It did not take John McEnroe's eye as an art dealer to appreciate the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, which he describes as Wimbledon for golden oldies. There is no doubt that the Honda Challenge has established itself as a panto-season bonus for tennis enthusiasts.
In recognition of the event's growth in popularity over the past seven years, the Victorian showpiece is to host the Masters of the Delta Tour of Champions from 30 November to 5 December next year. The top 10 players in the Delta points standing after lead-up tournaments in Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Austria, the Netherlands, Monaco, Germany and France, plus two wild card entrants, will compete at the Royal Albert Hall for a £100,000 prize.
"London is our biggest and best tournament and the Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue," McEnroe said, having secured a place in today's Honda Challenge semi-finals by defeating Mats Wilander, of Sweden, 7-5, 6-3.
"There was a push for New York, but the event was cancelled there after 9-11. And I still would have preferred the Royal Albert Hall. You already have Queen's and Wimbledon, and it makes sense to have the main seniors' event here. I can't think of anywhere better. It's the way it should be."
McEnroe is also relieved that the Masters will climax the senior tour at a suitable time. "We have held the Masters in March and February," he said. "Once it was in June, another time September." BBC Television have agreed to continue coverage of the past masters in action at the Royal Albert Hall until 2007, by which time, it is hoped, the veterans tournament will have had an influx of new blood.
"Obviously the older guys will be replaced eventually if the tour is to succeed," McEnroe said. "But look at some of the players now - there's [Michael] Stich, who has just turned 35 and plays good tennis, and Boris [Becker], who potentially can play great tennis.
"[Petr] Korda would be here [to defend his title], but he hurt his knee or forgot to blow his nose, or something. Petr is one of the best strikers of a ball in the game. [Jim] Courier was scheduled to play here, but he has a broken shoulder. [Cédric] Pioline is difficult to beat." As for himself, the 44-year-old McEnroe is convinced that he is in his best shape for 10 years and says he would not be afraid to challenge the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, for a place in the United States Davis Cup team.
One of the comedy numbers in Les Miserables, "Master of the House," could have been written for McEnroe in his role as the cantankerous ringmaster of the senior tour, holding back the years with gusto and grimaces. "Why [Stefan] Edberg doesn't play is a mystery to all of us," he sighed.
"[Ivan] Lendl over the years looked like he was running scared. He's trying the celebrity golf tour, but he has his bad back and is getting a lot of money from insurance for not playing [tennis] and getting beat up by us guys."
Pausing for thought, he added: "I will say this for Lendl. He has the right to do what he chooses. If he wants to play golf, I respect that." Aside from his marvellous touch and short fuse, McEnroe is good value because he is never short of an opinion. As guest speaker at the British tennis writers' dinner-dance on Tuesday, he said Tim Henman could win Wimbledon, adding: "But what's happened to that second serve?"
Since then, Henman has announced that he is to work with Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras' former coach, on a part-time basis. Henman, the British No 1, has been without a coach since parting from Larry Stefanki after the US Open in September. Stefanki worked with McEnroe during his later days on the ATP Tour.
"Who knows?" McEnroe said when asked if Annacone would lift Henman's game. "I think Paul's personality is more what Tim would prefer. Some players like a lot of energy, like Larry has. Some players like to be pushed. Paul's a lower-key guy. He certainly has the credentials." Glancing out of the interview windows, McEnroe added: "But, hey, that dog out there could have coached Sampras to win Wimbledon. If Paul can get Henman to win Wimbledon I'll credit him with being a great coach at that élite level."
Not that Henman is the type to rest on his laurels. Having received a silver-framed award as the Lawn Tennis Association's Player of the Year during Tuesday night's dinner-dance at the All England Club, Henman inadvertently left it on a table.
It was rescued by Mark Hodgkinson, a freelance sport journalist, who took delight in displaying it on his kitchen table before contacting the LTA and telling them he had Henman's award. Hodgkinson does not win many accolades for tennis. When he had a hit with Boris Becker at a pro-am event on Wednesday morning, Boris told him he played like a girl.
However, Becker, who was hoping to defeat the Swede, Mikael Pernfors, last night to avoid leaving the Royal Albert Hall without a win to his name, has not escaped without the odd barbed comment himself. When recording his appearance on the BBC's Jonathan Ross show, Becker, behind the glass of the green room, was built up by Ross as being one of his biggest heroes. Nodding toward Becker, Ross said: "Last time he was in a room that small it cost him eight million quid."
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