WIMBLEDON, England — My old girlfriend used to date John McEnroe. Really. Back at Stanford. That’s what she said. She always would tell me how smart he was, how sensitive he was, how misunderstood he was by the general public. And I would say, “Yeah, I can see why you dumped him for me.”
Actually, I was intrigued by what she said, me being a sports writer and all. So whenever I went to tennis tournaments, I listened carefully to McEnroe, looking for that intelligence, looking for that sensitivity, looking for that chance to grab him in the parking lot and say, “Hey, pal, you ever come ’round looking for her I’ll beat the crap out of you!”
Actually, I made that last part up. But the thing is, what she said, my old girlfriend? She was right. If you get past the temper tantrums and crybaby garbage that always have soiled his career, McEnroe is actually a rare breed of athlete: He has something to say — about tennis, about life. He is smart, believe it or not. He’s going bald, and he wears those big, stupid, paisley headbands that make him look as if he were shot in the head in the battle of Valley Forge, and I hope my old girlfriend has noticed this, wherever she is. But he is smart.
And as he gets older, he shows that more and more — particularly after losses, when in addition to getting angry, he now gets philosophical. Take Tuesday at Wimbledon. McEnroe was eliminated in the fourth round by yet another young player who was in high school when McEnroe owned the game. This time it was Stefan Edberg, the defending Wimbledon champion. Straight sets, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-4. That’s seven straight years since Mac has seen a Wimbledon final. He used to own this place.
“Do you think at your age (32) you can ever win here again?” he was asked, a question that was journalistic suicide a few years ago.
Now McEnroe sighed. “It’s a long shot. Hope springs eternal. But I’m certainly not going to bet my whole life savings on it.”
He laughed. “Or even a portion.”
He laughed? Other interests dulled the edge
This is not the same pudgy McEnroe whose face got so red when he lost, he seemed ready to implode. Not the same spoiled kid from Queens who always knew,
deep down, how gifted he was, and so he couldn’t stand it when someone outplayed him, McEnroe wanted to kill him.
No, here is a McEnroe who changes diapers, and goes to bed early, who has three children with wife Tatum O’Neal and who realizes, because of that, he has burned bridges and can’t go back. The Maturation of John McEnroe is an old story, everyone knows he left the game for a while, got married, had kids and never rediscovered the hellfire that once possessed him.
What is new are his explanations. They get more introspective as he gets older.
“Sports are really selfish,” he was saying now, scratching his forehead in the basement of the stadium. “Especially an individual sport like this. Years ago, tennis was my whole life. If you beat me, you took away everything. I could never understand how some players lost their concentration during a match. I always thought, ‘If you’re a real tennis player, you don’t lose your concentration.’
“Now, it happens to me out there sometimes. It’s so much tougher when you have other interests. You see the world differently. I have three children that I love, a wife that I love. . . .
“When you’re younger you take it all for granted. Then suddenly, you’re older and you say, ‘Wait a minute. . . .’ I had two years I didn’t even play here. And I was much better then than I am now.” He shook his head, as if wondering how he could get those years back. Even the tantrums are nostalgia
The answer is: He can’t. Sure, he’ll have splashes of the old days, days when he was the best act in tennis. He’ll have those grunting serves, which blister past opponents, and those volleys that fall dead in the corners or on the lines, classic McEnroe stuff. And yes, he will continue to dump on the umpires, he even did it Tuesday, screaming like a teenager: “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! THAT BALL WAS OUT BY THAT MUCH! . . .”
But even the tantrums are nostalgia now, like hearing “Thanks for the Memories” whenever Bob Hope walks onstage. McEnroe cannot sustain the old stuff game after game, match after match. On Tuesday, he played Edberg dead even the first set. The crowd was electrified. But in the tiebreak, McEnroe slipped, committed a double fault. Edberg won that set, and took 12 of the next 17 games to sweep the match.
Now, in the basement, McEnroe was wrestling with the age thing. “You feel so close, you want to keep giving it a shot. But there’s a certain point where you have to cut your losses. . . . “
It hasn’t come yet for McEnroe. But it is on the way. Maybe there is one more shining moment inside that racket, maybe not. But how ironic that, as the years pass, we see less of the tennis that made the man, and more of the man who made the tennis. As he left the room Tuesday, here was the last comment John McEnroe made: “Life is just one long learning experience.” The reporters burst out laughing. “Hey,” they seemed to say, “this guy is smarter than we thought.”
Yeah. Somewhere, far away, my old girlfriend was nodding smugly.