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Nuveen Tour is Connors’ show

May 3, 1997

Jimmy Connors doesn’t argue with the referees much anymore. He overrules them. And while he still grunts with every two-handed backhand and races about the court like a man possessed to win, he’s obviously having fun.

As co-founder, star and chief drawing card of the Nuveen Tour, a fast-growing 35-and-over tennis circuit, Connors seems to be in a perpetually happy state of mind, almost as if the 1991 U.S. Open was still going on.

While winning 20 of the tour’s first 32 events against contemporaries like Roscoe Tanner, Andres Gomez and _ occasionally _ Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, tennis’ one-time bad boy has turned court jester, playing constantly to the crowd _ and often at the expense of his opponent or an official.

``Never argue with the line judge,″ he admonished Eddie Dibbs during a recent match at Richmond, Va., drawing howls from a crowd of about 3,000.

Moments later, when another close call went Dibbs’ way, Connors broke them up again, glaring playfully at the line judge who made the call.

Later, after doubling over to catch his breath, leading Dibbs to ask, ``Are you alright?″ Connors jumped all over a poor return and said, ``I might be a little older, but I’m not dead yet″ as he smashed a winner.

He also overruled the referee on a point that would have been his, giving it to Dibbs, and took a seat in the crowd to catch a quick breather.

Despite all the hijinks, though, and the comparatively small-scale stakes when compared to the millions he was vying for only four years ago, Connors says the atmosphere of the Nuveen Tour doesn’t compromise the tennis.

``I want to beat him as bad as he wants to beat me,″ Connors said, after defeating Dibbs 6-2, 6-3 in 79 minutes. ``I had just as much fun playing the finals of the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, win or lose, as I do coming out here.

``It may not look it because, at the time, different things were riding on it. Then it was important to win major tournaments, which in turn has made what we’ve got going here successful. Everything has spilled over.″

In four years, the Nuveen Tour has grown from a three-event schedule to this year’s 21. The Trigon Championship at Richmond was the first stop of this season on a schedule that has events in 10 foreign countries, including South Africa, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Australia.

For Connors, one of the players who helped bring the sport from the country clubs to the public during the 1960s and ’70s, the growth is satisfying.

And the tennis is nothing to apologize for, either.

``I think my technique and my game are better now and I attribute a lot of that to playing on clay for the last four years,″ he said.

``My game was a very simple game. I’d take the racket back and bring the racket through, and when I was playing in my best years, there was never any shifting of gears _ I’d start out in fifth gear and if you could keep up with me in fifth gear for four hours, you were too good for me that day.

``Before I would hit three or four balls and I’d see the ball out there and say, `I don’t want you coming back any more,′ so I’d hit it as hard as I could and it worked. But I can’t do that any more. I have more finesse.″

Since his spirited, street fighter-like run to the U.S. Open semifinals at age 39 in 1991, Connors seems to have become to tennis what Arnold Palmer was to golf _ the one player necessary to make a senior tour saleable.

Connors, though, insists it’s the tennis that brings the fans, many of whom are contemporaries of the players, and many who play themselves.

For players like Dibbs, though, who won 22 singles titles and led the WCT in prize money in 1978, there’s no doubt who is making the Nuveen Tour work.

``Connors holds the torch,″ Dibbs said. ``He’s remarkable.″

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