Henri Leconte's wife is a bullfighter, so one would expect the French charmer to be well prepared to tackle John McEnroe even if he was not accustomed to the New Yorker's head-down charges at authority.
Leconte played McEnroe 10 times in their days on the regular tour, and lost every one, the American's face going through various shades, from freckled white to purple, in the process.
Yesterday's meeting in the final of the Honda Challenge at the Royal Albert Hall went through a gamut of scenes - serious, semi-serious and downright light-hearted - with McEnroe leaving everyone, except his opponent, in a state of confusion.
Umpires and line judges have worked in dread of McEnroe ever since he first emerged as a talented 17-year-old tearaway at Wimbledon in 1977 but McEnroe gave the game away after defeating Leconte, 6-2, 3-6, 10-5, when he admitted that he was "serious about the tennis, but the other part is iffy. You do get caught up in things. I was happy to let my racket do the talking, but people were yelling at me to get mad and stuff. I'm a good actor."
He seized the opportunity after Leconte shouted "It's in!" after lobbing the ball towards the ceiling. "Is he allowed to talk?" McEnroe said to the umpire, Kim Craven, who responded by saying if he had thought there had been a distraction he would have said so.
McEnroe was not impressed, and expressed himself more forcibly when the umpire failed to overrule a line call after the American believed he had hit an ace down the centre line at 15-30 in the concluding game of the second set. McEnroe received a code violation for verbal abuse.
McEnroe took the matter up with Craven when the umpire lowered his hydraulic chair to conduct the toss-up before the start of the "champions' tie-break" (decided by the first to win 10 points).
"There were about five effings when I came down to the court," Craven said, "but I gave McEnroe the code violation for saying to me, `You're full of shit'. When I came down to the net he gave me a lot of eyeball and said, `You've got that look in your eye, should we settle it afterwards?' You sometimes don't know how serious he is."
After Leconte had won the toss and elected to serve the first point of the shoot-out, McEnroe walked to the back of the court and had a lengthy talk with the centre line judge. "I had a philosophical discussion," McEnroe said. "The rules allow for three minutes after the toss-up for the champion's tie-break, so I had time to bullshit."
But how serious was his challenge to umpire Craven? "I slid into this contractual mode," McEnroe said, alluding to his regular joke that he is to obliged to break two rackets and abuse the umpire every time he plays on the senior tour.
"The umpire was giving me the run-around. He asked me if this was part of the contract package. I said, `Let's take it outside'. No one can be sure if I was serious. That's the beauty of it!"
Leconte got in on the act during the tie-break, bumping into McEnroe when they met at the net at the change-over.
That amused the American, who had spent part of Saturday agog at some of the antics while watching England play the All Blacks on television. "Those rugby guys are crazy," he said. "There were fights going on off the ball, below-the-belt shots and everything. There's no outlet in tennis. There should be punchbags at the side of the court if we get uptight."
As on the previous three days of the tournament, some of the tennis was excellent, although McEnroe had played better. Leconte, at 34, is barely old enough to qualify for the senior tour. McEnroe, 38, had played himself into fitness form after missing six weeks of practice after injuring a foot.
The crowd loved every minute of it, and could not have hoped for a better warm-up to the main event than the cabaret provided by Mansour Bahrami, the mustachioed showman of the invitation doubles event. The 41-year-old Iranian's trick shots are amazing, dazzling his fellow players as well as the crowd.
Bahrami partnered Britain's Jeremy Bates to victory against Tim Henman and his coach, David Felgate. That is, when he was not catching the ball in the pocket of his shorts or leaping over the net to return his own lob.
All good fun, and we were sad when the veteran string section had to vacate the arena for the Elgar statesmen.Reuse content