Tennis: Wimbledon '92 / McEnroe ready for a friend's inquisition: Paul Hayward looks forward to today's battle between two charismatic Americans

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The Independent Online
JOHN McENROE spoke of 'this beautiful moment' after finishing off Guy Forget yesterday, but for collectors of cherishable memories the best is yet to come. The sensible- haircut of child-rearing America will be set against the salon vogues of the Wayne's World generation today when McEnroe and Andre Agassi meet to decide which of them gets Sunday off. Pity, many people are saying, this is not the final.

The difference in age and styles has not prevented the resurgent genius forming a close friendship with his 22-year-old adversary from Las Vegas, a city which would probably give up its water supply to get promotional hands on a contest like this. However, McEnroe is not being taken in by the compliments sent his way this week by younger players like Agassi.

'I think that's sort of a gimmick,' McEnroe said when confronted by the praise yesterday. The subtext of the claim, 'We're really honoured to play John McEnroe', the only ex-champion left in the men's event believes, is: 'we'd like to kick his ass.'

Agassi would. 'Tomorrow's going to be nothing personal,' he said. 'Just business.'

The only melancholy faces at McEnroe's press conference after his 6-2, 7-6, 6-3 defeat of Forget belonged to the NBC team who had expected him to join them in the commentary box long before now. Instead the man who, in Hong Kong last year, trudged off court to say, 'playing like this (ie, as badly) sickens me', is through to the last four. To think, his friends told him to 'get real' when he spoke of such possibilities.

Agassi's elimination of Boris Becker was a reflection of his own fine form plus his opponent's inability to reach peak performance after a spate of recent setbacks. Resuming at 4-3 in the fourth set Becker capitalised on the break secured before the rain came on Thursday night, to take the match into a fifth set. Becker's Wimbledon experience suggested an edge, but instead Agassi produced a string of pulverising returns and passing shots to which Becker had no answer. The German was broken twice as Agassi won 4-6, 6-2,

6-2, 4-6, 6-3 and for only the second time in eight years, Becker will be absent from his favourite occasion here on Sunday afternoon.

'Well, how much does it hurt?' Becker said. 'I'm going to realise that in the next couple of days.'

He is not alone. The men's championship may have begun routinely enough but the fact this morning is that Pete Sampras, at No 5, is the highest-seeded candidate still standing. Unless McEnroe can prevent himself becoming a famous 'notch on (Agassi's) belt' as he puts it, there will be a new Wimbledon champion this weekend.

Contrasts abound. Agassi arrives for the inquisition looking, as ever, like a character from Spinal Tap, the great rock 'n' roll parody. Thick chest hair creeps from his white track suit top and the facial stubble is honed to Graham Gooch standards. Wherever he goes at Wimbledon, there is the sound of screaming, as if ships are going down.

McEnroe is greying at the sides and thinning on top. He may behave sometimes like a kid who has been sent to bed before The Simpsons, but his off-court life is laden with family responsibilities which frequently conflict with his resurrection as a tennis player.

And yet, from different points on the age scale, McEnroe and Agassi have formed a bond that neither are able to articulate. 'It's just a feeling, you know,' McEnroe said. 'I just think we hit it off well, and we feed off each other. He's young, and he's really inquisitive. He's very, very smart.'

'There's probably a chance he wishes he hasn't been practising with me quite as much as he has in these past couple of weeks,' Agassi said. 'I'd be fooling myself if I said John could learn from me more than I could benefit from him.' For how long will this mutual respect survive this afternoon?

Perhaps they share an understanding of how elusive motivation and concentration can be. In McEnroe's worst days of being ejected off the comeback path he has said things like 'it's more like I'm fighting myself now', while as recently as this year Agassi has been heard to admit: 'I have no intensity.'

If you want the counter-image to Agassi's passage through this fortnight you have only to think of his coach, Nick Bollettieri, telling the world his protege had 'stuffed himself at the Paris McDonald's' every day during the French Open.

This, Agassi knows, is his chance to cease being the nearly man of Grand Slam tennis and give his followers something other than his Miami Vice looks to shout about. 'I'm two matches away, and, I tell you, I don't show up here just to win a few games,' he says. 'I show up to win the thing.'

Becker thinks today's encounter can be reduced to the issue of, 'who will take the pressure better' and set out most coldly to crush the other man.

The things we do to friends.

---------------------------------------------------------------------- HEAD TO HEAD: J McENROE (US) v A AGASSI (US) (McEnroe leads 2-1) ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1986 Volvo Int Stratton hard quarter-final McEnroe 6-3 6-3 1988 Los Angeles hard semi-final Agassi 6-4 0-6 6-4 1989 WCT finals hard quarter-final McEnroe 4-6 3-0 ret ----------------------------------------------------------------------