And Suddenly He's A Man Of Clay

Amid the suits and slurs at Forest Hills, John McEnroe showed he can really dish it out on the dirt
May 15, 1983

While most everyone in tennis was either getting sued, splitting up or whapping balls at one another, the most astonishing thing John McEnroe did last week wasn't to declare war on half the population of Czechoslovakia, as it originally seemed. It was to learn how to win on clay. How else to explain the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills, from which McEnroe emerged not only with all his limbs in working order and his head still fastened to his body but as the champion of champions as well? By defeating Guillermo Vilas 6-1, 6-1 and Vitas Gerulaitis 6-3, 7-5 back-to-windy-back at the West Side Tennis Club, McEnroe reversed the tide of two rivals who had held a combined 7-2 edge over him on clay. More important, his domination of the proceedings served notice to the rest of the dirty-sock brigade that they won't have Mac to kick their beloved dust on anymore.

Heretofore, McEnroe's clay-court performances have been most notable for their futility: Davis Cup annihilations in Argentina, failure to advance beyond the quarterfinals in Paris in three attempts. "I haven't got much to compare this to," said McEnroe on Sunday after he had struck drop shots and lobs at will and with such disguise that Gerulaitis appeared to be riding a seesaw. He seemed perplexed even when he got a clear swipe at the ball in midcourt. McEnroe jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the opening set and then, after losing his serve in the next game, which was the only time he was broken all tournament, relied on stinging deliveries to sweep his last seven service games with the loss of but 10 points. That performance made for an efficient if unspectacular afternoon and a nice Mother's Day present for Kay McEnroe, whom her son addressed, Hallmark-card style, during the awards ceremony: "Thanks, Mom, for putting up with me all these years."

If McEnroe's T of C victory might be construed as the beginning of a new life for him on the soft stuff, it was also the culmination of an extraordinary chain of events in his already extraordinary career. Barely two months ago he slumped off the baked dirt in Buenos Aires, whipsawed by Vilas in the Davis Cup and plagued by tendinitis in his left shoulder. Three weeks ago in Las Vegas he was beaten in the first round by a charming yet obscure fellow named Trey Waltke. Then in rapid succession McEnroe 1) acquired a new racket, a mid-size graphite that gives him more pace and places less strain on his shoulder than the wooden frame he had been using, and 2) beat his nemesis, Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, in the WCT Finals on May Day in Dallas. Against Lendl, who had won seven of their last eight matches, McEnroe played "the best tiebreaker of my life" in the fifth set. He won it seven-zip with five outright winners, followed by a spectacular match-clinching forehand get that happened to curl between the net post and the net into the open court. Sure, the shot was illegal, but don't tell anybody in Prague.

Upon arriving in New York, McEnroe was accused by Lendl of having intimidated the officials in Dallas. Lendl also practically accused him of cheating and then said, "If I cannot hit him with my fists, I will hit him with the balls...every time." Later in the week McEnroe pulled a muscle in his right thigh during a doubles match, engaged in an ugly headhunting expedition—fuzz bullets at five paces—during a quarterfinal meeting with Tomas Smid, who also happens to be from Czechoslovakia, and was fined $1,000 for referring to Smid as "you blankity Communist blank."

All the while Mac seemed to be hitting the ball as solidly and with as much dexterity as he had in that magical summer of 1981, when he bookended Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to become king of the fast tracks. McEnroe showed that he now can shift gears and construct a patient baseline strategy on clay without adversely affecting his masterful touch or his serve-and-volley game. "I always had the potential on clay," said McEnroe, "but, hey, winning this tournament doesn't mean I can win the French. I'd like to take a run at it, but that's a different story. I'm just hitting the ball so well now I look forward to playing people like Willy [Vilas] and Vitas on clay."

McEnroe's fusses and feats saved the tournament from being overwhelmed by the off-court controversies boiling within the sport: the divorce complaint filed last week by the former Patti McGuire against her husband, James Scott Connors; the recent breakup into two rival entities of the Washington law firm of Dell, Craighill, Fentress & Benton, one of the two major player agents in tennis; and that magnum opus of a lawsuit filed in January by Lamar Hunt's WCT against just about everybody else in tennis. Specifically, he's suing the Men's International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC), the nine-member body that administers the Grand Prix tour; the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which holds three seats on the Pro Council; and the players themselves in the form of their union, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). The ATP also has three representatives on the Council, the remaining members being three tournament directors. Does that just about cover the alphabet?

With none of the parties in the Connors and Dell splits on hand last week—Patti in Florida, Jimbo in California, the hi-ho-the-derry-o lawyers in the dell—the T of C was as good a place as any to get a bead on the WCT-Grand Prix dispute and what it means to the players. Frankly, it means that unless somebody comes up with some tournaments to replace the 19 events WCT is dropping, the players are out of jobs, prestige and approximately $7.9 million in prize money. Lendl alone would be denied the opportunity to play tournaments in which he won more than a million dollars in 1982. Some tour regulars don't know whether to be angry or scared. Many are both. Most are confused. But while Hunt's costly, time-consuming and drastic maneuver against the establishment has irreparably harmed relations between his tour and the Grand Prix's, it may be just the catalyst tennis needs to straighten itself out.

The WCT complaint alleges that the various activities of the MIPTC violate antitrust laws—"conspiracy to monopolize," "conspiracy to restrain trade," "unlawful tying," round up all the usual suspects—and it requests injunctive relief as well as unspecified money damages. Because of "monopoly," WCT claims it has had to reduce its operations from 22 tournaments in 1982 to only three next year. Forest Hills was the last of nine WCT events this year.

