What's bigger? Connors in '91 or Agassi today?

Updated: September 8, 2005, 11:37 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Jim Courier, the four-time Grand Slam champion, is up against a wall, literally and figuratively.

Standing in a tiny room of the USA Network compound in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Courier leans against the concrete and ponders the unanswerable question:

In terms of degree of difficulty, which achievement is greater -- Andre Agassi's inspiring run to the semifinals of this U.S. Open at the age of 35, or Jimmy Connors' improbable run to the 1991 Open semifinals at the age of 39?

Jimmy Connors
AP Photo/David Kohl A wild-card entry to the 1991 U.S. Open, Jimmy Connors made it all the way to the semifinals.
Courier, of course, has inside information. He was the one who ended that rollicking roll, slamming Connors 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. As an analyst at USA, he is also an intimate observer of Agassi's career.

Courier pauses.

"It's hard to compare," said Courier, a casual off-air study in flip-flops.

Indeed, it is.

Fourteen years is an eternity in sport, encompassing several generations of players. Consider the top 10 players at the end of 1991: Stefan Edberg, Courier, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Guy Forget, Karel Novacek, Petr Korda and, finally, the 21-year-old Agassi.

Players are bigger, faster and stronger. Racket technology has stolen some of the game's finesse. The depth on the men's side, where top seeds can fall to players ranked 50 spots below them, is breathtaking.

"Hmmm," said U.S. Davis Cup captain and CBS analyst Patrick McEnroe, "that's an interesting question. Today's game is obviously tougher, which requires more explosive movement. It's a tough one because they're both very hard to achieve."

Comparing sports eras is always troublesome. Are Hank Aaron's home runs qualitatively different than those of Barry Bonds? Were Jack Nicklaus' major championships won in an environment more or less friendly than the one in which Tiger Woods competes? How were Peyton Manning's 49 touchdown passes different from the 48 tossed by Dan Marino two decades earlier?

It can be argued that in this age of big money and early retirement, today's 35 is roughly equivalent to yesterday's 39. Edberg left the game at 30, while Sampras and Becker were 31. Kim Clijsters has said she will leave the game in two years -- at the age of 24.

Agassi, the oldest man in the draw here at the National Tennis Center, is an anomaly in tennis. He is more than twice the age of 16-year-old Donald Young, who competed in the main draw and won his first-round match Tuesday in the junior tournament. Down two sets and a break to James Blake on Wednesday, Agassi played with youthful vigor, prevailing in a fifth-set tiebreaker 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6).

So, are the two feats, on some level, comparable?

Peter Bodo, of Tennis Magazine, scratched his spiky gray hair while sitting at his cubicle in the media center.

"If you're assigning a handicap of the way the game has changed and applied it on sliding scale to age, I think it's fair," Bodo said. "Yes, the degree of difficulty is probably comparable."

A muscular memory

To say that James Scott Connors came out of left field at the 1991 Open is a gross understatement. All eyes were on Sampras, the defending champion who had broken through with his first Grand Slam win at the age of 19. Becker, Edberg and Courier were also among the favorites.

Connors? He was ranked No. 174 in the world and needed a wild card from the United States Tennis Association just to get into the draw. He had played only three matches the year before -- and lost all of them. He had undergone surgery on his left wrist the previous October and been forced to sit out for five months. Connors wondered if he would ever play again.

He had reached the third round at the French Open and Wimbledon, but his singles record coming into the tournament was a middling 9-9. He had won precisely $69,594. When he lost the first two sets of his first-round match to McEnroe -- Patrick, not John -- Connors looked very much like the old man he was.

"I'm up two sets, three-love and I've got him love-40 on his serve," McEnroe remembered. "I think I've got Jimmy Connors beat."

And then, muscle memory kicked in. Somehow, Connors became transformed into the man who had won the championship in 1974, 1976, 1978, 1982 and 1983 -- on three different surfaces. He won the last three sets against the No. 35-ranked McEnroe, fairly easily, and a star was reborn.

"The big thing I took out of that match," McEnroe said, "which ended up helping me in my career but hurt for a long, long time, was I thought I had the match won before I actually won the match. I let up for one split second and he took advantage.

