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September 9 - Old Time Tennis

Back in the late 80s, when Jimmy Connors was creeping toward retirement, he
wagged a finger at me, sitting at a table in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, and
said, "You're going to miss me when I'm gone." Connors wasn't right about much,
but he was right about that.

A few years later, he made this storybook run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open - at
age 39 - and I wrote at that time that Connors seemed to be everywhere, like the air.
On the court. On late-night TV. In magazine advertisements commercials. On
billboards. His brashness endeared him to New Yorkers, so he embraced the role
whether he really enjoyed it or not, whether we enjoyed it or not.

That was his point: You think I'm phony. You think I'm vulgar. You think I'm a pain in the ass. Wait 'til
I'm gone.

I got to thinking about this after the epic Agassi-Blake match in the Open this week (the one that
nobody saw because it ended after 1 AM). Fourteen years between matches that grabbed the crowd
by the throat and in between all that time, we missed Connors, or at least I did. I miss McEnroe, too,
and Chrissie and Martina, and Steffi, and Monica Seles, and Boris Becker.

Back then, the USTA didn't have to slap cobalt blue paint on its courts to wow the fans; it just had to
put McEnroe vs. Becker in the Stadium Court. McEnroe could shriek in horror at the chair umpire, and
we'd laugh and complain at the same time, not paying attention to the fact that McEnroe was usually
right, and that he made life out there interesting.

Once, when the ATP men's tour was in disarray, McEnroe was asked if the people who ran the
women's tour should take over. And he rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, please!"

Connors once told the chair, "I'm 39 years old and out here bustin' my ass, and you make a call like
that?"

And you have not lived until you have heard Seles' teenaged monologue ”Valley Girl by way of Eastern
Europe” on the travails of a shopping spree in New York City, a full 10 minutes of run-on sentences,
parentheses, and dangling participles.

Now we have the pure vanilla of Roger Federer, a remarkable player I'm frequently reminded, but who
stirs little passion except maybe in his native Switzerland. The Williams sisters pout and Lindsay
Davenport, all class, nevertheless does little to capture the imagination. What passes for personality
these days in Andy Roddick tugging his cap on backward.

I don't like the homogenous world tennis has become. It's as if they been brewed, like American beer,
to appeal to the tastes of the mass market. Meanwhile, all the character has seeped out.

I'd rather have a stein full of Jimmy Connors, any day.