Tennis: Mac rolls back the years

Senior service showtime at Olympia as joker McEnroe displays the full repertoire of his breathtaking skills
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The Independent Online
A CROWD of 4,000 were treated to a master class of tennis in the Honda Challenge at Olympia yesterday. John McEnroe, greying and thinning on top but his unique skills scarcely diminished by the passing of 39 years, unwrapped his full, glorious repertoire in beating Henri Leconte, four years his junior, 6-4 6-2, to reach this afternoon's final.

Leconte was no slouch either in this high-quality encounter of the left- handers in which the good-natured joshing and cap-and-bells routines normally associated with the Seniors Tour were largely absent. These two had contested the London final at the Albert Hall a year ago, a close contest which was won by McEnroe.

Since then Leconte has lost the better part of two stone on a new diet and was sporting one of those new titanium rackets ("a sensational innovation," say the makers), but yesterday McEnroe won going away. He got a standing ovation, and another one as he was presented with a new trophy, the old guys' Player of the Year award. "That is what I set out to do at the start of the year, so it feels nice to have accomplished it," he said. "It is the first year in God-knows how long I did what I set out to do. I am playing as well as I have for a long time and it feels good.

"This is my 12th Seniors tournament of the year, but next year I plan to keep up this level of involvement, as well as my fitness which is as high as it has been for eight years."

McEnroe stands on the verge of his fifth title in succession on the Seniors Tour and has won seven of the 11 in which he has competed this year. The victory over Leconte was his 19th in a row. As he said: "It is a good streak, one more to go. That would be a good way to end it. I set out a goal this year to be No 1 and now I have got Jimmy Connors scared of me."

The first part of that mission has certainly been accomplished. The secret of the McEnroe success, as with other people in other walks of life, is to care deeply about what you do. Every point scored against McEnroe constitutes, as it has done down through the years of Grand Slam success, a personal insult. The rare errors from his own racket still receive a stare of downright disbelief. Only the volcanic temperament, always a-simmer in the old days, has quietened to the occasional showbiz rumble.

Leconte's unhappy afternoon started when he won the toss and opted to serve first, only to be broken. Though the Frenchman recovered to draw level at 4-4, he dropped serve again in the next game, leaving McEnroe to serve out for the first set after 36 minutes.

Winning that set put McEnroe into the final, even should he have lost the match to Leconte. Perhaps Henri had done his sums, too, because his competitive level dipped as he again lost serve in the opening game of the second set. He then switched to the Leconte "Happy Hour" routine, hurling his racket high into the air and narrowly missing a lineswoman, holding the retrieved racket between his teeth and running through his repertoire of grimaces, shrugs and silly walks.

McEnroe bore down, complained about someone in the audience puffing on a cigarette, and got on with the job of winning another one. He accomplished it, in 66 minutes, in some style. Two thundering serves caused Leconte to put forehand returns into the net. They were followed by a smash which took him to match point and then, just to offer Leconte a Gallic twist, came a backhand which struck the tape and dropped over the net for the match winner.

In today's final McEnroe will face Yannick Noah, who also finished a winner of all three matches in his round-robin group when he beat John Lloyd 7-5 7-6.

McEnroe told the crowd he hoped to see them in Birmingham at the Britain- USA Davis Cup tie next April, but whether he will be there is doubtful. He confirmed that he would only attend as a player or team captain, and as he pointed out neither of those is likely to happen.

McEnroe has said several times in recent weeks he is still the best doubles player in the world and therefore worth his place in an American team he graced for 14 years and to five Cup victories. His first appearance in the final was against Britain in 1978 and his last one against Switzerland in 1992.

"I would love to play, absolutely, as long as they don't call me up the week before and ask me because seven other guys who aren't as good as me have turned them down. But it is already pretty apparent it isn't going to happen, so I'm not holding my breath."

McEnroe thought the ideal doubles pairing for the United States would be himself and Pete Sampras. "But right now I don't think Pete is very interested in playing singles, never mind doubles, which is further evidence of the decline of interest in the Davis Cup in my country."