NEW YORK — Now everyone is behind him, even the people who used to think he was a little snot. That’s what happens when you get older and you get married and you lose your hair and then some young stud comes and knocks you off your throne. If you’re lucky, when it happens, you get to go home with your trophies. If you’re real lucky, you’ve got money in the bank. But if you’re truly blessed, then you get one last return ticket, one more ride for the old kingdom. You are Elvis sliding back into the black leather, the guitar tuned and ready, and even the kids’ parents are cheering you now.
That’s what is happening with John McEnroe. He is once again the best story in tennis, all of a sudden, thanks to what he is doing at this U.S. Open, the same tournament where he first pushed through the curtain 13 years ago as a mop-headed ball of fire. He made the semifinals that year, when he was supposedly too young to do it.
And Wednesday night, when he was supposedly too old, he did it again. The guy across the net this time was a 21-year- old named David Wheaton, a Minnesota kid who maybe once in his pajamas watched McEnroe play on TV. And now Mac was playing Wheaton like a Nintendo game.
On set point in the first set, McEnroe lowered the boom and aced him. Wheaton barely saw it. On set point in the second, McEnroe came to the net and slammed the ball off the concrete. Wheaton had no chance.
By match point, just around 10 o’clock, McEnroe, 31, was all the way back to his youth, he had that look, and you could hear his grunt way up in the press box. His serve came down the line and Wheaton, totally outfoxed now, muffed the ball into the net. McEnroe raised his fists.
For one wonderful New York moment, it was McEnroe beating Borg, beating Gerulaitis, beating Connors. Everything old was new again. Catching his shadow
This was one of those great sports moments that gets you all goose bumpy. Johnny Mac left a lot of people shaking their heads on his way up, but now, suddenly, those same people are sliding into his stable. They forget about the tantrums and the racket tosses and the time he threw sawdust at a fan, they forget or they just push those things aside, because 1) They have Andre Agassi to hate now and 2) McEnroe has become sympathetic, he went from one of
“them” to one of “us,” somewhere, I’m guessing, around his 30th birthday. He now suffers the one affliction that unites the masses, rich and poor, Cadillac and Chevette: he is getting older.
So he is getting human.
“When I first won this thing, I was 19, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” McEnroe was saying after beating Wheaton, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, to reach the semis, something he hasn’t done here in five years. “I think in some ways, that’s why I was able to do it. I didn’t even think about it.
“It’s only now, 10 or 12 years later, you realize how hard it was to do that. And knowing that makes it harder to do it again.”
Chris Evert is gone. Jimmy Connors might as well be. Now McEnroe is the last of that American trio to chase his shadow. It has not been pretty. He let marriage and children and boredom loosen his grip on the racket. He fell out of the rankings. And some of his comebacks have been like watching Bojangles dance in that New Orleans prison cell.
But now, in his hometown, as an unseeded player, McEnroe is suddenly catching his shadow, who knows for how long, maybe just one last run, like Kareem in the 1988 NBA championships or Nicklaus at the 1988 Masters.
His face has not changed. It still sags around the corners of the mouth, giving him that petulant look. His body is still gaunt, and his shirts hang loose, as if his shoulders were a wire coat hanger. The curly hairline has receded over the years, like a rising curtain, and he wears bandanas around his forehead to suck up perspiration, although it sometimes makes him look as if he just stepped out of “The Killing Fields.”
But Wednesday night, in the final set, he pulled off the bandana, and let the warm night air play on his skin. He looked younger. The field was concrete.
And he was doing the killing. His is a thinking game
It was beautiful to watch. He was back to his old game, the big serve, the great net play, returning volleys with such touch, Lord, it’s as if he were catching bullets and tossing them back over the net. You watch McEnroe, and you can see the thinking in his game. He is like the ultimate Pong machine; he always puts the ball where the other player isn’t.
“My style isn’t popular now. But one day, someone will come along who plays
like me. . . . I just hope it isn’t while I’m around.”
And he allowed a tired smile. Two more wins, and he has the best story of the year in his pocket — before his most appreciative audience.
A few hours before McEnroe-Wheaton, Ivan Lendl, a guy who has made the finals here the last eight years, was beaten by a relative unknown in five sets, a kid named Pete Sampras who is all of 19 years old. He will be the next cookie-eater to challenge McEnroe. Late Wednesday night, McEnroe was asked about Lendl’s now-dead streak.
He shrugged. This is what McEnroe said: “All things come to an end sooner or later.”
But once in a magical while, they start over.