Although Hunt claims he's not really suing the players, in fact he is, because of the ATP's affiliation with the other defendants. Besides comprising one-third of the Pro Council, the ATP receives $750,000 every year from the ITF. Also, the ITF recently agreed to pick up the ATP's legal fees in the lawsuit, which obviously further strengthens WCT's case for collusion. The ATP claims the legal money it's getting from the ITF is merely a loan. The sound you hear is antitrust lawyers falling down in hysterics.

In this 15th year of the open era, tennis' leaders should be ashamed that their game has come to this instead of to one strong, regulated tour. The same old tired faces are fighting the same old tired battles in the same old tired boardrooms. When the parties get too tired, they just change sides. Mike Davies, for nearly 12 years Hunt's executive director at WCT, is now executive director of the ATP. Owen Williams, who replaced Davies at WCT, used to be a Grand Prix tournament director and an MIPTC member. And tennis wonders why it's listed in the yellow pages under Buffoonery.

While Hunt always has been treated as some kind of Texas badlands outlaw by the tennis establishment, his WCT brought style, class, organization and good p.r.—not to mention all those big bucks—to tennis. That's why, even as Hunt was suing them, the players held meetings with him last week and reassured him that as a body they wanted him to remain in the game. A younger player thought it especially "neat" that one of the world's richest men would give them all his home phone number.

The sticky point with Hunt is that the ATP is aligned with the MIPTC rather than being independent of the Grand Prix and WCT circuits. "The ATP-Grand Prix connection is so patently against the antitrust laws, it's ridiculous," says Hunt, who also owns the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL. "I've always believed in competition, but this is like the NFL Players Association fielding a team in the NFL. The other side is full of baloney. It's chaos, and it's wrong."

Which pretty much sums up how Lendl feels about McEnroe. "He threw his racket the length of the court in Dallas and got away with it," said Lendl early last week. "I won't put up with it anymore. I'll take matters into my own hands.... But I don't see any realistic chance of him beating Vilas in the semifinals." However, soon after his tirade Lendl, who had ripped apart the T of C in 1982, winning six matches in about the time it takes to count the argyles on his shirt, was gone. He was a third-round victim of the lefthanded, go-for-broke attack of France's 19-year-old Henri Leconte, who won nine straight games en route to a 6-2, 6-3 victory. "Quickest arm I see since Rod Laver," said Leconte's coach, Ion Tiriac. "I'm also happy with his head." Ah, but that's the tricky part. The erratic Leconte doubtless plays more love sets than anybody on tour, both as lover and lovee. In the quarters Johan Kriek took him out 7-5, 3-6 and—c'est la vie—6-0.

Back in the foxholes, McEnroe had refused to pose with Lendl for a photographer. He accused Lendl of "extremely sour grapes." He said racket throwing was only serious if the racket "hit" someone and pointed out that the sainted Ken Rosewall "holds the world record for throwing rackets, but nobody calls him a bad actor. All of a sudden Lendl's cool because he's going to hit me? That shows what a classy person he is. We're in two different worlds. This is what hockey is trying to get away from."

By then it was time for Smid to take up the cudgel from his fallen countryman. Smid was still smarting from his own loss to McEnroe in Dallas. "I stand around while he complains for half an hour," he said. This time he sat around. And sat some more. Every time McEnroe challenged a call, Smid walked off the court and took his seat. Then the two had words across the net. Then Smid spat in McEnroe's direction. Then it got ornery.

In the sixth game McEnroe, "to prove a point," hit a backhand that narrowly missed Smid's clipped moustache. Next Smid ordered that a crying baby be removed from the stands. In the second set Smid hurtled forward to cover a drop volley and drilled a backhand into Mac's ribs. "You'll be sorry the day you hit me," said McEnroe during the changeover. He followed up that remark with the Communist crack that made him sound like the second coming of Joe McCarthy.

McEnroe didn't spare his old sparring partner, Chair Umpire Frank Hammond, either. "I don't want to hear bleep from you," McEnroe said. After Mac's 6-3, 7-5 win, however, the boys were sweetness and light. Smid called McEnroe an indelicate name and McEnroe called Smid a "total jerk."

Vilas, who admitted he actually is a friend of McEnroe's—"We do so many exhibitions together, but I don't get one Bic commercial out of it yet," he said—was the favorite in their match. McEnroe, remember, had won only five games in that humiliating Davis Cup defeat. But on Saturday a vicious swirling crosswind wreaked havoc with Vilas' hole card, his heavy, high-kicking top spin. The wind was so bad that one Vilas mishit sailed above the stadium only to flutter down just inside McEnroe's baseline. A startled Mac meekly tapped back a forehand, whereupon the ball took a squiggly bounce and died. "I wait to nail it," said Vilas, "but the ball disappear."

If the political pooh-bahs and the clay-court aficionados were waiting for WCT and McEnroe to disappear as well, the Tournament of Champions may have been a rude awakening. Though the WCT tour, per se, is no more. Hunt has a new 15-year contract with West Side. As for McEnroe, after winning his semi on Saturday, he smiled and said, "Call Lendl and ask him who beat Vilas." Mac didn't bother to add, "And tell him Johnny Boy will see him in Paris."

PHOTOMcEnroe, who recently switched to a mid-size racket, was equally adept on the baseline and at net. PHOTOLendl didn't get a chance to "take matters into his own hands" with Mac. PHOTOLeconte, who sent Lendl packing, is one of the game's most gifted—and erratic—young players. PHOTOSmid's quarterfinal brouhaha with McEnroe produced the ugliest scene of the week.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)