From the delicatessens on one side of Madison Square Garden to the laundromats on the other, and through all the traffic, noise, filth, slush and corridors of power in between, John McEnroe is finally the No. 1 tennis player in and around the Garden as well as everywhere else. After a five-year hiatus, he's the Volvo Grand Prix Masters champion again. And, to be sure, a fine athlete as well. Yes, athlete. All week McEnroe kept saying that's how he wanted history to remember him. Not as some pouting character or naughty fellow or rock-'n'-roll dilettante as he's portrayed in the gossip rags and on his smoke-bombed and strobe-lighted Rip-off Over America exhibition tour. A real athlete, said McEnroe. So, okeydokey, let's forget the Bic razor spiels and the borrowed body beautiful that Dunlop stuck below Mac's head in those ads and the guitar gigs with Carlos Santana and even the new promotional contract with Wendy's, though McEnroe fans must be waiting in earnest for the wondrous results of that affiliation—perhaps a stuffed baked potato surprise from Mr. Potato Face himself.
Ah, but as athlete and tennis player, McEnroe's skills were never so enthralling as on Sunday afternoon, when he rudely snatched away from Ivan Lendl the title that the Connecticut Czech had held for two years. The score was 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and though Lendl played well and bravely—his monstrous serve was broken just three times, once in each set—the match never was that close. Lendl reached break point only three times against McEnroe's serve and won just 24 points all told against his deliveries. While much was made of McEnroe's 62% first-serve efficiency, at times his devastating performance seemed to be a clinic on the drop shot.
"He hit one or two drops today, I guess, but it's not the kind of shot you win a match on," said Lendl, who must have been looking at those tacky argyles on his shirt rather than McEnroe's spinning touch winners. One or two hundred was more like it. Perhaps Drobny or Laver or another Santana—Manolo, he of the artistry on clay—used the drop as effectively once upon a time, but the game was much different then, devoid of much of the power employed by today's bazooka specialists. Lendl is at the forefront of this hard-hitting crew, and to take his lightning bolts out of the Garden haze and turn them into droplets of molasses as McEnroe did for nearly two hours was a sight to behold.
Here was McEnroe feathering a ball from the backcourt just beyond the net and Lendl's reach. Here was Mac blocking a volley, only it wasn't a block at all but a kind of—say, hey—basket catch, and the ball on its return would die just as it cleared the tape. Half-volleys from the base line. Jumping, bent-arm slices at the net. One reflex job practically out of his navel. "I felt real good, the touch at the net, everything. I felt in control the whole time," said McEnroe, who had lost in straight sets to Lendl in last year's Masters final.
January 23, 1984
That had been Lendl's seventh straight victory over Mac, but since then McEnroe has won four of five matches with Lendl by pressuring his macho ground game. Relentlessly, Mac pounds or chips Lendl's second serve, keeps Lendl guessing with his own exquisite deliveries, overplays at net to cut off Lendl's down-the-line passes—Lendl almost never goes crosscourt when trying to pass—and always threatens Lendl with his genius on the drop. Indeed, McEnroe's latest work, including his disposal of Mats Wilander in the semifinals, may have been his best performance since those glorious May days in 1979, when he broke through the fame barrier in Dallas with back-to-back victories over a couple of guys named Connors and Borg. The Mac attack also effectively halted all debate about who is, or was, No. 1 in the world for 1983. It is, or was, McEnroe.
Since its inception in 1970 the Masters has been something of a paradox, waiting to turn into a controversy. The reason is that tennis has never figured out precisely what the Masters should be—season-opener, all-star game, climactic playoff, tank show, refrigerator race or what. For several years the tournament was played in December and settled the issue of who was No. 1 for the year. But when the game's pooh-bahs exchanged the Masters' place on the schedule with that of the Australian Open and moved the Masters to the middle of January, suddenly nobody knew whether it rang out the old year or rang in the new. Why, has there ever been anything so utterly foolish as to wait well into 1984 before crowning a champion for '83? What? The Super Bowl? Oh, never mind.
As McEnroe said last week, "Nobody knows if this really counts," meaning if the '84 Masters would or should affect the '83 rankings. "There shouldn't be question marks in people's minds. It would be easier to get up for this if I knew what it meant."
The issue became more quarrelsome than usual this year because, for the first time since 1976, the Grand Slam events had four different winners—Yannick Noah at the French Open, McEnroe at Wimbledon, Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open and Wilander at the Australian Open. In addition, a fifth player, Lendl, led the money list with more than $1.6 million in earnings. Still, many observers maintained that the obvious choice for No. 1, regardless of the outcome of the Masters, was the man who had won the sport's most prestigious title and had finished first on the ATP computer. And that was McEnroe.
But wait a minute. Let's go to the mat for Mats. Wilander finished 1983 with a 79-10 match record (to McEnroe's 60-11) and a 15-5 mark against the rest of the Masters' 12-man field (to McEnroe's 9-6), and he was 7-4 against the other top four players in the world (to Mac's 5-5). The 19-year-old Wilander also was the only player to win tournaments on four different surfaces. All told, he won nine events, to McEnroe's six, and his Davis Cup record was superior to Mac's, 8-0 vs. 2-2. Moreover, last year McEnroe played Wilander mano a mano three times on three surfaces in three fairly significant tournaments—the French, the ATP Championships in Cincinnati and the Australian. Wilander won all three times. Finally, Wilander had the best-looking blonde girl friend of anybody since Billy Joel.
