Jimmy Connors

updated 12/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/30/1991 01:00AM

He didn't win the tournament—Stefan Edberg did—but that was almost irrelevant. For two magical weeks at the U.S. Open last September, Jimmy Connors played tennis like some incredibly vivid hologram of his remembered self. As the 39-year-old fury bashed, bullied and willed his way into the semifinals—21-year-old Jim Courier finally stopped him—Connors made believers of us all: Maybe you really are as young as you feel. The Connors of old, not some relic rehabbed for the '90s, had returned. Here he was, badgering the officials, working the crowd, seizing every edge that he could. He was still a brat, but suddenly, well, he had ripened into Our Brat. "It was the summer of all summers," says Connors. "You dream of putting together a streak like that."

Amazingly, only a year and a half earlier Connors had nearly been forced to call it a career. In Milan, against Germany's Marcus Zoecke, he had been seriously injured in the first match of the 1990 season. "I caught the ball a little late," he says, "and the tendons and tissues in my wrist exploded." Reconstructive surgery was successful, but the prognosis was uncertain. "I didn't know if I'd ever play again," says Connors. "I didn't know what I was going to do with the years I still had left for tennis."

He came back slowly, playing on his ranch outside Santa Barbara, Calif., with his wife, ex-model Patti McGuire, and their children, Brett, 12, and Aubree-Leigh, 5. "They were actually throwing me balls the way I used to when they were 3 or 4," says Jimmy.

The physical pain was bad enough. But what really hurt was the talk that the player who had won eight Grand Slam tournaments—including five U.S. Opens—was through. He began the 1991 season ranked 998th in the world but gave warning of what was to come by taking 19-year-old Michael Chang to five frantic sets at the French Open in June before bowing out with back spasms.

Then came the heart-stopping heroics at the U.S. Open, culminating in a dramatic win over Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round. No one was more impressed than his fellow pros, who found themselves up against not only a reconstructed dynamo in tennis shorts but near-delirious crowds cheering him on. "He's a great competitor," says Brad Gilbert, 30. ""I can honestly say it's not fun to be out there when he's doing his stuff, but he gives it his all. The game would be a lot healthier if everyone was like that."

Connors doesn't know how long he can keep it going, but he's enjoying himself while it lasts. "The best part of all this," he says, "is that I can go out there and put my game, which has been around for two generations already, up against a new generation of talent and still have it hold up. That's the most fun—beating guys who are closer to my son's age than my own."

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