McEnroe game, upset and match

Sensation on court as mature champion averts old-style explosion, stays calm and beats wild card Bates

There were sightings at last of a plume of steam from beneath the volcano's lid but John McEnroe managed to apply a stopper to his emotions yesterday en route to a 6-3 6-7 10-4 victory over Jeremy Bates and a place in today's final of the Honda Challenge seniors tournament at the Royal Albert Hall.

There were sightings at last of a plume of steam from beneath the volcano's lid but John McEnroe managed to apply a stopper to his emotions yesterday en route to a 6-3 6-7 10-4 victory over Jeremy Bates and a place in today's final of the Honda Challenge seniors tournament at the Royal Albert Hall.

The temperature in a hard-fought, beautifully played contest suddenly shot up late in the second set when the 40-year-old McEnroe, winner of this event in the past two years, was victim of an overrule by the umpire George Grime which cost him a point. These two have gone head-to-head several times before (Grime was the "disgrace to mankind" at Wimbledon 1981) and for a while it looked like a rematch might be on.

McEnroe had just been broken serving for the match and after the overrule on the first point of the next game - on a forehand of his which certainly looked over the baseline, to give Grime his due - the old warrior stared long and hard, hands on hips in that prepare-for-hostilities mode. He had a brief chat with the official about it, stalled around subsequently to indicate his deep displeasure and indulged in a longer bitch when a Bates serve which he considered long was adjudged good by Grime.

So then, John, why no rerun of Krakatoa? "This is such a beautiful place to play tennis it didn't seem appropriate to have some of that," said McEnroe.

"I don't think ultimately you need it," he added, while admitting that in other places the explosion might have happened. Where, for instance? Croatia, he replied, where he won the seniors' title two weeks ago. "They are in disbelief out there if I don't get upset," he explained.

The 37-year-old Bates, for too many years the poor devil who shouldered alone the burden that is British tennis, is now the Lawn Tennis Association's manager of national training and got into this event on a wild card when Pat Cash withdrew from the singles. That turned out to be a stroke of good fortune for a packed Hall, who enjoyed the best match of the week.

Bates had finally bested Yannick Noah past midnight on Friday to earn a semi-final spot, got to sleep at 3.30 and was up again by eight. It's a formula he might care to repeat, since he went off like a rocket yesterday.

Probably he was thinking that, in their only previous match, at Washington in 1994 on the ATP circuit, he had beaten McEnroe in three sets. A repeat of that looked on the cards for a while. McEnroe, in baggy white shorts and with his shirt hanging out, started with an ace but it was rapidly clear he would be extended by the Englishman's speed around the court and depth of shot.

There was the rare sight of the sublime McEnroe grunting and scuffling after the ball and the even rarer one of him dropping serve for the first time in the tournament when Bates broke to lead 2-1. Another confident game from Bates, taking him to 3-1, also induced the first McEnroe glower of the week.

The response was sheer McEnroe, sheer genius. He surged through the next five games at a cost of five points to win the set in 34 minutes, carving away his volleys as of old. The revival came just in time to prevent a distress flare from the organisers, aghast at the prospect of their champion outward bound on this morning's Concorde to New York.

Again Bates took a 2-0 lead in the second set, only to be pegged back once more. In the fifth game of that set came the rally of the tournament - smashes, lobs, full-blooded drives. McEnroe thought he had won it, only for Bates to strike an incredible winning forehand which left the American flat out and face down like a beaten prizefighter. He eventually hoisted himself to his feet, offered his opponent a thumbs up and was lectured by a member of the audience: "You'd have got that 10 years ago."

When McEnroe broke Bates to lead 5-4 and served for the match it looked all over but he too was broken when he floated a backhand long. "I am going to go back to my room and think I should have held serve at 5-4," he said. "Then none of the other stuff would have happened."

But it did. And clearly it upset McEnroe more than anyone else. When the set moved into a tiebreak he played it poorly after disputing Bates's ace on the opening point. That was enough to take the match, not into a third set but a "Champions Tiebreak" in which the first to amass 10 points wins the match.

By now McEnroe was well buttoned down. Wearing a clean shirt and walloping a brace of aces to take his total in the match to nine, he ran away with it 10-4 to win in an hour and 44 minutes. At the end the winner told the loser they would like to see more of him on the Seniors' Tour, which chuffed Jeremy no end.

McEnroe faces Leconte in the final. Leconte needed 22 minutes less than McEnroe to see off Jimmy Connors 6-4 7-6 in the other semi-final, winning the tiebreak by seven points to four.

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