Myths and legends at the Open

When Jimmy Connors played at the US Open it was a chaotic, crackling, cackling, sweltering, concrete fight-club. He looked like he learnt tennis in a ring, and he vanquished so many to become the only man to win the Open on its three different surfaces: grass, clay, hard, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

A fan is rumouredly shot in the leg. A spectator apparently plays saxophone in the crowd. McEnroe plays Nastase once, trouble flares, and the umpire is ejected. Serene Borg gets so distraught he skips an awards ceremony. Assassin-eyed Pete gets so moved he weeps at one. This is the US Open, believe what you will.

New York traffic snarls bring aggravation. Jets fly low as if screaming disapproval at an errant forehand. Sometimes you play under the stare of Hollywood stars. Sometimes everyone goes home except the stars as night-time matches sweat into the early morning.

L. Jon Wertheim writes in Venus Envy: "Ask the competitors to describe the event and answers range from `hell' to `chaos' to `prison' to `boot camp'.

"Then there are those who don't like it."

What sort of place was this? When Connors played it was a chaotic, crackling, cackling, sweltering, concrete fight-club where a crotch grab was like some sort of salute.

Long time ago in New York, unsmiling Joe Louis, face like polished teak, fights in front of more than 90,000 boxing fans. Connors' crowds are smaller (though still the biggest among the Grand Slams), but he looks like he learnt tennis in a ring. Even his coach, Pancho Segura, tells him: "Keel him keed". Connors keels so many he becomes the only man to win the Open on its three different surfaces: grass, clay, hard.

In the face of Connors, Roddick's a choirboy. Maybe it's why the young Yank hired the older one as coach. Roddick is searching for confidence; Connors exhaled it. In 1989, Connors, 37, is doing his last-man-standing thing, he's down 1-5 in the fifth set to a 19-year-old kid with a juggler's fast hands and a blinding wardrobe. Connors lunges back to 5-4, but eventually he loses, but he hates to. The crowd hates it, too. In a city that never sleeps he's the competitor who never stops.

The kid who beats Connors that day is 36 this year. Now he's saying sayonara. No one hates Agassi. Not any more. Not even for marrying Steffi. Agassi hates his twisted back and as farewells go this last Open could be painful. But careers mostly limp and lurch to a finish, backfiring like the old car dad can't let go of, and sloppy happy endings remain in Karan Johar's imagination. Either way people will weep. Once at the Open, they laughed at Agassi.

Everyone changes. Not just people. Landscapes, too. Attitudes. The city of the Open has altered, once giving no sympathy, now generating so much. Rugged with softer edges, or is that just another stereotype? Agassi changed, too. When he played a pale-faced fellow with a cement face in the 1990 final, tennis was a gamble for Agassi, shots hit without thought like careless rolls of the dice; but then he became the architect, each point finely calibrated, each match a grand design.

That pale-face fellow Agassi plays, his father isn't at the final, he's at a mall. Nervous, you understand. Till a shopkeeper mentions his son, Oh, that Sampras kid won.

The legend that Sampras kid eventually becomes gets its sandpapering amidst the steel and mortar of the Open. In 1991, he's almost relieved to lose as defending champion, as if the pressure is throttling him, and he says so. Connors flips on hearing this. Freaks. "What! Don't tell me that. That's the biggest crock of dump. Being the US Open champion is what I've lived for. If these guys are relieved at losing ... there's something wrong with them."

After losing to Edberg in the 1992 final, a bit subdued, Sampras is altered forever. An executioner is born. He wins five Opens (1990, 93, 95, 96, 02). Equalling whom? Jimmy.

The Open reveals everyone. Like Edberg. The slim-hipped, smooth-moving, polite-talking, prized pupil of a finishing school in manners and volleying, scrapes away the polish at the Open to show the rugged Nordic warrior inside. In 1992, fourth round versus Krajicek, quarters against Lendl, semis with Chang, each time he's in a fifth set and down a break, and wins. Steel Swede. Making up for Stoic Swede before him who was kissed by some New York curse. Borg has an intestinal infection in 1975, a sore shoulder in 1977, a thumb requiring injections in 1978, the Tanner serve to contend with under lights in 1979. A man could get to believe in hexes.

Borg is four times Open runner-up. Edberg is twice champion (1991, 1992), so is Agassi (1994, 1999), and some of the American's attentive plotting of points he learns from coach Brad Gilbert, who was not a great player himself, but has his own Open memory when he upends Boris Becker in 1987.

In his book, Gilbert writes, "Becker tells you with his body language that he knows he is better than the rest. Except I don't believe it." Later, losing, Becker bellows, and Gilbert, never short of a word, has his own explanation for that. "Nobody in tennis has a scream as fearful as Becker's when he loses control. It's the sound of pure and total anguish. It is beautiful to hear. Boris is coming apart." This is a New York moment.

Gilbert moves as coach, from Agassi to Roddick (who gets his Open in 2003) and now to Andy Murray. Murray is Scot, but grabbed by the desperate English. Murray is also theatrical. Racket thumper. Bellower. Mumbler. Scrapper. Talented. A would-be working-class hero. He beats Roger Federer last week, too. Whose game suggests he's from the Upper East Side.

Federer has no hard edges. His game isn't rude. His feet make no noise. He does not look to be particularly hyper. It is believed, though unconfirmed, that he may not be capable of sweat. He is about as likely to grab his crotch as Connors was to get a full pedicure at a salon before playing. But the city has many parts and this Open has many champions. For Connors the Open was like some jungle trail, but Federer has turned it into a catwalk.

Now, twice a champion already, he might turn it into a cakewalk again.