Stich falls to the old glory of McEnroe

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The Independent Online

At 44, John McEnroe is in this afternoon's final of the Honda Challenge seniors event at the Royal Albert Hall. He got there by overhauling and wearing down Michael Stich, at 35 nine years his junior, 6-3 7-5 in a semi-final overflowing with glorious strokes, admirable commitment and the inevitable eruptions from the winner on close points.

In the final game of the 82- minute match, McEnroe was still hyper enough to berate a line judge for "a brutal call" which robbed him of what he considered an ace.

It was Stich who wrecked McEnroe's hopes of a semi-final place at this event a year ago and, perhaps more relevantly, the German crushed him 6-4 6-0 in the final of a seniors event in Portugal in the summer. Such losses still do not sit well with a competitor of McEnroe's renown, and he flew into London on a torrent of confidence with the comment that he had not played better for 10 years.

This was not a boast, either, as McEnroe proceeded to prove. Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, is reported to have filled out a little, but at 6ft 4in there remains much acreage to be accommodated. The courtside commentator had introduced McEnroe, three times winner of this event in the late Nineties, as "a tennis marvel", and wondered: "How does he keep on doing it?"

McEnroe promptly demonstrated how. By genius, and with a fire which never needs stoking. For example, the point which engineered the service break which decided the first set was a full-pelt dash in pursuit of a Stich drop-shot. Not only did McEnroe reach the ball but he managed to smack the return hard at his opponent's body. Some would call this mean-spirited. Let's just say it showed how the competitive juices still flow.

The volcano's lid remained in place until just before the end of the first set, when a perceived ace did not impress umpire Jeremy Shales, an experienced official whose hide is pitted with shrapnel marks from previous run-ins with the New Yorker. "Was that three, four or five inches out?" he wanted to know.

Rather than complain, McEnroe should have been (and perhaps was) quietly congratulating himself on a glittering opening set in which he dropped just five points on serve. And this having watched Stich make a jet-propelled start to the match with three aces in succession.

Stich thumped 10 aces in all, but they dried up just as he looked capable of capturing the set. One of them drew one of McEnroe's cannot-be-serious tirades as he informed Shales: "You cannot call that ball good", and dressed down the female line-judge.

Stich's laconic response was to win the next point, and the game, with another ace, and McEnroe, apparently tiring, had to save three break points in the next game. The respite was brief. Stich finally broke the McEnroe serve to lead 5-3 and immediately found himself just two points from levelling the match. "He thought it was one-set all right there," said McEnroe.

Close, but not close enough. Unwisely, Stich attempted a drop shot which plopped into the net to offer McEnroe a break-back point, which he seized with a glorious forehand return. Thus inspired, the grand old champion swept the next three games, too. "All of a sudden I had the momentum," he said. "I felt it was my chance to finish it off, and when he played a loose game at 5-5 I knew it was over."

Stich dropped serve for the third time to leave McEnroe to serve for the match, which he did in most savage fashion. Starting with an ace, he overcame the linesman's "brutal" rejection of an ace and closed it out with his seventh ace.

Having won here from 1997-99, McEnroe had been steadily losing ground ­ until this year. McEnroe explained it thus: "I combated those set-backs by trying to get myself a little stronger, and I thought this year I was at least going to get to the semis. I feel this is as well as I have ever played on the seniors tour. I can still hit harder if I need to."

It makes ominous news this afternoon for Guy Forget, a 7-6 6-3 winner over his French compatriot Henry Leconte in the other semi.