Tennis: McEnroe ready to relive drama of fire and ice

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John McEnroe is in London to help kick-start the Honda Challenge senior tour event at the Royal Albert Hall. Tomorrow he is due to renew his rivalry with Bjorn Borg. John Roberts asks the 38-year-old rebel if he is amused to be perceived as an elder statesman of tennis.

Life has been a pain in the arch this week for John McEnroe, Manhattan art gallery proprietor, frustrated rock musician, tennis commentator and competitor on the ATP Tour's "dinosaurs' circuit". In pursuit of the last, if not in the cause of nostalgia, he will risk his sore foot today on a carpet court at the Royal Albert Hall.

Is he pleased to be back playing in London? "Absolutely, because London was... er... London worked out. It had its sad moments, but it worked out."

The late Arthur Ashe once said that, "Against Connors and Borg you feel like your being hit with a sledgehammer. But this guy McEnroe has a stiletto; he just slices you up." If not with his racket, Ashe might have added, then certainly with his tongue.

Among the alterations since McEnroe was in his pomp there is a new No 1 Court at Wimbledon, which the New Yorker describes as "beautiful" while mourning the passing of the old No 1. It was there, in 1992, that he celebrated his last Grand Slam title, the doubles triumph with Germany's Michael Stich. "My last match at Wimbledon," McEnroe mused. "I was actually undefeated on that court."

Ah, yes, he even outpointed the mighty All England Club there with his infamous "pits of the earth" tirade while playing Tom Gullikson, a compatriot who now captains the United States Davis Cup team, in the first round in 1981. Far from being thrown off the court, McEnroe went on to win the first of his three Wimbledon singles titles, defeating Borg in the final.

Just as McEnroe's wonderful touch with the racket is missed, so is the charge of electricity he brought to the court, the element of self-destruction subject to the whim of a temperament far more highly strung than his rackets. Even his excesses tend to be viewed in a mellow light.

"Well," he said, "you know how that goes. That's just time. You have some kids, people see you over the years and then they get more familiar with us. They realise that you weren't as bad as they thought you were and they'll find out that we weren't as good as they make us out to be."

He smiled mischievously. "We'd better get that old rebel back. You know, it's in my contract in the seniors that I have to break one racket and yell at a few umpires every match. It's boring, you know. So I have to come up with something new."

At times, joking aside, he talks as if he is a missionary. "Sure, you could do things different," he said, accompanying his words with lots of shrugging when asked about the turbulent nature of his career.

"All and all... you take the good with the bad. So my job now, having a chance to reflect on it, is to look on the good. Because, you know, it feels as if everything's so awful around the tennis circuit all the time, everyone's so uptight and negative. And I know that I was that way, unfortunately, sometimes so wound up in what I was doing, that if I can make the players five per cent more relaxed, just being around the scene, that's my job. That's what I try to do when I do the television, make it a little looser, so that we get back to the idea a little bit that this actually is a game."

And there is life in the game. "I think that this year is a positive. We've got some new blood. You know, this is a great opportunity for a number of players. That guy Pete Sampras isn't going to stay No 1 forever. There's some great opportunities for the Rafters, the Rusedskis, the Henmans, the Kafelnikovs, to emerge and potentially challenge for the No 1 spot. I think this is about as good a time as they could hope for, right now."

No Americans? "Well, I don't see any. But 10 years ago, when we were busy playing the circuit, suddenly Agassi, Sampras, Chang and Courier appeared. This was after a couple of years of, `America's in the doldrums'.

"But I do believe in the cyclical nature of the sport in some ways. It's going to be a little difficult for someone to just pop out of the pipeline again. Think of Germany before Becker, you basically hoped to play a German guy. You hoped to play a Swedish guy before Borg came along.

"The Spanish programmes have resulted in young guys coming out of the woodwork. And that's why, as you've probably noticed in the recent past, the potential for an English player has improved. When I first came to England, they didn't have any indoor facilities."

McEnroe remains passionate about the Davis Cup. There was speculation that he might follow Yannick Noah, of France, and Germany's Boris Becker into a captaincy or management role even before the United States, handicapped by an injury to Sampras, were whitewashed by Sweden in last weekend's final.

"I certainly would never say never," McEnroe responded. "I give the people credit that made those decisions to appoint Yannick and Boris. I wish America would be a little bit more radical. But Tom Gullikson is a nice man, and he won the Davis Cup two years ago. It may not be in the cards. You have to agree with too many people."

Has he found that he enjoys the senior tour more than he anticipated? "Yes and no. It feels fairly similar losing. The similarity in the questioning in your head, really, because one of the reasons why I stopped [playing on the regular tour] was the inability to handle losing very well. And, then, if I lose to a guy and he's seven years older than me... Connors is 45 now, and I'm still losing to him. So it's rather embarrassing in a way. But, at the same time, it just doesn't get out of your blood. The competitive urge, at some level, just doesn't go away. And also the competition has actually picked up. "

Does his blood still rise to the challenge of Borg? "Well, it's not the same as when we played the big ones... But it's amazing how you do get into that same type of thing. You know, I sort of chip and charge and he hits the passing shot. It's the same deal." If only their chemistry of fire and ice could be trapped in a time capsule.

HONDA CHALLENGE: Today: From 2.0: H Leconte (Fr) v J Kriek (SA); T Henman and J Lloyd (GB) v G Rusedski (GB) and P McNamara (Aus); J McEnroe (US) v G Vilas (Arg). From 8.0: B Borg (Swe) v Lloyd; A Richardson (GB) and P Fleming (US) v J Bates (GB) and M Bahrami (Iran); M Bahrami v P McNamara. Tomorrow: From 2.0: Borg v McEnroe; Henman and Lloyd v Richardson and Fleming; Bahrami v Kriek. From 8.0: Vilas v Lloyd; McNamara v Leconte; Rusedski and McNamara v Bates and Bahrami. Saturday: From 2.0: McEnroe v Lloyd; McNamara v Kriek; Rusedski and McNamara v Richardson and Fleming. From 8.0: Borg v Vilas; Henman and Lloyd v Bates and Bahrami; Bahrami v Leconte. Sunday: Doubles final (1.30); Singles final (3.0); Singles third and fourth place play-off (follows singles final).