Jimmy Connors returns as, well, Jimmy Connors

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Jimmy Connors is seen during the French Open Jimmy Connors is seen during the French Open tennis championships. (June, 1979) Photo Credit: AP, 1979

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

Once again, Jimmy Connors returns.

This time, it will be via the Oct. 29 airing of another ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, "This is What They Want." The film is something of a psychological study of the driven old champ, mostly through the lens of his 1991 U.S. Open resurrection, at 39, and that mythic Labor Day five-set recovery against poor Aaron Krickstein.

Before that, Connors-as-tennis-mentor briefly was revived in August when Maria Sharapova hired him as coach (only to pink-slip him one match into the experiment). In May, Connors released his memoir, "The Outsider," that appropriatly begins with one in a series of his back-from-the-dead playing-career episodes.

The guy just keeps coming back. As a player, of course, the service return was a Connors staple, a major weapon in his ability to answer the sport's elite powers. Flying through the air, Connors would return. With the greatest of ease, he would return. He returned like MacArthur. He returned from the baseline. From the flower boxes at courtside. Twisting, lunging, hanging onto his two-fisted backhand as if hanging on for dear life, he returned.

He is now 61, two decades into his tennis retirement. Yet, at some point during each year's Open, as television filler during a rain delay, tape of the Connors-Krickstein duel -- played out in a bloodthirsty lions vs. Christians atmosphere -- is dug up and put on display. Even under clear skies this year, when there was a gap in the action between the men's doubles final and the women's championship, Connors-Krickstein was queued up on the giant video board outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Naturally, the story never changes. "Instead of losing that match one time," Krickstein laments in the ESPN show, "I've lost it 100 times." And what both ESPN's film and Connors' book reaffirm was the Connors condition -- a me-against-the-world scrapper who declared no interest in currying favor but nevertheless longed for the crowd's adoration. And so often got it, because of his edgy showmanship and real tennis acumen.

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In his book, he is dismissive of the "tennis establishment," proud of his renegade, win-at-all-costs bent, honest about a compulsion to bet and his often crude on-court antics. He truly disliked rival John McEnroe more than any opponent, meanwhile admitting, "Even though Mac and I clash at every turn, we're so much alike it's scary."

The "This is What They Want" report fully acknowledges Connors' enormous impact on the sport, as a central figure in taking tennis from its genteel past into the gladiator mode, what Connors calls "boxing at 90 feet." (After some of his biggest matches, Connors used to appear for news conferences with a towel around his neck, bouncing on his toes like some victorious heavyweight.)

The way Mary Carillo puts it, Connors changed spectators from simply "watching the ball go back and forth" to feeling part of the fight. Beyond the grittiness and not uncommon nastiness that so often drew in the crowd, though, Connors argues in his book that the characterization of him as a mere two-handed baseliner didn't fully appreciate his serving, volleying, forehand and overhead abilities. And McEnroe, in the 30 for 30 piece, agrees that Connors' "skills were underestimated."

But what also comes through in the two works -- loud and clear and for better or worse -- is how genuine the Connors image is. "The thing is," Connors writes in his final chapter, Passion Play, "I was good at being a bad boy, a real one. Not like some of the pretend bad boys who said sorry after every little incident. Face up to it or don't do it."

The ESPN piece closes with frank evaluations of Connors, the man, by both McEnroes -- John and Patrick -- as well as Krickstein, that are not especially laudatory. Connors' response -- another zinging Connors' return -- is along the lines of: Take that.

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