Another New John McEnroe arrived at the Volvo International at Stratton Mountain, Vt., last week, ready to make yet another comeback. If you thought he looked and sounded like the old John McEnroe, you were mistaken. The Volvo has become a kind of watershed for McEnroe. Last year he showed up with a conditioning coach who had whipped Mac's fast-food body into shape during a six-month sabbatical from the tour. This time he arrived in the company of a mystical mentor. And unlike last year, when Boris Becker had the role of nemesis, this time McEnroe was out to get Ivan Lendl. But one thing hadn't changed—John, we were assured again, was sounder of body and mind.
McEnroe's tennis career hasn't gone too well in the past 12 months. In perhaps the best men's match of 1986, he lost 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 at the Volvo to Becker, after having squandered four match points, one of which torments McEnroe to this day. He remains convinced that his volley nicked the baseline.
"That just started things off badly," said McEnroe last week, "and it took me almost until the past month to start feeling comfortable." When he lost in the first round of the French Open in May, his comeback screeched to a halt. He took his bad back and his inner demons to L.A. and thus began Sabbatical II.
During his latest hiatus, McEnroe picked up some exotic accoutrements. At the U.S.-West Germany Davis Cup tie last month in Hartford, he wore a diamond stud in his left ear. Then in Stratton he unveiled a new adviser, Seo Daeshik. Seo, 48, wears white from head to toe, as a good guru should. A South Korean who came to the U.S. in 1975, he runs a one-man sports-medicine clinic in Merrimack, N.H.
August 16, 1987
"He has always been my favorite player," says Seo of McEnroe. "I followed him for years, and I tell him once that if he does not have proper training, there will be problems, and he will lose titles. His father not sure about me, so nothing happen then. One year after I talked [in 1984], he lost title."
Indeed, after McEnroe dropped the 1985 U.S. Open finals to Lendl, his game headed south. "He had several professional doctors look, and no one knows what exactly is the problem," says Seo. "Chiropractors, therapists—no one help. Nutritionists, they gave him wrong instructions." How did Seo know McEnroe wasn't getting the proper attention? "I can research on TV because I am a professional."
Earlier this year Seo approached the McEnroe camp again, and this time Mac and Papa Mac were receptive. On July 4, Seo flew to Malibu for an audition. "First day I found overstressed muscles," says Seo. "I fix in one day."
McEnroe holed up in southern New Hampshire for 12 days in July, practicing with his longtime coach, Tony Palafox, and having long sessions with Seo. "Six hours a day I put in for him," says Seo. "Physical conditioning, physical training, nutrition, counseling for sports psychology." The latter was intended to help McEnroe control his notorious temper. "Some think he's a mean person," says Seo. "I guarantee he's a gentle man. He must bring this to tennis."
A practitioner of martial arts, Seo felt his pupil was ready for the ultimate lesson. "I don't teach everybody martial arts," he says. "They have to prove to me complete discipline and self-control and an individual philosophy of life. The first time John asked me to teach him, he had not proved these things. The next time, he proved, and I teach."
At Stratton Mountain the Karate Kid and his mentor drew murmurs and curious glances as they briskly walked about the tournament grounds, Seo toting the rackets. During a changeover in McEnroe's quarterfinal match with Brad Gilbert, Seo rushed onto the court. Shouting, "Emergency! Emergency!" he delivered a mystery potion that looked just like iced tea.
The fortified McEnroe had no trouble with Gilbert, or with Christo van Rensburg in the semis. In the other semi, Lendl had his hands full against 17-year-old Andre Agassi of Las Vegas, who seems to thrive in the pristine mountain air. Last year he surprised Tim Mayotte before falling to McEnroe. This year he knocked off Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. Lendl's scouting report said the kid had "a haircut and a forehand." True enough, and it's debatable which is more formidable.
The haircut, which is blond and fluffy on top and close-cut and brown on the sides, had teenyboppers from Burlington to Brattleboro swooning. The whiplash forehand had Lendl talking to himself as he dropped the second set 7-5. But No. 90's don't often beat No. 1's, and this one didn't, either. Lendl broke Agassi in the second game of the final set to win 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.
McEnroe admitted he was stalking Lendl at Stratton. "I haven't played him since the '85 Open, and that was when the tide turned," he said. "The guy has taken over my spot. I hope to get a shot at him." He is not, however, eager to have Lendl, who is seeking U.S. citizenship, as a Davis Cup teammate. That, said Mac, "would be very difficult for me to swallow." Lendl shot back, "It's hard to imagine someone with his mouth having a difficult time swallowing anything."
McEnroe walked slowly and purposefully between points in Vermont, breathing deeply and moving his arms in wide arcs. Seo wants Mac to stay limber and has taught him "my two kinds of breathing—one for relaxation, one for speed and power." You may see a lot of on-court aerobics from Mac, because he says Seo is "working with me on a long-term basis." If Seo has his way, his tenure won't expire until the late 1990s. "I told him I could have him play great until he is 40 years old," said Seo.
McEnroe won the first set 7-6 with four deftly angled volleys in the tiebreaker. He fell behind a break in the second set and, as a drizzle started, he lost his cool. When the crowd booed a stoppage in play with Lendl leading the set 4-1, Mac responded with two crotch grabs that would have made Jimmy Connors proud. Seo looked on somberly. Surely this was not the exercise in discipline and self-control the guru had in mind. The final was to be completed on Monday, but the storm remained stalled over the mountains, and tournament officials were forced to postpone the rest of the match indefinitely.
So Mac is back yet again—more or less. But which Mac is this? The old gifted-but-angry one? The new controlled-and-ascetic one? A mingling of the two? The answer, Grasshopper, is elusive.