McEnroe preaches the gospel of his passion play to young Britons

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The Independent Online

Just in case you think he cannot be serious, John McEnroe insists that, at the age of 44, he is not joking when he claims he can win this week's Honda Challenge seniors tournament at London's Royal Albert Hall.

"I'm playing better now than since I started on the seniors tour and generally I feel better than I have felt for 10 years," said McEnroe in the aftermath of last week's capture of the Monte Carlo title which confirmed him as Champion of the Oldies for 2003.

McEnroe won the London event three straight years from 1997-99, was runner-up to Pat Cash in 2000, a semi-finalist in 2001 and last year failed to reach the knock-out stages. All of which would seem to mark the inevitable decline of one of the sport's greats. But in the Monte Carlo final McEnroe crushed Petr Korda 6-1 6-2 and Korda, nine years Johnny Mac's junior, is the Albert Hall's current champion, a title he will be unable to defend next week because of knee trouble.

That said, McEnroe readily acknowledges: "My days are numbered, though I'm hoping to squeeze another year or so, just like Andre [Agassi] keeps doing on the main tour. Until something comes along that is more enjoyable, it's quite nice still to be competing."

The British juniors McEnroe had just cajoled through a punishing coaching session at the Lawn Tennis Association's indoor courts would endorse the man's durability. Having won Monte Carlo last Sunday, he was in action with those juniors at Barons Court by 9am on Monday, flew off to play Boris Becker in Hanover on Tuesday, went home to New York for the Thanksgiving weekend and will be back in London on Tuesday raring to play, and talk, around the clock.

McEnroe is, of course, by some distance the oldest in the eight-man line-up which should also include Becker, Guy Forget, Michael Stich, Mats Wilander, Jeremy Bates, Henri Leconte and Mikael Pernfors, but he remains, without question, the marquee name to whom the tottering seniors tour clings, just as it did in its formative days to Jimmy Connors.

So would the senior tour nosedive without you, John? "It could, yeah," was the reply. In his wake, there has been little interest in joining the senior tour from champions such as Stefan Edberg, and the promised input by Becker has been spasmodic. "In America it's on life support since they pulled the plug after 9/11 two years ago. It's a group of people keeping it together in Europe, otherwise there wouldn't be any tour right now."

Naturally, McEnroe has a solution. "There should be a seniors singles event at Wimbledon and the US Open, other Grand Slams and big championships like Rome. Combined with the present top indoor tournaments like the Albert Hall, that would make sense. It is the perfect example of something that could help the sport and is not utilised properly."

As for handing over the baton, McEnroe said: "Becker [a late withdrawal from Monte Carlo] is a key guy, but he is fickle. He does have a body that breaks down, so it takes a lot to get him ready and it's difficult for him to play four or five matches in a row, which is what we have to do at the Albert Hall. But how often, at our age, are you 100 per cent fit? Basically none of the time. Pride comes into it.

"It's not like Boris is taking the money and running. He is simply choosing not to play because he doesn't want to go out there and look bad, so you can't blame him for that. I agree you have to play hurt, but people have different pain-tolerance and pride levels."

Pride is one of the things that McEnroe will be attempting to instil in his occasional coaching sessions for the LTA. A spot of ruthlessness and some inspiration, too. "It's not about teaching everyone the same game," he insisted. "Certainly you need to form good practice habits, but I don't believe you should play six hours a day, 12 months a year. I didn't do that. Too much time on court ends up being a negative.

"I have proven that I can play, now I have to prove that I can coach. I didn't do all that great as Davis Cup captain, I grew frustrated with that rather quickly. But I would rather work with these teenagers. Ultimately that's what I am more interested in. Hopefully I can provide the fire and get them saying, 'That old fart, he still tries in practice, so maybe I'll try harder next time.' The LTA have recognised that and want me involved in some way. That's a start. It's like the BBC when they hired me to do Wimbledon commentary, they were looking for a change, a different flavour."

A forced injection of attitude is what is needed, he thinks, in British youngsters he criticised last week as lazy and in need of a push. "That's why the LTA are looking to bring me into the fold, because attitude is something I bring to the equation. That is why I won a lot of events, because I tried harder and played harder, wanted it more. The timing of me starting this awareness is great, because England have just won the rugby. That should tell young tennis people, 'Hey, who's to say I can't win?' The plan is for me to provide that inspiration."

McEnroe's umbrella might even be extended to Tim Henman, currently without a coach. "Would I work with him? Sure. Tim's win in Paris was a satisfying way to end the year, and by the time Wimbledon comes around he should be back in the top 10 and well placed." Well placed enough to win? "He has a legitimate chance, but as the years go by it's not going to get any easier."

Perhaps Henman should treat himself to a lesson or two from the great man, if only in the art of enduring excellence.

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