"He milked the whole thing. Afterward, more people came up to me and said, 'I was rooting for you that night.' And I say, 'Well, I didn't hear you.' He took advantage of everyone, the umpires, the officials, the networks. Nobody wanted to see him lose, so he got away with murder," he said.

"From the time he made that great comeback against Patrick McEnroe, the spotlight was on him," said Steve Flink, the esteemed senior correspondent for Tennis Week. "It was almost like magic. His exhilaration, the fans, the city, the press -- we all shared it."

There was a predictable straight-sets win over Michiel Schapers, the No. 130-ranked player in the world, and then a rousing five-set victory over Novacek in the third round -- his only match against a seeded player before reaching the semifinal. "I'm almost starting out like I was 17 years old," Connors said after that match, "because I never, ever thought I'd play tennis again. Because of that, my enthusiasm and my intensity and my enjoyment for the game have all been lifted."

Connors caught a break when Becker was knocked out of his quarter of the draw.

The round of 16 match against Aaron Krickstein remains a crackling rain-delay staple. On his 39th birthday, a jacked-up, fist-pumping Connors played to the raucous crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium, bullying Krickstein and intimidating the officials. He trailed two sets to one and then, for the second match in a row, won in a fifth-set tiebreak.

The quarterfinal was a more sedate four-set victory over Paul Haarhuis, a player ranked No. 45 and known more for his doubles prowess.

And so Connors had reached the semifinals, an accomplishment on the order of Nicklaus' final Masters title, in 1986, at the age of 46. Except that Nicklaus didn't have to return rocket forehands and chase down drop shots.

"To come back and to work and to put everything I did when I was 17," Connors said, "to do that again when I am 37, 38 years old -- either I've got to be nuts or I really love the game more than I ever thought I did."

It was probably a combination of the two.

An Open favorite

Going into the 2005 U.S. Open, Agassi was widely considered a viable threat.

Andre Agassi
AP Photo/David Kohl At age 35, Andre Agassi still has some good tennis left in his legs.
He reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, the semifinals at Dubai and Miami -- losing to Roger Federer each time. But then the sciatic nerve in his back short-circuited his electrical system and he was sadly impaired.

Agassi won two of the first three sets against Jarkko Nieminen in the first round at Roland Garros but then won only a single game in the last two sets. It was a harrowing sight, this slumping, limping man, and it appeared to many people that Agassi's career might be over.

But some time off, some cortisone shots and characteristic optimism have conspired to return Agassi to form. He won in Los Angeles and reached the final of the ATP Masters Series event in Montreal. He had won 10 matches in a row when he fell, in three sets, to Rafael Nadal in the championship. He was seeded No. 7 at the U.S. Open.

"The thing you have to remember," Courier said, "is that Jimmy was ranked outside of the top 100 at the time. Andre is one of the favorites here -- it's not the huge story that unfolded when Jimmy hijacked the Open."

While Connors had a relatively easy road to the semifinals, Agassi ran into some heavy iron in the early going. After dispatching Romania's Razvan Sabau in the first round, he survived three consecutive breakers against the monstrous-serving, 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic in the second round and went four sets with Czech teen Tomas Berdych in the third. It required five sets to vanquish Xavier Malisse to reach the quarterfinals, where Blake -- winner of 10 straight matches -- awaited.

Blake's court coverage and forehand, especially when directed at Agassi's two-handed backhand, could have given him trouble -- the people who make these determinations installed Blake as a slight favorite -- but now it is not unrealistic to imagine Agassi in the final here. Robby Ginepri, who beat Guillermo Coria, is all that stands in the way.

Like Connors, Agassi has had some luck along the way. When No. 4 seed Andy Roddick was bounced by Gilles Muller in first round and then the second-seeded Nadal fell to Blake, suddenly a path seemed to open up in the bottom half of the draw.

Bud Collins, resplendent in a pink shirt and pants with stripes of red, orange and some kind of magenta, is the longtime tennis writer for the Boston Globe. He cited the level of expectation as the chief difference.

