MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Monday marked the beginning of tennis’ U.S. Open, for my money, the best and most enjoyable major sporting event out there. The biggest reason for this would be it’s played from noon to midnight every day and night in the heart of New York City and for two solid weeks it lives up to New York’s being the city that never sleeps.

When the U.S. Open moved out of stuffy Forest Hills and into the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadow in 1978, it was symbolic. Tennis in this country really had exploded from out of the country club and into the public parks and playgrounds in the form of a spacious national tennis center, situated in a city park where everybody and anybody could simply walk right in, sit right down and enjoy the very best the sport had to offer.

Thus, every late August, great memories ensue from a time in the 1970s and ’80s when tennis and boxing were right up there in popularity with football, basketball, baseball and golf.

While today’s tennis provides great drama with so many wonderful and talented players, including the great Serena Williams, whom it appears is making her final Open appearance, there has never been a more golden era for tennis than the 1970s and the early-to-mid ’80s.

There were names and difference makers in the game then: Ashe, Borg, McEnroe, Nastase, Vitas and Lendl, with a 14-year-old kid by the name of Becker winning Wimbledon on the men’s side. On the women’s side, it was King, Court, Evert, Navratilova, Goolagong, Austin, Sabatini (no, not a great champion … but you understand), with Graf just beginning to realize her legend.

But the guy who brought the sport of tennis to the Everyman was Jimmy Connors, “The Brash Basher of Belleville,” who was raised in the game by his mother and his grandmother. In fact, one of the best pieces Frank Deford ever wrote was the one he did on Connors for the 1978 U.S. Open preview issue of Sports Illustrated: “Raised by Women to Conquer Men.”

After a year at UCLA, Connors came to professional tennis in 1972 right out of the public parks and the streets of St. Louis, and it showed, not only in his gutty and impassioned play, but in the many vulgarities he would perform on the court, further distancing himself from the repulsed country-club set that had run tennis for centuries; all of which, to the great dismay and disgust of my country-club tennis-playing aunt Sue, appealed to me a great deal.

Connors attracted slobs such as me to tennis, and if his crass behavior on the court wasn’t enough to turn the establishment against him, his engagement to Chris Evert, the darling of the tennis stuffed shirts (and everybody else for that matter), most certainly did.

In the history of tennis, there have never been more sleepless nights than the ones that were lost fretting over when Chrissie would finally come to her wits and end the engagement. And, in time, that is what she did.

Then, after a stern talking to from Arthur Ashe, Connors would tone down the vulgarities, although he was still as anti-establishment with his game as an up-and-coming rocker from New Jersey by the name of Bruce Springsteen was with his music. And just as The Boss would soon become, Jimbo was already the absolute best in the world at what he did.

Still the career singles titles leader for men (109), an eight-time grand-slam winner and a five-time U.S. Open champion, Connors took tennis to the taxi drivers, the street vendors, construction workers, firemen and to the cops walking the beat. While his behavior would improve considerably, he would never mellow as he played with the same grit and fire his fans went to work with everyday themselves.

Then he married former Playboy Playmate of the Year Patti McGuire and the Connors legend was cemented in the eyes of Joe Hardhat, making New York’s Louis Armstrong Stadium (the main stadium before Arthur Ashe Stadium) Connors’ homefield, with the everyday New Yorker making up his fan base.

Connors and New York fed off of each other for the next 13 years until, just as all tennis players do, Connors faded away into retirement, giving way to the great era to follow of Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang, Graf and then the Williams sisters.

Billie Jean King has long said that Connors had the greatest return of serve in the history of the game, followed by Andre Agassi. Both in their day were considered rebels, although Agassi’s rebel ways were created on television ads, while Connors’ rebellion was rarely desired to be on TV ads.

But Connors always stood for something else during his career and that was never giving up the fight and never giving up on a match that so many people of the streets had paid their hard-earned money to enjoy. Maybe this, in part, explains why he had mastered the return of serve.

With no apologies to Wimbledon (since I’ve never been to either tournament) the U.S. Open is the greatest tennis tournament in the world, played in the greatest city in the world to the smartest and loudest tennis fans in the world, and to the widest tennis television audience in the world.

To some of us, the most fascinating games to watch are baseball, tennis and golf, mainly because these are games that are not bordered by the limits of a clock. You can’t run a few plays into the line to kill the clock, as Earl Weaver once said about baseball. You have to give the other guy his 27 outs

In tennis and in golf you have to play every point and all 18 holes — however long it takes, that’s how long it takes. You never hear Rory McIlroy say, “I just ran out of time,” do you?

The start of each U.S. Open brings about a melancholy, though, because it marks the end of summer.

Admit it, there isn’t a more bummed-out feeling in the world than leaving the beach on Labor Day. Yet for my money, the U.S. Open, in the heart of ole’ New York, New York, is the only good way to ease the summer to a close and it annually marks the greatest two weeks in sports.

So I’m in. Every day. All two weeks. Always.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT