Scary intensity of McEnroe double act

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The Independent Online

In this age of Lleytons, Rafaels, Felicianos and Sébastiens, the clash of three Johns and a Peter could only be a match in the over-45s men's doubles.

But when one of the Johns is surnamed McEnroe, it becomes a match worth watching, not least for Richard Williams, the flakily charismatic father of Venus, who warmed up for his daughter's appointment with Mary Pierce by watching his compatriots McEnroe and Peter Fleming beat the British pair John Feaver and John Lloyd in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. And he so enjoyed himself that afterwards, from his seat in the Court Two press box, he exhorted the venerable quartet to pose for his ever-present camera.

That McEnroe cracked a small smile for this photo-call perhaps said more about old man Williams than himself. The wise-cracking television commentator is still a scarily intense competitor, and certainly didn't get where he is today by treating a tennis court as a place for levity. Not even when his BBC colleague Lloyd is on the other side of the net. Not even when the match is over.

On the other hand, he was surely having a bit of fun by wearing cut-off trousers à la Rafael Nadal, not to mention a blue bandanna, which completed the piratical look. Or was he? Maybe he was making a serious point, that even grey-haired, middle-aged fathers of seven should be allowed to make fashion statements.

Whatever, his tennis is still in impressive shape. Clive James wrote 25 years ago that McEnroe looked as if he was serving around the corner of an imaginary building, and he still does, except more so. Moreover, it remains a devil of a serve to return, one minute kicking up, the next skidding through. He is the Shane Warne to his prodigiously tall partner's Steve Harmison: McEnroe makes it do a bit off the turf; Fleming gets steepling bounce.

The double-act still works well, but then, to nobody's surprise, it wasn't tested much in this first-round match. The pinnacle of Feaver's career in the men's doubles here was a quarter-final in 1981, the year McEnroe won his first Wimbledon singles title. Lloyd went the same distance, but no further, in 1982. By contrast, McEnroe and Fleming won the doubles together four times, in 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1984. And McEnroe claimed the title again, with Michael Stich, in 1992.

Age as well as pedigree was on the side of the American pair; Feaver is 53, Lloyd 51, Fleming 50 and McEnroe 46. Never mind the premature exit of Serena Williams, the shock of Wimbledon so far would have been a victory for Feaver and Lloyd, the more so as Lloyd, bless him, is a bit of a crock these days, his legs getting bandier and less reliable with every passing year. He was the weakest link, losing his serve to love in the second set's proverbially vital seventh game.

Feaver, though, was something of a revelation, his reflexes at the net as sharp if not as a cut-throat razor then at least of a reasonably new Philishave. And for a while he single-handedly kept defeat at bay with a series of stout returns of Fleming overheads. It was a pleasant way for those watching to spend a sunny afternoon, even in the knowledge that the important stuff was unfolding elsewhere. After all, McEnroe doesn't have to do much more than pick his nose to be a draw at Wimbledon.

He did not, however, to the palpable regret of a packed crowd, throw a single wobbly. And there was only one audible obscenity, a terse "bullshit" when a second serve was ruled out as he served for the match. Still, there was value in the way he repeatedly looked at the baseline, as if it had insulted his mother, and his expression was a study after he missed an easy volley in the first game of the second set. Fleming slammed his racket to the ground in mock annoyance and yelled to a delighted crowd, "I've been putting up with that for 30 years!" McEnroe plainly did not know whether to smile or scowl. In the end, true to form, he chose the scowl.

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