"I never felt Jimmy was in position to win the thing," Collins said. "He wasn't in the physical shape that Andre is in now. Andre may not win here, but he certainly could."

In the history of the U.S. Open, two men dominate the categories related to longevity -- Connors, and now Agassi.

This is Agassi's 20th U.S. Open; only Connors, with 22, has played in more. Connors' 98 victories in the tournament are, far and away, the record. This year Agassi, now with 76 wins, passed Lendl and Sampras to move into second place. Agassi became only the fourth man to reach the quarterfinals here in the Open era after his 35th birthday, joining Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall and Connors, who did it no fewer than four times.

A legitimate contender

Guillermo Vilas stood in a corner of the player's lounge, a study in black -- shorts, shirt and skull cap. The four-time Grand Slam winner from Argentina, eyes closed, was preparing for his Tuesday night masters doubles match with partner Hank Pfister.

Where does he come down on the Connors-Agassi question?

"Thirty-nine, 35, it's equally fantastic for both," said Vilas, who won the 1977 U.S. Open, the last year it was played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. "They were both great warriors who kept in good shape and managed their careers very well.

"I think they are equal, because today they play more matches on hard courts, which is a lot of wear and tear. Remember, the U.S. Open used to be played on grass. It's not the age -- the mileage is what counts," he said.

So, could it happen? Can Agassi find his way into the final, where he would likely find Federer waiting? Will he manage to beat the No. 1 player in the game, the man who has beaten him three times this year already and is 7-for-7 in sets?

"It's pretty astounding that he's a legitimate contender," Flink said. "That said, I can't conceive of him beating Roger Federer. Reaching the semifinals would be great, but I think it's not quite on par with what Jimmy did."

Said Bodo: "Going into the tournament, I gave Andre Agassi a better chance of doing some big-time damage than Connors. Yes, things are kind of breaking his way. If Roger Federer were to lose, well, that would be something. I'm a big believer in any given day. I mean, I didn't think James Blake had a snowball's chance in hell, and yet he found a way to [beat Nadal]."

If you're looking for a more apples-to-apples comparison, consider 1987, the year Connors turned 35. He reached the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year and reached finals at Memphis, Orlando and Queen's. His record was a credible 52-19. Agassi has already reached two Grand Slam quarters and won a tournament. His record to date is a tidy 30-6.

Connors and Agassi each won 16 titles after crossing the threshold of 30 years old. Agassi, of course, has a chance to break that tie. Agassi's durability is impressive; he has won 16 titles since the millennium -- contemporaries Michael Chang, Sampras and Courier combined for a total of four.

"Agassi is the legitimate No. 5, No. 6 guy in the world; Jimmy wasn't playing that much," McEnroe said. "To me, what's more amazing about Andre is that he's ranked that high. Four years is a lot of years. Maybe what he's doing here isn't more difficult, but what he does week in and week out is."

Both Connors and Agassi have traced similar trajectories with respect to the fans in New York. Early on, they were viewed as boorish and immature. As their years advanced and the rough edges grew smoother, they became embraced more and more.

"If the fans feel a vulnerability, as if they were trying to reclaim something, they have a sympathy," Flink observed. "If think the fans here hope Andre can somehow find a way to do this."

Said Collins: "Nobody could pump up the crowd like Jimmy. At Forest Hills, he was considered a punk. Here, he became a god."

There is a difference, however. While Connors shamelessly worked the crowd -- infuriating Krickstein, in particular -- Agassi conducts his business differently. Once the consummate showman, he almost seems to ignore the crowd.

"It took me awhile to enjoy playing here," Agassi said last week. "If you don't understand the mentality of the people, you don't appreciate the city, don't appreciate playing here.

"They don't have time to waste. If they're going to do something, they're going to bring it. They expect the same from you," he said.

Connors or Agassi? Courier, appropriately, gets the last word.

"I guess if you want to go micro, it's true that Andre Agassi is beating better players than Jimmy Connors," he said. "But look at the macro and you have to say Andre has had a solid season.

"Look, 39 is down the line from 35. What Jimmy did was more difficult.

"If Andre wins it, then it would be comparable."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.