John McEnroe: Why Mac believes knife must be taken to rules of tennis

As Wimbledon legend prepares to renew famous rivalry with Jimmy Connors in the commentary box, the enigma with the game's shortest fuse urges a spirit of innovation

For great double acts, only the London Palladium can rival Wimbledon fortnight. Newcombe and Roche, Hewitt and McMillan, Venus and Serena, Connors and Nastase, McEnroe and Fleming ... what names, what memories, what tennis.

For great double acts, only the London Palladium can rival Wimbledon fortnight. Newcombe and Roche, Hewitt and McMillan, Venus and Serena, Connors and Nastase, McEnroe and Fleming ... what names, what memories, what tennis.

This year, however, the most intriguing double act is likely to unfold not on court but in the television studio: the BBC has recruited the still-pugnacious Jimmy Connors to sit alongside his old adversary John McEnroe. When I ask McEnroe whether there is still a frisson of tension between him and the man who beat him in the 1982 Wimbledon final, then was annihilated by him in the 1984 final, winning only four games, he says, "you bet".

The corners of McEnroe's mouth twitch into what might be a smile. "I'm willing to bet that Jimmy has it in his contract that he doesn't have to work with me." I laugh. The smile grows. "I'm not kidding."

A BBC source later assures me that Connors, who will be joining the team only for the second week of Wimbledon, does not in fact have such a clause in his contract. Meanwhile, McEnroe leans back in his chair, his black shirt tautening against a torso that seems no fleshier now than 25 years ago when he contested his first Wimbledon singles final - that epic five-setter against Bjorn Borg - and reflects on the man he once vowed to beat even if it meant following him "to the ends of the earth".

"Connors won 34 out of the first 35 seniors tournaments he played, or something like that. Then I joined, and some even younger guys, and he stopped winning. He feels that something has been taken from him, that he's been screwed, and I understand that. It will be interesting to see where his head's at next week."

Assuming that Roger Federer is still on track to defend his singles title, it will also be interesting to hear how highly Connors, champion in 1974 and 1982, rates him. McEnroe, the 1981, 1983 and 1984 champ, places the 23-year-old Swiss among his top five players of all time.

"And he will go higher. It's hard to imagine that he won't end up third, at worst. He already won four majors, and I'll be amazed if he doesn't win at least two or three more Wimbledons. With another couple of majors that would give him eight, which puts him way up there."

I ask McEnroe if that is how he compares players from different eras, by the number of Grand Slam titles they won? "It's certainly a big factor. How many years they finished at No 1 in the world, that's important too. And how they played the game, what they added to the game. I won seven majors, but I am also the last guy who reached No 1 while also playing doubles.

"I find it hard to imagine anyone ahead of Rod Laver in the all-time list. Laver was my idol. But he was 5ft 9in, and you'd have to wonder how in hell he would ever have broken [Boris] Becker, [Goran] Ivanisevic, [Pete] Sampras. If you ask me who was the greatest grass-court player of all time, I'd say it was Pete. He won seven Wimbledons. But Federer has a chance to go close."

The superlatives will certainly be flying if Federer lifts the trophy this year to make it three in a row. And McEnroe cannot see anyone beating him if the champion plays his best. "But it is conceivable he may not. Of course, he could play below his best and still win, but it will at least throw eight or 10 other guys into the mix: [Andy] Roddick, obviously; [Lleyton] Hewitt if he gets going; [Marat] Safin if he brings the right attitude; [Rafael] Nadal if he adjusts to the surface, although it's hard to see him getting past the quarters; and [Mario] Ancic is dangerous.

"I'd place [Tim] Henman at the end of this list. There are not a lot of guys better than him on grass, but he's not playing as well as he was last year.

"Anyone who thought he could get to the semis of the French and the US Open must have been drinking, including himself. This year, expectations aren't so high. But that doesn't mean he couldn't pull a rabbit out of a hat."

McEnroe and I are talking the day after he himself failed to pull a rabbit out of a hat, not quite producing enough of the old magic to beat Ivanisevic in an exhibition match at Queen's following the wham-bam final between Roddick and the gigantic Ivo Karlovic.

As that final headed for the inevitable deciding tie-break, with neither man able to break the other's thunderous serve, a spectator called out, "come on Roddick ... we want to see McEnroe!" I mention this to McEnroe, not to flatter him (although heaven knows it is nice to have his approval; even in a good mood he can be pretty forbidding), but to see whether he considers it an indictment of howitzer tennis.

"Well, it's not every day you see two guys who are such extraordinarily big hitters, but the serve on grass is an overwhelming weapon, which is why they tried to slow the courts down. Now you hear guys like Henman complaining that they're too slow. You can never get everyone happy."

