Tennis: McEnroe's touch punishes the paunch

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HE IS slower about the court, and the slice on his service has lost much of its bite, but there is still no one who goes ape quite like the Superbrat. It is a unique selling point, and more than enough to pull in the punters here last night, when McEnroe was playing his first match in the Honda Challenge on the Senior Tour. Guillermo Vilas, Pat Cash and Yannick Noah are among the supporting cast this week, and Tim Henman was playing a doubles exhibition yesterday evening, but what the 3,000-strong crowd had come to see was a serious tantrum.

The organisers knew it too, and not for nothing did the cover of the official programme feature an umpire dressed in full riot gear. As the first set of McEnroe's match with Vilas progressed, though, it was clear that they might be disappointed. Vilas, for a start, was carrying such a paunch that he probably had to check it in as hand luggage on the flight from Argentina. And while his strength is diminishing, the delicate touch and fearsome competitiveness which took McEnroe to three Wimbledon titles remain. The way the ball found the corners of Vilas's court throughout a one-sided first set verged on deliberate cruelty.

It finished 6-1 in less than 25 minutes, and while the second was a little more even, still there was no sign of McEnroe's racket making contact with anything more controversial than the ball. There was the occasional minor dispute as he won it 6-4, but not the real crowd-pleaser to tell friends and workmates about the following morning. "He called the line judge a what? Never." "He did. And I was there." Perhaps, like the showman he is, McEnroe is saving himself for the final on Sunday afternoon.

If he makes it that far - and on yesterday's evidence it is long odds- on - he will face another player from that permanent but rolling golden age which is always about 15 years ago. In 2013, the fans will no doubt turn up with their teary eyes and wistful smiles to watch Sampras and Rusedski trade rifleshot serves. Their complaint, as always, will be that the new generation just can't match the old-timers when it comes to putting on a show.

And if the trend toward robotic tennis continues, they will probably still be right. There was certainly no room for argument yesterday afternoon, as Yannick Noah and Guy Forget launched the tournament with a match that was tennis, but not as we know it. It was fast, skilful and fiercely fought, but not ruthless. It was... well, entertaining, and when was the last time you could say that about a tennis match?

It was circus too at times, but as Noah said afterwards, "you need a little bit of everything", and the crowd loved it. There was a high-five for a line judge after a 50-50 call in his favour, a first serve into the upper tier and a knees-a-knocking attempt to return serve from within touching distance of the net.

Forget was a willing straight man, but at neither end were they playing just for laughs. There was not a single break point in the first 20 games, and Noah visited every corner as he saved four match points in the "super tie-break" (first player to 10) which replaced a deciding third set. But as soon as he had a match point of his own it was time to shake hands - he took the tie-break 13-11 after sharing the first two sets 6-7, 6- 4.

"I play the game the way I want it to be played," Noah, a professional for 20 of his 38 years, said. "When we were playing on the main tour, it was a time when tennis was cool, hip and trendy, with players like Bjorn, John and Jimmy. Now it's just not the same. I don't watch much tennis these days. I like to see flair and emotion, and you don't see that too often."