Tennis: McEnroe ready for his curtain call

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LIFE has come full circle for John McEnroe. He was born on an American military base in Wiesbaden and has chosen to bid auf Wiedersehen as a full-time tournament player here in Bavaria at the Compaq Grand Slam Cup, having been embattled for much of the time in between.

McEnroe, 33, was last seen on a court on Sunday, celebrating the United States' Davis Cup triumph against Switzerland in the final in Fort Worth, Texas. Naturally, he was the guy wearing the black stetson. Whatever befalls him now, he can look back on an ace which won the doubles rubber and gave the Americans the initiative to regain the trophy.

Memories are never a satisfactory substitute for deeds, and McEnroe knows it. 'There is a feeling of standing in front of emptiness,' he told the German magazine, Der Spiegel. 'I'm coming out of the dream world of tennis and back into reality.' In which case he could not have chosen a more appropriate place to end the fantasy than here at the Munich dollarfest.

The organisers state that the dollars 6m ( pounds 3.9m) prize-money for the six-day event is 'by no means a Utopian figure for a tournament of this structure', and point out that an additional dollars 2m is raised to support tennis in developing countries.

McEnroe's word for the prize- money is 'obscene'. Whatever he receives this week, he promised, will be donated to charity. The sum could be anything from dollars 100,000 for losing in the first round to dollars 2m for winning Sunday's final.

Marital problems await McEnroe on his return to the United States. Whether a domestic upheaval changes his attitude towards reducing his involvement in the sport remains to be seen. He seems determined not to be tempted: 'The word retirement isn't taken seriously by some sportsmen. They retire and then suddenly make a comeback. Should I play again for any reason I don't want people saying, 'See, you can twist McEnroe with money, too'. The people in the tennis business throw piles of money at you and see what price you can be bought at. I don't want my life to be dictated by money.'

One of McEnroe's best known quotes was 'money whores', used to describe the greed in his profession. He does not wish to leave the public with the impression that wealth simplifies everything. 'People will say, 'The poor guy won't have any sleepless nights with his money and fame', but do they understand what a change like this means?'

McEnroe and his temper have been front-line performers since 1977, when he became the only qualifier ever to reach a Wimbledon semi-final. Early in the tournament, he took turns with a fellow American player, Eliot Teltscher, in sleeping in the single bed in their hotel room until his advance through the draw enabled him to afford a room of his own.

It was at the French Open the same year that McEnroe won his first match at a Grand Slam event, a straight-sets victory against the Australian John Gardiner. He then lost to Phil Dent in five sets.

Who will draw the curtain on McEnroe this week? The first opportunity goes to Nicklas Kulti, a 21-year-old Swede, who was only a reserve for the bonanza until Ivan Lendl withdrew with an injury last week. Kulti, a former world junior champion, has played McEnroe twice previously, losing to him, 6-1, 6-2, on a fast court in Basle in 1990, and defeating him, 6-2, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, in the first round of the this year's French Open on the slow clay of Paris.

After practising with the Dutch contender, Richard Krajicek, on the carpet court at the Olympiahalle yesterday, Kulti said it had not crossed his mind that he could be the player to close McEnroe's career tomorrow. 'I play to win every match, and I'll do that on Wednesday,' he said. 'I was growing up when McEnroe was playing Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, and matches like those are an influence.'

McEnroe has expressed the hope that he will be remembered more for his talent than his tantrums. 'I think,' Kulti said, 'that he will be remembered for both the playing and the behaviour.'

Should McEnroe win, he will play either Guy Forget, of France, whom he defeated in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, or Goran Ivanisevic, the big-serving Croatian. Further progress could bring McEnroe a semi-final against Andre Agassi, his Wimbledon conqueror, or Michael Chang, whom he he has defeated in four of their five meetings.

Setting aside the controversial issue of the prize-money, the Grand Slam Cup has qualities of merit, not least the point that the 16 players, who compete on a straight knock-out basis, qualify on their performances in the year's four major championships: those of Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States.

Pete Sampras, the inaugural winner in 1990, is in the top half of the draw, along with Stefan Edberg, the world No 2, while David Wheaton, who collected the dollars 2m first prize a year ago, must settle for dollars 50,000 as a reserve.

Money may talk, but it has not persuaded Jim Courier, the world No 1 and winner of the Australian and French titles, to come, nor has it tempted Boris Becker to forsake precious time away from the courts.

GRAND SLAM CUP Prize money: Winner dollars 2m; runner-up dollars 1m; semi-finalists dollars 450,000; quarter- finalists dollars 300,000; first-round losers dollars 100,000; two reserves dollars 50,000.

Today's matches: E Sanchez (Sp) v R Krajicek (Neth); H Leconte (Fr) v W Ferreira (SA); G Forget (Fr) v G Ivanisevic (Croa); P Korda (Cz) v W Masur (Aus). Tomorrow: S Edberg (Swe) v M Stich (Ger); P Sampras (US) v A Volkov (Rus); J McEnroe (US) v N Kulti (Swe); M Chang (US) v A Agassi (US).