BIG CAT ON THE PROWL

Miloslav Mecir preys on the game's top players
April 19, 1987

Miloslav Mecir remembers the pride he felt the first time he saw a videotape of himself playing his seemingly effortless and impassive brand of tennis. "I looked to me to be quite natural," he says in English that can still be described as live from Slovakia. "I was very happy about this."

But something powerful compelled Mecir to look only once. "It is very strange," he says. "I know it is better for me not to feel anything about my game. Only to play."

Mecir is one of the few who has resisted the temptation to scrutinize his born-to-the-game gift. Most tennis aficionados have decided he is the most intriguing new star in the game. This year the 22-year-old Mecir has reached the finals in five of the eight tournaments he has entered, and has won four. On Sunday he beat John McEnroe 6-0, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 to win the WCT Finals in Dallas. It was his first victory over McEnroe in three tries and helped establish Mecir as a prime contender to win any one of this year's Grand Slam events.

Mecir dominated McEnroe both physically and mentally. During an ugly and prolonged McEnroe tantrum that cost him a penalty point in the third set, Mecir remained characteristically calm. "It's not very nice to play in such an atmosphere," he said later. "I told myself only to stay patient. I try to behave as my parents taught me."

After the outburst McEnroe's game sagged. Although he was impressive in defeating top-seeded Stefan Edberg in the semifinals, his performance against Mecir shows he has not fully reclaimed his ability to sustain concentration or to dig deep when the match is on the line. Mecir dispatched McEnroe with the same subtle but lethal style that first drew notice at last year's U.S. Open, where he upset Boris Becker before losing to Ivan Lendl in the finals. "Playing him is like bleeding to death," said Canadian pro Glenn Michibata after Mecir beat him in Auckland in January.

Though maddening to opponents, Mecir's game is beautiful to watch. The 6'3", 180-pound Mecir keeps his head as still and erect as a periscope when he strikes the ball. He prefers to play inside the baseline and take the ball early with short, smooth strokes that are next to impossible to read. Never overhitting the ball and always on balance, he sends back acutely angled blocks and spins that either force an error or allow him to close in and put away an easy volley.

When Mecir gets in trouble, he relies on the quickness in his muscled legs to run down shots. His ability to cover the court with long, even strides has earned him the nickname Big Cat. And according to Becker, Mecir's two-handed backhand is the best in the game.

"He's just too good for me," said Mats Wilander after Mecir beat him 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in the first round in Dallas. "You never feel like you're controlling the match. It feels like you're doing everything you can and it's still all up to him."

Indeed, Mecir has controlled Wilander and his fellow Swedes as well as any player in the world. Against Wilander, Edberg, Anders Jarryd and Joakim Nystrom, he has a remarkable 18-11 record, which has earned him another nickname: Swede Killer. "In two years," says Wilander, "I think Milos will be No. 1."

Mecir likes all the attention he has received of late, but he likes his mystique even more. When asked why he is one of the few top-ranked players without a coach, he says, "It is good for me that everyone else has one. They wonder why."

He makes such pronouncements from behind a scruffy beard that gives him the mien of a beat poet. In interviews he often half-volleys questions with playful answers. When asked why he gets along with McEnroe, his temperamental opposite, he said, "Well, we don't meet very often." Mecir is an avid fisherman, but when asked what kind of fish he most enjoyed catching, his answer was quick: "Lendl."

Mecir is a self-professed nature boy. At a tournament in Washington, D.C., two years ago, he couldn't be found before a match. Just as he was about to be defaulted, he emerged from a nearby wooded area cradling a turtle. "I like to look how the country is and have private time," he says. "I have very good memories of when my grandfather took me to the wild country in Czechoslovakia."

Mecir was born in Bojnice, a small city in the republic of Slovakia in the eastern corner of Czechoslovakia. All the other leading players from his country, including Lendl, Tomas Smid, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, are Czech. Mecir is the first Slovak to achieve a high world ranking.

His parents, Ladislav Mecir and Blazena Mecirova, are both technical engineers, and from them Milos inherited an analytical bent. When Snauwaert, the racket company he represents, recently asked for suggestions to improve its product, Mecir drew a detailed blueprint on the spot.

He began playing tennis at six. By age 16 he was the Czechoslovakian junior champion. He turned pro in 1982 and toiled in anonymity until 1985—when he won the sympathy of every hacker who has ever gagged in a match. After going up 4-0 in the final set against Jimmy Connors at the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf, he became so nervous that he served underhanded and lost the match. The next week at the French Open, Mecir again served underhanded. "I was mentally very tired," he says. "I don't have this problem since I am used to the circuit."

This year Mecir has been on a tear. "It is not one thing," he says. "Just more confidence." By winning the New South Wales Open on grass in February, he became one of only a handful of players to have won tournaments on all four surfaces (clay, hard, indoor carpet and grass). But his biggest victory to date came in March when he avenged his U.S. Open loss to Lendl by winning the Lipton International Players Championship in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"You have to have a special weapon to beat him," says Wilander. "Becker has the serve, McEnroe the volley. But I think he will always give Ivan or any all-around player trouble. You have to be an extreme player to beat him." Adds Becker, "You must play a tactical game against him. If you play just tennis, you'll lose."

Even though Mecir won $360,888 last year and has already won $418,824 this year, he says his life-style has changed little. Whenever he has a break in his schedule, he returns to Czechoslovakia, where he stays at his parents' home in Bratislava or in an apartment in Prague. "I was happy when I had little money; I'm a little happier now," he says. "I still like to go to Czechoslovakia. Then I can give some to my parents and my brother, to see them happier also."

But Mecir is not without ambition. He speaks openly of wanting to win Wimbledon. "That's where I wish to do the best," he says. "I have a very good time playing on grass."

The questions about No. 1 have started, but Mecir handles them with his usual equanimity. "I am satisfied," he says. "If I wasn't satisfied right now, I don't know when I should be."

PHOTOANDY HAYTMecir used his wide-ranging court coverage and deceptive strokes to win big in Dallas. PHOTOANDY HAYTMac isn't yet the Mac of old, except verbally.
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)