Interview: John McEnroe - First among senior citizens

He's old, he's loud and he's back, talking up his rivalry with Jimmy Connors.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
John McEnroe arrives in London this week a champion once more. This time he is top dog among the golden oldies, the ATP Senior Tour of Champions, a runaway winner in the points standings even before the final tournament of the season, the Honda Challenge, starts at Olympia on Thursday.

Only a couple of years ago McEnroe was referring to the Seniors circuit as "the dinosaurs tour". Now, at the age of 39 and by his own estimate playing as well as he did at 30, Johnny Mac insists it has become a circuit to be taken seriously.

He cites his own example as typical of the new urgency and level of fitness to be found among the over-35s and he played tennis of a very high quality indeed to beat Bjorn Borg and Yannick Noah on successive nights to win the tournament in Aschaffenburg, near Frankfurt, last week. It was McEnroe's fourth straight tournament victory and gives him 3,350 points for the year, as well as the deep satisfaction of beating Jimmy Connors by 900 points with London (where Connors will not play) still to come.

"I wanted to set a goal because Jimmy had won every year since the Seniors tour started in 1993," he said when we talked in the aftermath of his victory in Germany. "I wanted to try to make things interesting, not only for myself but for the Tour and I've succeeded."

To do so, McEnroe embarked 18 months ago on a campaign to raise his level of fitness. "I had a harsh lesson in 1996, when I lost four times to Andres Gomez on clay," he said. "I knew I was going to have to be more prepared and now I've got to the stage where it is paying off and I'm enjoying it. It's nice to feel you are playing as well as you did when you were 30.

"My best tennis at my peak was when I played a lot of matches. What I've realised is that you can run miles, jump on a bike, lift weights and all that other garbage but the bottom line is that you get in tennis shape by playing tennis. You build the right muscles and I don't believe people can do it as successfully any other way. But it has taken a long time, a slow but steady commitment."

Olympia's highlight, McEnroe versus Borg, is now a non-starter because the Swede has an Achilles tendon injury; he has been replaced by Henri Leconte. What would have been even more attractive, McEnroe versus Connors, will not happen because the 46-year-old Jimbo chooses not to play the European tournaments on the circuit.

The shock waves are still reverberating after their meeting in Dallas at the end of September, McEnroe's last defeat. Here is the McEnroe version of what happened.

"There had been a dispute over a line call early in the first set and as Connors was getting ready to play again someone in the crowd yelled `Be fair, Connors'. He got very upset, demanding to know whoever had said that should raise their hand.

"So, from the other side of the net, I raised my hand and said `Yeah, be fair'. So he said `That's it', picked up his bag and walked off. And I thought I'd seen everything.

"They called game, set and match for me but I didn't want to win that way because tennis is struggling enough as it is, in all honesty, and there were 3,000 people there. Jimmy came back after 30 minutes, we split two sets and then we played the 10-point tie-breaker they use in the Seniors instead of a third set. I led 9-8 but choked basically, and he won 11- 9.

"So I thought to myself `I'm not shaking this guy's hand'. But when I looked up he had already sat down. He had upstaged me again. I went back to my hotel room and sat there so long thinking about it I missed my flight back to New York. I had promised to take my kids to school the next morning but because of worrying about Connors I missed the fricking plane.

"He left the court for 30 minutes, not me, but I ended up the bad guy again. It's not easy to pull that off but he's an expert. There should be books written about it as an inspiration. I thought I'd seen pretty much everything until this happened. He has manipulated crowds against me for years, he gets them thinking `Poor Jimmy'.

"We haven't spoken since. I'm quite upset that apparently he's upset at me for reasons I don't understand. But that's Jimmy. This sort of thing is always what he has needed, to really dislike an opponent and believe everybody is screwing him. So he is in his element right now. He seems to be reverting to what I became used to before he started to make an effort to be friendly."

McEnroe, though, acknowledges a debt to Connors. "I've learned a lot of things from Jimmy, for example the effort level. I have never seen anybody try as hard as him. No matter how hard I tried, and I consider that pretty hard, it didn't match up to him. So once again he was one up on me.

"He is still playing amazing tennis. I have no idea how he does it, he's incredible. He must put a lot more time into it than he admits to. He is still obsessed with the game.

"I don't see myself doing this for more than another year or two because you can't half-ass it, you have to commit to 8 to 10 tournaments or forget about it. I'll be 40 in February but I'm playing well and I'm proud of the way I've reclaimed my confidence and fitness. I can foresee myself doing this to the point where I go out there and people say `My God, that guy is 42 years old and he can still kick my ass'."

McEnroe believes he could still hold his own on the professional circuit, especially in doubles. "I watch these guys and I'm not too impressed. When I saw the names of the people playing in the World Doubles Championships last week I almost fell over laughing."

He would also take on the captaincy of the US Davis Cup team if asked. "I am amazed Tom Gullikson was given the job again after the shambles of the defeat against Italy. But if the US Tennis Association don't have the balls to pick me, pick Stan Smith. He was a great Davis Cup player and has wanted the job for 15 years. "Putting the captaincy aside, I am still a better player than any of the people they have used in Davis Cup doubles since I stopped playing. I could lose just as easily as them but at least I would add some excitement."

Meantime, McEnroe is confident of winning again in London this week, and suggests that now that Borg has withdrawn Connors should be the man to take his place. "He's still my number one competitor so it would be appropriate, and it would add to the tension and excitement, which is ultimately what it's all about. Let's see the best guys."

One way to ensure Connors' participation, in McEnroe's opinion, would be to make the London occasion the Masters event of the Seniors tour. At present the Masters is staged in Naples, Florida, the following March, but next year will be the last for that venue.

"It doesn't make sense, that three-month gap," he said. "London would be a fantastic place to end the Tour's year. To have it some place like the Albert Hall would be fantastic. But you've got to get Jimbo there. I think I'm tops at the moment but Jimmy is right there and I can't discount him or what he's done."

In addition to his other time- consuming interests such as his art gallery, his TV commentating and his five children, McEnroe says he would like to open a tennis academy in the New York area. "I would like to get together some of the best kids in the country, maybe even the world. We haven't had a player from the New York area in 15 years, it's embarrassing. I've seen tennis clubs close in Manhattan and garages put up in their place and I'd sure like to be part of reversing that trend. I've been looking around for a site but I'm not quite ready for a total commitment of hitting with kids yet."

For the moment, John McEnroe remains keen to hit with, and beat, the bigger boys.