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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 23:33 GMT
Golden memories for Connors
It seems apt that tennis legend Jimmy Connors should celebrate the milestone of turning 50 during the US Open.
For the last Grand Slam of the season was the most successful of the four Majors for Connors during his 20-year career.
He took the title five times and is the only player to have won it on three different surfaces - grass, clay and hardcourt.
In 1991, it was the scene of his inspired run to the semi-finals at the age of 39.
Furthermore, if you had to pick the Grand Slam event that most personifies Connors, it would have to be the US Open.
You would equate him neither with the laidback charm of the Australian Open nor the proud sophistication of Roland Garros.
You would certainly not think of him in terms of the quaint gentility of Wimbledon.
No, it would have to be the brash, electric and gladiatorial atmosphere of Flushing Meadows.
The noise of overhead aircraft and the heckling, restless crowds of the biggest tennis stadium in the world have daunted many players - but not Connors.
He was the master at playing the crowd, whipping up a frenzied atmosphere and then feeding off it to blow his opponent off court.
Connors was the ultimate scrapper, the man who never gave up, the player whose game involved a no-holds-barred onslaught on his opponent.
His desire to win - and hatred of losing - drove him on to claim a record 109 titles.
Like John McEnroe, another great left-hander of his era, Connors was a rebel who had little on-court respect for officialdom.
But McEnroe's delicate touch and sublime shot-making won him admirers among purists.
There was little beauty about Connors' game, which involved outslugging his opponent, his double-fisted backhand being a particular trademark.
Yet it was effective and made him one of the most consistent players on the tour and as reliable as the pudding-bowl haircut, another "Jimbo" trait.
Two more of his trademarks were also abhorrent to tennis purists.
The first was his non-wooden racket, the second his grunt - both were almost his exclusive property when he joined the circuit but had been adopted by many rivals by the time he quit the game.
While most of his contemporaries came from privileged backgrounds, Connors was taught to play tennis by his mother on public courts near his home in Illinois.
Just as he began as an outsider, so he remained one throughout his career and beyond.
Some admired him for his refusal to court favour and his insistence on being his own man but sometimes his churlish stubbornness did him no favours.
He refused to take part in the parade of champions to celebrate 100 years of Wimbledon in 1977, instead practising on an outside court, and spurned a similar celebration in the Millennium year.
When he was elected to tennis' Hall of Fame, he sent his manager along to accept the award.
While many of his contemporaries have made new careers for themselves in the commentary box, Connors - some fleeting appearances on the senior circuit aside - has turned his back on the sport.
These days he is more likely to be found playing golf near his home in California.
But although he is just a memory on the tennis circuit, 2001 US Open champion Lleyton Hewitt appears to be from the same mould.
The Australian baseliner relishes a scrap and has intense mental focus and an overwhelming fist-pumping desire to win - all straight from Connors' locker.
Like Connors, Hewitt is open about the fact that he is on court to win, not to make friends.
And just as Hewitt is dating top women's player Kim Clijsters, so Connors once delighted the tabloids with his engagement to Chris Evert.
The match of the street fighter with the girl next door was never going to last, unlike Connors' career, which spanned a 20-year period.
And it was two decades of giving it everything he had, win or lose.
Connors celebrated his 40th birthday by winning a first round match at the 1992 US Open.
He may not be doing that on his 50th but he is unlikely ever to be forgotten by the New York crowd.
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