Torquemada Courier puts McEnroe on rack

Despite his brave attempts to discount an 11-year age gap, the Masters title which John McEnroe has won four times in seven years was torn from his grip at the semi-final stage in London's Royal Albert Hall yesterday. So Jim Courier, at 34, moved to within a step of this afternoon's $100,000 winner-take-all prize, while the 45-year-old McEnroe, as indestructible as they come in this sport, said he would be back next year "if they invite me". They wouldn't dare refuse. In the final Courier will face Austria's Thomas Muster, who defeated Anders Jarryd 3-6 4-3 when the Swede defaulted with a shoulder injury.

Despite his brave attempts to discount an 11-year age gap, the Masters title which John McEnroe has won four times in seven years was torn from his grip at the semi-final stage in London's Royal Albert Hall yesterday. So Jim Courier, at 34, moved to within a step of this afternoon's $100,000 winner-take-all prize, while the 45-year-old McEnroe, as indestructible as they come in this sport, said he would be back next year "if they invite me". They wouldn't dare refuse. In the final Courier will face Austria's Thomas Muster, who defeated Anders Jarryd 3-6 4-3 when the Swede defaulted with a shoulder injury.

There had been attempts to hype Courier-McEnroe as a grudge match at the conclusion of the Delta Tour of Champions season, but they chose not to play tennis with a snarl. After all, they run businesses close to each other in Lower Manhattan and frequently enjoy a game together in New York. As Courier generously acknowledged after his 7-5 7-6 (7-4) victory: "When I moved to New York four years ago John kinda took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. But we both bring that kind of energy to the practice court as well."

The one hour 45 minute contest was not without the odd glare, curled lip or outburst. How could it be otherwise when McEnroe is involved on a seniors circuit where he reckons, perhaps only half in jest, that the requirement to rant is written into his contract?

This is Courier's first year on the Tour of Champions. The man who twice won both the French and Australian Opens showed the ability to pound a tennis ball remains very much within his remit by easily topping the rankings in the six run-up events to this Masters tournament. He hammered away at McEnroe and one of his winners, a half-volley from behind the baseline which rocketed past his incoming opponent, would not have been out of place in Roger Federer's glittering repertoire. But the Grand Old Groaner stayed with him virtually to the last rally, despite sounding at times as if he was in the hands of Torquemada as he stretched and reached, gasped and grunted. It was, as Courier said, "high-energy stuff".

The speed of the Albert Hall's carpet has long been a blessing to McEnroe's serve and volley skills. He knows the territory and works it well. So well that he easily kept pace with Courier in the early stages, which were distinguished by McEnroe's overruling a lineswoman's fault call on a Courier serve and declaring it an ace. "That's the first time you've done that," said an astonished Courier. "You owe me 500," quipped McEnroe, presumably meaning dollars.

The McEnroe benevolence did not last. Despite the clear support of the audience, he was broken in the 12th game of the opening set, pushed on to the back foot by the quality of Courier's passing shots, and the response was to hurl his racket the width of the court.

It was McEnroe's inability to convert break points (he managed only one out of five) which prevented him extending, or even possibly winning, this match. The one break he did contrive, which put him 3-2 up in the second set, was annulled three games later as he dropped serve to a Courier backhand pass of the highest calibre. By this stage of his life, McEnroe is able to spot writing when it is on the wall, and he reacted by staggering to the side of the court, collapsing on his back and lying there for the best part of a minute. This was followed by his first high decibel rant, but by then the match was an hour and 24 minutes old, so it qualified as gesture politics only.

Sure enough, Courier ran out a clear winner of the second set tie-break and after accepting the applause he generously indicated that his opponent deserved some, too. He got it.

Afterwards, McEnroe confirmed he would probably be in next year's line-up. "I feel I can hang on a bit longer," he said. "Obviously my days are numbered but I am going to work hard and keep my options open. I lost 5 and 6 to Jim Courier, I have nothing to hang my head about."

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