Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Magic mixture of McEnroe and Graf

A PAIR of tennis legends with a combined age of 70 years and with 16 Wimbledon titles between them took centre stage last night to go in search of the one Wimbledon honour that neither yet possesses.

John McEnroe, the 40-year-old enfant terrible of yesteryear partnered Steffi Graf, the 30-year-old renaissance woman of today as they beat Jeff Coetzee of South Africa and the Czech Eva Melicharova in the first round of the mixed doubles.

McEnroe and Graf, the No 9 seeds despite only having entered the competition with a wild card, won easily in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, and then provoked much mirth in a that rarest of occurrences, an honest and amusing press conference.

"It was meant to be," McEnroe said of the long-anticipated coming to fruition of the partnership. "It's been 20 years for me, but I couldn't have picked a better partner," he added of his fledgling new career in the world of Grand Slam mixed doubles. "Now it's onwards and upwards."

Asked whose idea the partnership was, Graf laughed and said "the press". McEnroe added: "I hardly even remember, because it's been bandied around for a long time. And then when we actually got together and talked about it we realised it was a good idea."

Graf was asked about one incident early in the match when McEnroe had said something to her and she had had a major fit of the giggles. "What was it you said?" Graf asked McEnroe. "I'm the greatest player of all time?" replied the American. Graf then admitted that she had been tickled by Melicharova's peculiar serve. "She needs a little work on that," added McEnroe, laughing out loud.

McEnroe was asked about the prospects of his compatriot Jim Courier, who will meet Tim Henman in the fourth round of the men's singles. "Perfect, perfect," McEnroe said. "The Brits are already sweating." He added, with a twinkle in his eye, that the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the USA earlier this year had been a "debacle" and said: "The Brits choked their little fannies off. You know, it was beautiful to watch."

When asked, before the match, how she felt about playing with someone she has openly acknowledged as being her tennis hero and the only person she had really followed as she grew up, Graf said: "I hope it's going to be fun out there."

It certainly looked fun, for all the brevity of the contest. When it was over, McEnroe, who last played at Wimbledon in 1992 - when he was a semi-finalist in the men's singles and won the men's doubles with Michael Stich - planted a celebratory kiss on the cheek of a beaming Graf and the pair then signed autographs as they left the court.

McEnroe won three singles titles (the last in 1984) and five doubles title (the last in 1992) at Wimbledon during an era when he was more commonly known as "Superbrat" for his tantrums and questioning of officials' decisions. Graf has won seven singles titles at the All England Club and one women's doubles title, with Gabriela Sabatini, in 1988.

The pair are now due to appear in their second-round tie this afternoon. On their prospects for the title, McEnroe said: "I always said if I stepped on a court in a major then I wanted to feel like I had a chance to win the tournament. That's why I stopped playing and then this opportunity came about. We do have a chance, I believe, to win it." And watching them try will be nothing if not entertaining.

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