McEnroe rolls back years to set up match with 'young gun' Courier

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Fourteen years have elapsed, but those of us who were there to see the gobsmacked look on John McEnroe's face when he was disqualified at the Australian Open find it impossible to see him back on a court with Mikael Pernfors without being reminded of that historic moment in Melbourne in 1990.

The sanction happened a decade too late to make a difference to the course of the turbulent New Yorker's career, and the majority of seasoned tennis reporters, if they are honest, will say amen to that. McEnroe made it easy for us to be sanctimonious about his tantrums while secretly hoping he would never change. "Ban McEnroe!" we would demand, adding, under our breath, "but bring him back next week so he can be banned again."

Now a feisty 45, he is still wowing the crowds with his touch and temper, though nowadays the antics tend to be tongue-in-cheek. Yesterday McEnroe defeated Pernfors, 7-6, 6-4, to advance to the semi-finals of the Masters Championship here, drawing rounds of nostalgic applause with deathless utterances such as, "That ball was on the line!"

Today brings McEnroe his biggest challenge of the week when he plays his American compatriot Jim Courier, the 34-year-old world No 1 on the Delta Tour of Champions.

Courier defeated Guy Forget, of France, in the quarter-finals yesterday, 6-4, 7-6. A high-quality contest eventually petered out during the second-set tie-break, in which the tiring Forget started beating his racket on the ground in frustration en route to losing the shoot-out, 7-3.

McEnroe and Courier, occasional practice partners, have been talking up the duel for weeks. It will be their first match on the senior tour, Courier having won two of their three meetings on the ATP Tour.

Would McEnroe have benefited from being disqualified, say, at his "Pits of the World" Wimbledon in 1981? "Umpires say that, but look at my record. Lots of players have been disqualified more times than I was. Perhaps I would have won more and been more boring. Who knows? Who cares?

"I remember walking down the Kings Road 26 years ago when bad things were being written about me and people were very supportive, shouting things like, 'Go, Johnny Mac!' Now I think people respect the effort I've put into the game and, after hearing me do commentary, I think they understand me a little better."

McEnroe was not chuffed yesterday to be asked to open the afternoon session, at the behest of BBC television, having played the previous night against Richard Krajicek. The Dutchman won, 6-4, 6-7 and 10-7 in a champions' tie-break, which meant both qualified for the quarter-finals at Boris Becker's expense.

Pernfors' fitness and topspin ensured that the spectators saw an entertaining contest, which lasted an hour and 48 minutes. McEnroe, when not examining the lines with the zeal of a pathologist, hitting balls in anger or raging at the umpire, John Parry, he punched many a volley.

Leading 4-3 in the second set, he was disturbed by a shout from the crowd and did not complete a second serve. Parry told him to take a first serve. Looking down the court at Pernfors, McEnroe said, "It's a new rule for a guy over 45."

"What about me?" the Swede said.

"How old are you?" McEnroe asked.

"41," Pernfors told him.

"You've got to wait a couple more years," McEnroe said.

"What if I feel 45?" Pernfors retorted.

The crowd-pleasing banter complemented the free-flowing tennis, featuring many impressive rallies. "He played exceptionally well," McEnroe said. "He's good at coming up with strange-looking shots that are hard to read."

McEnroe read them well enough in the opening games and broke for 4-2 in the first set. Pernfors fought back, recovering the break. McEnroe then double-faulted to 5-6, but Pernfors was unable to serve the set out and lost the tie-break, 7-3.

Pernfors was broken for 2-3 in the second set, but still forced McEnroe to produce some fine tennis to hold on to the lead.

Asked about his ethos about questioning calls throughout his stormy career, McEnroe said: "It goes back to the days when I was a kid and we called out our own lines. I was taught if there's a doubt, don't call it in, if there's not a doubt call it out." And so he has.

Masters Championship (Royal Albert Hall, London) quarter-finals: J McEnroe (US) bt M Pernfors 7-6 6-4; J Courier (US) by G Forget (Fr) 6-4 7-6.