So how would he change things if he were made Grand Panjandrum of Tennis? Which is not such a bad idea, however it might appal those disinclined to forgive him his expletive-drenched tirades at line judges, umpires, referees and himself.

"It's a tough question. I would move the service line in a couple of inches, making it more difficult to generate that type of pace. And, people call me a dinosaur, but I think it would be really interesting to see how Federer would play with a wood racket. I'm sure he would play just fine.

"These rackets nowadays were meant for the average Joe who goes out there once a while and thinks, 'Hey, I gotta little bit of power'. But at the highest level, such advances have been made since I played Borg ... players are taller, stronger, work harder off the court, eat better. So why give them a racket, in addition to all that, that gives them 30 to 50 per cent more power than we had? It doesn't make sense.

"Take a look at baseball. As kids and all through college, they use graphite or aluminium bats. But when they get to major league level they go back to wood. The New York Yankees hit with wooden bats. Why? Because it's harder.

"I would advocate the same in tennis. In 1996 I played Pete in a charity event for his coach, who had passed away. Halfway through I picked up a wood racket and he picked one up. He hit three straight serves at 121, 125 and 127 miles an hour, which was about what Pete's top pace was. The difference was that he complained about his shoulder, because it took a lot of effort. That's the thing, the guys could hit it as hard but not as consistently.

"I would also leave the let-cord on a serve, they should just play it. It would be exciting. I'd love to see Nadal diving to get a return of serve on match point, but the players are against it because it would add an element of luck. These are the things we ought to be trying.

"Also, when you throw the ball up to serve, that should be it. If you catch it, that should be a fault. I was practising with Peter Fleming and his throw was all over the place. It can be used as gamesmanship, too. If you're tired from a point, you catch your throw - 'ooh sorry'."

But if inaccurate tosses counted as faults, I protest, then Virginia Wade, one of the clumsiest of tossers, would never have won Wimbledon. "That's true," says McEnroe. "Although Betty Stove, who she beat, wasn't all that good either."

This is typical McEnroe, telling it how it is, or how it was. It is why he has become such a popular commentator, although it makes me laugh when people marvel that the youthful super-brat has turned into a genial middle-aged charmer. In fact, he is the same short-fused guy he ever was; it is just that his fuse gets lit less frequently. Rather bravely, I share this theory with him.

"Well," he says equably, "I think most commentators, not just in tennis, take themselves way too seriously. I took myself too seriously for 15 years as a player, so I don't need to do it now. And I felt sure there would be positive response here to my kind of commentary because of the way they did it in the old days."

Here McEnroe does an irreverent, and not inaccurate, impression of a plummy Dan Maskell.

"When I was young I felt like I was going to break down barriers," he continues. "Here was this upper-class, cissy sport, and I believed 100 per cent that I was going to change it. I played every match as if it were my last. I wanted to be accepted like a baseball player or a footballer, and the irony is that in those sports, guys get pictured screaming at the umpire, and they're not saying 'Hey, how you doing?' But they are never criticised for it.

"When you look at the horrible things that happen in other sports, me yelling at those umpires was not all that bad. But I remember a poll in a Miami paper to find the worst people of all time. Charles Manson was one, Attila the Hun was two, I was three and Jack the Ripper was four. It was funny in a way, except that was me they were talking about.

"Usually, the first thing that came into my mind was to say something funny, to defuse a situation with a joke. But I was also brought up to play best when I kept up a level of intensity. I could scream, then go back and hit an ace. If I said something funny, I would lose it a little bit.

"Connors was different. He'd swear under his breath to himself, then put his arm round someone in the crowd and say 'It's tough out here, isn't it?' And he'd have people eating out of his hand. It used to drive me crazy. But to give him his due, he made the US Open. I could pick the 10 greatest matches of all time at the Open and he'd be in eight of them. I've never seen crowds as intense at a tennis match as when Connors played. He got them going freaking bananas."

If the same rule were applied to the 10 greatest matches at Wimbledon, McEnroe himself would be in a fair few of them, not least that unforgettable 1980 final against Borg, in which he won a remarkable fourth-set tie-break before losing the deciding fifth set 8-6. McEnroe, incidentally, thinks the tie-break should be used in fifth sets at Wimbledon, as it is in the US Open.

"I think tie-breakers are great," he says, and then snorts with disdain. "But [the introduction of] the tie-breaker was the last time there was a rule change. And that makes me mad. We should be tinkering with the rules all the time."

It would be worth it, if just to stop J P McEnroe getting mad.

John McEnroe will be commentating for BBC Television throughout Wimbledon.

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