WIMBLEDON, England — To tell the truth I always liked John McEnroe, and this, to some people, is like admitting you eat garbage. McEnroe was a brat, foulmouthed, temperamental, but I am a sports fan, I watch baseball and football. I am used to such things.

The fact is, the people who, over the years, clucked their tongues at McEnroe were usually the Perrier water crowd, the type who watch Wimbledon and maybe a golf tournament here or there. They are entitled to their opinions. They are not entitled to be called sports fans. Anyone who has ever sat in the bleachers or gulped a hot dog doesn’t really care if a player screams and hollers at the ref. Most of us are doing it anyhow.

What’s the difference, really, between Earl Weaver kicking dirt on an umpire and McEnroe telling a Wimbledon official, “YOU ARE THE PITS OF THE WORLD!” But tennis purists found a difference. Tough. McEnroe was never pure. He clomped around the court with his shirt untucked, his skin sunburnt, whacking his serve like a baseball player and making a face as if he just smelled sushi. The guy is from Queens. Whaddya want?

Sure, he was childish. Sure, he made us wince. But with a temper hot as lava, he won it all, he was No. 1, king of his world — and then he disappeared, dropped out of tennis; when he came back, time and age had thrown dirt on his flame. He has not won a major tournament since. He has not won Wimbledon in five years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him play an important match here, but upon my arrival Saturday, there he was, in the third round, trying to climb the tennis mountain from the other side now — the side of daddy, husband, man of the house.

And I, for one, hope he gets there. He sacrificed intensity

There are reasons to like McEnroe more these days. For one thing, he is 30 and losing his hair, which makes him instantly sympathetic to a whole generation. For another thing, he recently said: “If Michael Chang reaches the Wimbledon finals, I will drop my pants at Centre Court.” Now, you have to admit, that’s cheeky.

Most big stars tend to fade out of real life. McEnroe, at the top of his game, faded back into it. He was lost, for the last few years, in the type of things we, the common people, embrace: marriage, a wife, children, two boys. And while it is true that McEnroe can afford housekeepers and toys from FAO Schwartz, it is also true that he has lasted three years with actress Tatum O’Neal, longer than most star marriages, and he has also changed diapers.

Not his own.

“What have you lost since the old days?” he was asked Saturday, after disposing of Jim Pugh in three sets to advance to Wimbledon’s round of 16.

“Intensity,” he said, without hesitation. “Intensity was the edge I had on people. It was like Lendl’s physical talents, or Becker’s serve. No one was as intense as me. . . .

“It was very successful, but it overwhelmed my life. That’s why I took a step back. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that intense again. I don’t really want to be the best if I have to be that way. . . . “

Now, such words might surprise you coming from McEnroe, but they shouldn’t. All along he has been educated, introspective, and, deep down, not a bad guy. He gives untold time and money to charity (rarely reported) and he stuck by America’s Davis Cup squad (the equivalent of our national tennis team) while others were bailing out.

McEnroe’s problem was his timing. Like a clown caught naked by the spotlight, his most embarrassing deeds were in public, center court. A football player can curse his opponent (it’s almost expected). A basketball coach can throw a fit on the bench (ask Chuck Daly). But a tennis player is supposed to be as clean as his tennis whites. Sue him. He should have been a defensive tackle.

So he screamed at the officials. Really, is that so awful? He admits now he needed that intensity to reach his best level of tennis — which for a good long time was the best in the world. It’s funny that Jimmy Connors — not McEnroe — has been forgiven his youthful tantrums and accepted as a good guy. Connors is a snake, he’ll lie to your face. McEnroe, while temperamental and childish, is guilty only of being honest. His game is a throwback

Watch McEnroe at a press conference. He looks away when he answers, strangers make him uneasy, and he often says the wrong thing. But Saturday, he said the tennis monster he created was impossible to feed once a wife and child arrived; so instead of dumping the home life, he dumped the beast.

I don’t know about you, but I give a guy like that credit. And, personally,

I want him out here as long as he can last. His game is artful, smart, a throwback in these days of power serves. And he’s . . . interesting. Even when he yells. This will make tennis purists vomit, but if Mats Wilander pulled up lame and Stefan Edberg got a sudden call home to Sweden, I wouldn’t flinch. If McEnroe got knocked out next round, it would bug me.

He is the oldest male player left at Wimbledon and likely the wisest he has been to the mountaintop and wants to “win one more.” Call me a jerk. But I want him in the finals a week from today.

Unless of course, it’s against Chang, which means he’d have to drop his pants. I like McEnroe.

But I don’t want to see that much of him.

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