U.S. Open finals against Borg or his Wimbledon finals against McEnroe. "I'm going to follow that son of a bitch to the ends of the earth," Jimbo said after losing the '78 Wimbledon final to Borg. Watch a tape of his successful payback effort at that year's U.S. Open and you'll see that he wasn't joking. But now, as Borg puts it, "It's not the end of the world when you lose."

The same holds true for all the Nuveen Tour players. Those prior days were the real résumé-builders. As good as it is to see Borg smile, or, God knows, McEnroe chat with fans, one knows they can emotionally afford to do so because no Nuveen Tour match will affect their legacy a single iota. When there is no consequence, predictability--no matter how entertaining--minimizes dramatic impact.

Another facet of catering to nostalgia is an undercurrent of hostility towards the contemporary professional game. The 1996 Challenge event was aired on ABC the same weekend as the Wimbledon finals. According to a tour press release, "The weekend programming schedule also gives viewers the chance to compare the power-laden, short points tennis at Wimbledon with the more strategic game played by the older personalities." Asked this summer if they could name an ATP Tour player they enjoyed watching, Connors and McEnroe were stumped. Connors at last conceded that he respected the tenacity of Michael Chang.

The odd thing about this small-minded bashing is that tennis promoters are always willing to tell sponsors how incredibly affluent tennis fans are. One would think these affluent consumers can afford to partake in all of the sport's riches. Heck, baseball fans with less income attend 10 games a year. Surely, the tennis public has enough capacity to appreciate both Jimbo and Andre Agassi. Make no mistake, Jimbo is the Chairman of the Board. But if all anyone had done was cling to Sinatra's robe, discounting all subsequent acts, they would have had a hard time maintaining an open mind when those four lads from Liverpool surfaced. And lest we forget, in the early '70s it was Connors who was considered a power-game practitioner, a steel racket-wielding brat lacking the artistic guile of such champions as Rosewall and Laver.

That said, the Nuveen Tour is one of the most engaging entertainment values in tennis. Listening and singing along with tennis' favorite tunes from bygone days is a wonderful way to enjoy the sport. The quality of play is both entertaining and edifying.

In a Monterey airstrip, Jimmy Connors' private plane awaits, ready to whisk him away from the tournament. Billy Lelly and Jimbo's son, Brett, now 17, are motioning Jimbo's way, urging him that it's time to walk away from it all. Right now that journey is far from Connors' mind. He's still into "the tennis," signing more autographs, chatting up a few kids, clarifying logistics with Benton for the next gig. "You're the best," he says to one of the tour officials who always has a walkie-talkie on her hip. "Stay out of trouble," he advises a friend.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, we've got a golf cart," says Lelly. The faster get-away appeals to Connors. He's still signing as he makes his way towards the cart. Twenty fans hover as he moves into the passenger seat. Brett and Billy hop on the back like Secret Service agents. Just before the cart takes off, a little girl runs to Connors with a poster. He signs it. "Good-bye everyone," he shouts, waving his right arm. And then Jimbo is gone.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that there are no second acts in American lives. Jimmy Connors would probably tell Fitzgerald exactly where he could shove that remark. For decades, Connors has been living one second act after another. Fitzgerald died at 44, the same age Connors turned in 1996. However much people may tell Jimbo that the end is near, as long as he can please his people, he'll continue doing it his way. Perhaps the end will never come. Now that Jimbo's created a friendly arena in which to coexist with his rivals, why should it?

Oakland, California-based Joel Drucker writes frequently about tennis and other sports for such publications as Tennis.

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