Wilander barely made it to the semifinal showdown with McEnroe, having survived a scare from Se√±or Inside himself, Jose Higueras, who hadn't won a match indoors in the last year except at Bournemouth, England, the finals of the Grand Prix tournament there having been completed under a roof because of rain. Unless scads of money is involved—which is the case at the Masters, with $100,000 for winning and $10,000 for showing your face—Higueras would just as soon play indoors as receive a spinal tap. Or hook you on a line call. After Higueras had been presented the ATP sportsmanship award earlier in the week, he'd cracked, "I've been giving away points for 12 years to win this." Sure enough, while leading Wilander 5-3, deuce, and having served what the officials ruled an ace, Higueras jabbed his thumb to indicate the ball had been wide, hit a second serve and lost the point, the game, the set and the match 7-6, 6-2. Poor Jose. He had to go back home to Palm Springs and play outdoors.
A more serious crack was suffered by McEnroe's mid-size graphite racket when he decapitated the bungling instrument by bouncing it off the court after it stupidly missed a shot during a match against Johan Kriek. Well, wouldn't you? Justifiably enraged by the moronic wand, McEnroe sent its head sailing into the backstop, following which trembling spectators and linesmen, as well as the racket head, were unavailable for comment. After being fined $500 McEnroe did apologize. "I've done that about a thousand times and that's [the head coming off] happened twice," he said.
Against McEnroe on Saturday, Wilander didn't serve the way he had when he surprised Mac by unveiling some new boomers in Cincy and Melbourne. Of course, those victories came on cement and grass, respectively. This time, on slower synthetic rubber, Wilander's second deliveries came up balloons, and he was constantly short off the backhand as well. McEnroe waited patiently for these opportunities, stroked some crisp approach shots and covered the net for an easy 6-2 first set.
Wilander found his rhythm early in the second and began nailing those familiar passes off both wings to go ahead 2-0. Soon Wilander, wearing a shirt of zigzag designs he may have borrowed from a court jester or a local bowladrome, pulled ahead 4-1. But he never looked sharp enough to capitalize. "This guy isn't Borg," said McEnroe afterward. "He doesn't move as well. He can't get to everything the way Bjorn could. I was only down a break. I wanted to show him experience could win out in the rallies." Mac kept serving darters, being patient and behaving well—only once did he seriously question a line call. At approximately that same juncture Wilander bewilderedly contracted out of nowhere a bloody nose. Had Mats spied his exquisite Annette Hjort Olsen taking off her matching zigzag jacket?
McEnroe held serve at 15, broke back at 15 and held again with a service winner and a marvelous shoetop volley. He ran off the last five games with the loss of but eight points. Following his 6-2, 6-4 victory, McEnroe acknowledged that No. 1 had been on his mind, as had been his three consecutive losses to Wilander. "I didn't want to get negative about it," said McEnroe. "Every defeat stays with you. I had won the first set against Mats in Paris and Melbourne. Then my whole game fell apart. I wasn't going to let that happen again. Number One? That about settles the matter, doesn't it?"
If McEnroe listened closely he might have heard Lendl's answer whistling across the net and past a thoroughly befuddled Connors a few minutes later. Jimbo, who claimed he'd given up thinking about No. 1 long ago—"Winning the Open made my year," he said—in the quarterfinals had beaten Tomas Smid, who had upset Noah, who had recently moved to New York to escape his fans and the prying press in his native France. Noah is believed to be the first human being, foreign or domestic or Rastafarian, to move to the Big Apple in search of solitude. In Paris he'd become so distraught that he'd contemplated jumping off the Pont Neuf into the Seine. Giving of himself to the media, Noah told The New York Times, was like "giving caviar to the pigs." After his 6-4, 6-4 loss to Smid, Noah seemed so morose his tormentors went oinking off to establish a bridge alert up and down the East River.
In contrast, Connors kibitzed with his four-year-old son, Brett, all week, once directing Brett's remote-control toy car onto the court during a McEnroe doubles match. When Mac picked up the vehicle, its siren went off. McEnroe stuffed the car into his tennis bag. Hilarious. You had to be there.
Connors' fun ended when he started hitting, or attempting to hit. the heavy Slazenger balls about which everyone complained. "Somebody must have paid the Masters a couple of bucks to get them to use these," he said. What else is new in tennis, Jimbo? During his matches Connors would dangle a puffed-up ball by its fuzz, peer at it as if it were some queer animal, shout an obscenity or two and heave it away. "These balls are so big ________" You fill in the blank.
Lendl filled the Garden with nothing but live bullets during his early 5-0 fusilade against Connors. But never one to quit, or jump off a bridge, Jimbo turned into vintage Connors—grunting, dashing about, grabbing his crotch, slashing unreturnable returns. Soon he was back in the set at 5-3, 15-40—two break points and a chance to serve to tie. But then Lendl in succession drilled a backhand pass, a forehand drive winner, an ace and another serve that never came back to clinch the set. Lendl ran out the match 6-3, 6-4, gaining a bit of revenge for his humiliating collapses to Connors in the last two U.S. Open finals.
Why is Lendl so much more effective in the Garden in January than he is across the river in Queens in September? "This court is slower," Lendl said. "I can set up and keep the ball in play. There's no sun or wind. I have trouble serving in sun and wind. The crowd is closer; I like that. Are those enough reasons or do you want me to make up some?"
Now Lendl, who until last week was considered the game's finest indoor player—he once won 66 straight matches inside—must make up some way to defeat McEnroe. "Nowadays when one of us plays so well, the other has no chance," Lendl said. On Sunday McEnroe was the one—twice. Following the singles he and Peter Fleming won their sixth straight Masters doubles championship.
Hey, Mac, how about celebrating with a magnum of champagne and some Wendy's Triples? Oh, yeah. Forgot. You're an athlete now. You've got to hit the Nautilus over at the health spa.