NEW YORK — Say what you will about John McEnroe, the Prince of Pout, the Court Crybaby, the No. 1 male tennis player in the world. If nothing else, he is a fighter. And on center court at the U.S. Open, when your survival is on the line and it’s about a million degrees and you’re losing bad and 20,000 New Yorkers are screaming at you and a Swedish robot across the net is picking you apart, well, being a fighter is what it’s about.
Saturday afternoon it was about three hours and 49 minutes worth of racket-to-bloody-racket combat — McEnroe versus Mats Wilander, U.S. Open semifinal — on a day in which summer decided to kiss off the Big Apple in a Big Way. Courtside temperature was 114 degrees. Hey, they were carrying the fans out in droves. No such luck for the players.
So they swatted, and dived, and drop-shotted, and chased down each other’s shots and doused themselves with water in those precious seconds they got to sit down between sets.
It seemed almost too hot to keep track of the score, and then, suddenly, 140 minutes in, there they were, Wilander comfortably ahead 2-1 in sets and leading 2-0 in games in the fourth and appearing well on his way to knocking off McEnroe, the prince of this city.
They lined up for Game 3, and here’s where the naked sunlight told it all. Both were soaked with sweat, but Wilander seemed to be sweating ice.
McEnroe was sweating blood.
OH, THE SUBPLOTS here went much deeper than what you saw on television. For here was the No. 1 player in the world facing the man who many think could be No. 1 if he really wanted to. Wilander is, at 21, an incredible tennis talent. But people question his desire, the way he seems to loaf through the smaller tournaments.
Earlier this week, McEnroe had scolded him in the press: “You can’t be No. 1 by going through the back door. That’s what he’s trying to do. Just slip in, win a tournament here, win one there.”
But now, at center court, with the world watching, Wilander had McMouth on the ropes. He had played brilliantly, coming to the net, winning the first and third sets by whipping balls that screamed past the tip of McEnroe’s racket as if radar-directed.
“Who wants to be No. 1?” Wilander seemed to say. “Suck it up, John. Show me who.”
McEnroe paced the court, like a lion before the kill. He yelled at cameramen, at spectators, at himself. It revived him. It always does.
He slammed several shots past Wilander. He won a game. And when Wilander hit long and lost the next one, McEnroe let loose a guttural “Yeeeeahhh!” that seemed to quake the very court that had been so favorable to his opponent. He must have scared the hell out of it. It was never the same.
Five games later they were even, two sets apiece, and headed for the Last Chance Zone.
BY THIS POINT the heat was a sealed dome atop the stadium. Fans were slumped over like unhinged scarecrows, too pooped even to go for a Coke. And the players? Well, the sun had sweated off nearly everything extraneous from their bodies. All that remained was will and bones.
Wilander won the first two games. But McEnroe was merely catching his breath. He came back again, taking balls that zoomed at him at 100 m.p.h. and playing them off his racket strings like a kid’s ukulele. Pluck it here. Drop it there.
McEnroe tied it at 2-2, went ahead 3-2, then 4-2. Each win got another
“yeeeaah!” along with a few fists waved in triumph. Who wants it? Who wants it?
At 5-3, he must have known the answer. And Wilander knew, too. The Swede lofted a return high and soft — which McEnroe slammed back halfway through the concrete — and Wilander simply raised his arms in surrender. Three points later it was over, and the crowd roared with whatever energy hadn’t been sapped.
You want it, you take it. A fighter’s credo.
McEnroe plopped into his chair as a crowd of photographers encircled him. He ignored them, pouring water on his head, sucking cup after cup down his throat. Wilander left the court quickly.
There used to be a motto amongst cocky New York street toughs: “You mess with the best, you end up like the rest.”
The rest are in a pile. McEnroe’s in the final.