MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

How about Thursday’s epic five-setter between Americans Michael Mmoh and John Isner, marking Isner’s emotional farewell to tennis? How about the coming of age and emergence of College Park’s Frances Tiafoe?

Or how about Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in three sets and the tension that permeated every point?

The daily and nightly drama is happening right before our very eyes, as Monday marked the beginning of tennis’ U.S. Open, for my money, the best and most enjoyable major sporting event there is.

The U.S. Open has always been Casablanca and Rick’s place, because everybody comes to the U.S. Open; the biggest reason being it’s played from morning 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, now the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, at Flushing Meadow in 1978, it was symbolic. Tennis in this country really had exploded, from the country club to 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 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, boxing and horse racing were right up there in popularity with football, basketball, baseball and golf.

While today’s tennis provides great drama with so many talented players, including a strong surge of American players once more, 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 Boris winning Wimbledon on the men’s side. On the women’s side, it was King, Court, Evert, Navratilova, Goolagong, and Austin, with Graf just beginning to realize her legend. Then, of course, there was Gabriela Sabatini, who won just one grand slam, but if you were there, you understand.

Yet as we say here every U.S. Open, 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 my favorite Frank Deford pieces 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, a left-hander, came to professional tennis in 1972 right out of the public parks of St. Louis, and it showed, not only in his gritty 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 forever; 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 schmos like 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 tennis, most certainly did.

Connors would tone down the vulgarities after some mentoring from Arthur Ashe and after a more combustible presence, young John McEnroe, would enter the picture, though Connors was still anti-establishment. And he was the absolute best player in the world.

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 being his fanbase.

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

Billie Jean King says that Connors had the greatest return of serve in the history of the game, followed by Andr. Agassi. Both in their day were considered rebels, though Agassi’s rebel ways were created for television ads and photo ops. Neither he nor his game were real until he married Steffi Graf and grew up.

But Connors always stood for something during his career and that was never giving up the fight and never giving up on a match, which might explain why he had mastered the return of serve.

With no apologies to Wimbledon, 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 best games to watch are baseball, tennis and golf, mainly because they are games that do not end on 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.”

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

Admit it, there isn’t a more bummed feeling than leaving the beach on Labor Day. Yet for my money, the U.S. Open, in the heart of New York, is the only good way to send the summer out with a bang.

To me, it is the best two weeks in sports.

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