McEnroe: The Last Hurrah

It was all sentimental stuff. When John McEnroe reached the last four stage at Wimbledon, only his diehard, most loyal of fans expected the unexpected from him. That John faded so tamely really did not matter to most, in the one main hurdle to the finals, which the vintage artiste had himself not dreamed of.

That Big Mac lasted the gruelling event up to that stage was itself a boon to tennis. Because, in the midst of boom-boom serves, ruthlessly powerful volleys and mercurial accentuation in playing fire with fire, there was something different to cheer: McEnroe’s velvety touch. Of a genius at work, with his timeless magic.

The McEnroe saga was, by itself, a broad aphorism, not just a footnote, of modern tennis.  Ever since he strode on the tennis arena, his own make-up defied all logic.

Temperamental, snobbish, impetuous, sans any jiggery-pokery cover-up ‘performed’ endlessly, the McEnroe phenomenon had in it just about everything that made block-busters in Hollywood.

While Yankee-jingoism loved him for all his [mis]guided adventurism, impulsive creation of high-voltage drama and weird demeanour, there were also many who despised him the most for having injected a new kind of inebriated aggression into the game.

McEnroe has, over the years, metamorphosed, as only he can, with paradoxical intent, becoming more and more philosophical in life, not the good old brat on court. Such an impression is only natural.  Because, McEnroe came like a storm, early on, and maintained his winning streak by winning almost every match he played for over three years; his peak periods being 1982, 1983 and 1984, which were also the most turbulent for tennis as well.

As bad language, vituperative diatribes and monologues ran wildly asunder, “Please play, Mr McEnroe…  Mr McENNroe,” the umpires kept on telling him. The fines and suspensions swelled in their ever-growing numbers too.

Coming out of nowhere, McEnroe, as an 18-year-old rookie, with the bad temper, had impressed with his ‘perfection’, at Wimbledon, in 1977, until the ageless Jimmy Connors showed him the way out in the semi-finals. Three years later, John figured in the Wimbledon final. He took the icy-cool Swede Bjorn Borg, into a tantalising battle, which the legend won, eventually, for his fifth title, what with a fairy-tale 18-16, 22-minute, fourth-set tie-breaker, in the course of which the American had staved off five championship points.

Came Wimbledon 1981, and the stormy player avenged his earlier defeat and beat his arch rival, Borg, on the tennis circuit, in a thriller.

This wasn’t all. John extended yet another jolt to the Swedish maestro’s monumental edifice by annexing the US Open, sixty days later.  At one stage, Borg was in the driver’s seat.  But, in the space of just five points, the course of the match altered dramatically.  McEnroe, slowly, powered himself past Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 and 6-3, to win his third successive Open.

It was Borg’s fourth final at the US Open. He was again jinxed. He took a vow never to return to Flushing Meadows. The rest is common knowledge. At 22, McEnroe was number one. And, as Borg, John’s greatest adversary, called it ‘quits,’ tennis had lost its greatest star, and McEnroe, a legendary opponent.

The ‘Superbrat,’ ‘Mac the Strife,’ the ‘Prince of Petulance’ and the ‘Merchant of Menace’ status too came along.  As his sublime performance, began to fall, on the court, the darker side of his complexities came to the fore.  Slowly and steadily, his run of victories soon began to dry up. He had almost proved his critics’ logic, that his systems would get the better of his abilities – the burnout, in other words – due to his nonchalant inclination for temperamental outbursts, right.

His love affair and eventual marriage with Hollywood starlet Tatum O’Neal, who had endeared herself to millions of cinegoers as a child-artiste in the Paper Moon, alongside her dad, Ryan, also provided enough weight to an infallible diagnosis: that John’s days in the sun were numbered. For no small reason.  Because, before fall 1986, McEnroe had won just three tournaments, after being a shadow of his original self, the preceding year.

Mac saw the red signal. Spurred on by the warning, he started recharging his batteries. He hired the expert services of physical instructor, Paul Cohen. John made good progress.  He was soon the Mac the world had always known, albeit his frayed tempers had lessened a wee bit too.  But, the real aggression he had packed into his racquet before was somehow missing.  Whatever happened to him as a champion player, although he was playing his game well?  Answer? The winning edge was gone, not brilliance.  Summarily, it was thought at this stage, that he was a ‘good’ player, when he was ‘bad.’

With the emergence of the new task-force brigade led by German Panzer Boris Becker, Mac’s fate was sealed. Still, John did not want to accept the obvious. His earlier sensitivity of vision that had made him such a great player was on the descent.  He hung on.  As one writer put it: “The fact that he [John] is not always right has not deterred him one iota.  He has a strong sense of justice… He knows he is a player of rare ability, a magician in terms of racquet control and a demon when it comes to delivering his left-handed serve.”

But, the truth was that with the changing equation of the game, Mac was like the relic of an era bygone. The recourse that was now open to him was philosophy: of lofty ideas, not confined to tennis, but outside it. Here’s what he’d to say after his return to the Australian Open, after serving a two-year ban: “There’s always hope. It’s been a long time now, seven years and certainly it’s a long shot, but if you don’t think you’ve a chance, there’s no way you can do it. At this stage, if I win one big tournament I’ll probably quit on the spot… Everyone has his time, and I had my time. In the deepest part of my heart and soul I believe I can do it, because I’ve done it. There’s another side of me that is more of a realist, so I keep the realistic side away from me as much as possible, but it is difficult. The good part is that I am the underdog against a lot of players and I have nothing to lose.”

Honest words.  But, what would have happened if Mac had really won the Wimbledon singles crown that year?  It would have been sensational, all right, but quitting was, automatically, something different, in tune with the tenor that has a say in human emotions, feelings and thought processes. Be that as it may, John, for one, seemed to have realised the import of his own subtly-defined propositions. As a kid, he had never dreamed that he would have a permanent place in tennis’ Hall of Fame when he grew up. He had also thought of life after tennis. Unlike most and in sharp contrast to his maverick image, Mac wanted to contribute his mite for the betterment of the game, not just in terms of its economical index but also by bringing back its old values, on and off the playing arena.

This was an incredible ambition from a man who had converted the tennis court into a graveyard during his halcyon days, you bet. The answers were nobody’s guess. Whatever the portents, one prophesy was imminent. There won’t be a player of John’s mercurial talent and calibre again.


– Photo, Courtesy: Unibet Blog

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