Tennis: A legend lives on in style

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The Independent Online
MAGNETISM IS important if you are a tennis player. I had realised a year before that John McEnroe, whom I had paid no previous attention to, had it. He had been on a chat show, shirt half open, (this had nothing to do with it), being funny and clever. Not brattish and no sign of the fluffy cartoon hair.

Thank goodness for the Senior Tour of Champions at Olympia then. Another chance (in this case my first), to see legends that you have heard about, read about and just come to see for yourself, play again. I wish other sports did this. How good it would be to see George Best kick a ball for real, even if he did it slowly, and with the encumbrance of a Santa-belly. A disappointment? Faded glory? Not a bit of it. Best's magnetism would be what people went to see and he can still deliver that. Who else? Nellie Kim? Nadja Comaneci, Olga Korbut. Them doing just a couple of forward rolls would be enough.

Thus far, McEnroe suffers not from rickety limbs or an abnormal haemoglobin- to-Stella-Artois count and he plays tennis fabulously, entertainingly well. I was watching him on Saturday in a Seniors group match, playing Henri Leconte, who was Potsy to McEnroe's Fonzy. Leconte tries to be cool and funny and have "it". He's good-looking even. But I found him boring. His tried-at funny asides that the bum-licky crowd laughed at just made me sit lower in my seat. He served some devastating aces, overall faster and more deadly than McEnroe. And his bitchy little cross-court returns caught his opponent out on a good few occasions. But his tennis shoes squeaked.

From the moment they all came out to warm up, McEnroe had the advantage. "Oh, my God, there's McEnroe", were the sopra voce whispers from around me. He changed into his on-court shoes and took off a sweatshirt and this brief moment of undressing prompted frenetic, some would say begging, whispers: "Don't tell me he's going to take his trousers off. Is he going to take his trousers off?", was repeated five or so times and not just from women.

After a few minutes of leisurely practice McEnroe missed the ball in spectacular schoolgirl fashion. I'd recognise that swing-round manoeuvre anywhere as the racket fails to find the ball and for a moment a pocket of wasted energy hangs in the air. How many times I've been there, and how reassuring it is to see that even the big ones do it.

Once the proper game started I saw how balletic McEnroe's style was. He jumps around a lot, his back arches, his feet point and kick back. Very elegant style. His hair, I noticed, was much, much greyer than Leconte's. Also, McEnroe shows his tummy a lot during play, despite repeatedly tucking his shirt in. Leconte's shirt stayed anally in place throughout.

Despite both being famed as serve-volley players, they both played pretty much from the baseline. Much more genteel that way. No one mentioned tennis could be so hypnotic and I was almost lulled. Perhaps because nowadays tennis is more like a penalty shoot-out.

Then there were the ball-girls. I marvelled at their ability to pick up balls efficiently, without having to chase them as I had always had to do. To be able to see when the player needed more balls even though their faces gave nothing away. And just how many tennis balls could they hold? I saw one girl pick up at least five and squirrel them away behind her back, not dropping one. I wondered, were big hands a job requirement? Surely they must be. At one point Leconte got impatient with a ball-girl's inability to throw the ball exactly to him and he, surly, turned away from her, favouring another ball-girl's balls instead. The shame! The poor, scorned girl blushed to her fleshy knees and I realised that the subject of ball-girls was a fly on the wall documentary subject as yet untapped.

Back to the game. There were some tremendously exciting bits as both players got balls you never thought they would, some blastingly fast aces, heart-stopping volleys and good proper tennis, where your head went left, right, left, right, at least 10 times. Then McEnroe won.