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Jimmy Connors says he'll be on top again

Oh, no, not another manufactured story about the maturity of Jimmy Connors, once the man they loved to hate in pro tennis and currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

Of course Connors has calmed down, but his strokes haven't gone anywhere and neither has his ability to draw crowds. Both attributes were much in evidence the last two weeks as he won two straight tournaments - the Pacific Southwest Open here and the King Classic in Las Vegas.

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But Jimmy's chances of regaining the No. 1 spot are slim, even though he is still relatively young; still an excellent player; and still a man with a large reserve tank.

Ivan Lendl, the talented Czech who bounces so well in competition against John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, seems to lose his rhythm against Connors, who is so good at returning service. Yet McEnroe's power game is just enough bigger than Connors's to cause him endless problems. And Borg, once he gets back to playing 20 or more tournaments a year, will probably be able to handle Jimmy again.

However don't make the mistake of trying to get Connors to agree with any of this.

''I think those who have followed my career closely for a lot of years realize that everything I do is for a purpose, to make me play better,'' Jimmy told LA reporters. ''Whether people like me personally or not, they know that I never give up. But I do think having become a husband and father has softened my image.

''Naturally my past losses to McEnroe and Borg have been frustrating. In some of those matches I was ahead, and when you lose under those conditions it's always hard. But for me not to think that I can be No. 1 again is ridiculous, because my game has never been that far away.''

Whenever Connors is discussed, the one thing that always seems to emerge is his mental toughness. He can be down and break back. He can be having trouble with a certain shot and, mostly because of his determination, suddenly make it work again. He also has the phenomenal ability of almost always being able to return service. And if you don't know how physically draining that can be on an opponent, just consider how a pitcher feels when he gets a hitter who keeps fouling off his best stuff.

Another thing Connors has always had going for him is his willingness to practice and practice hard. While most players after a while look upon that part of their day as a colossal bore, Jimmy has always made this polish-up time. It is a part of his makeup that he shares with Rod Laver, another great who never minded extra work.

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When Connors was a teen-ager, with all the fun distractions that come with growing up, Jimmy's mother had him practicing so often that she got people down on her for putting her son through such a demanding wringer. Yet Jimmy has always defended her methods, saying that he couldn't have gotten where he did without her help.

''Even though a lot of people have criticized my mother for trying to make me the tennis player she wasn't, what those people never realized was that this is what I wanted too,'' he said. ''Tennis was my choice, my life, and without that kind of dedication you don't ever become a winner.''

During his early years, the instructor who had the most influence on structuring Connors's game was probably Pancho Segura, who could beat you with his strokes or his head. It was Segura, after Jimmy had tried and failed with Pancho Gonzales's power game, who took note of Connors's natural talents and had him capitalize on them.

What Segura saw was a young man with a flair for returning service, the stamina of a marathon runner, and the ability to counterpunch with his racket the way a boxer does with his hands.

Now, many years later, after victories at Wimbledon and the US Open and almost all other major tournaments, Connors is at a crossroads in his career. But whatever the outcome, all future matches between Jimmy and McEnroe or Jimmy and Borg should play to sellout crowds.

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