The crowds at the French Open found one of their own to cheer last week, but it wasn't Henri Leconte, the flaky Frenchman who reached the final. It wasn't even one of the several touristes of distinction, like men's titlist Mats Wilander or women's champion Steffi Graf, both of whom are now halfway to the Grand Slam. Nor was it semifinalist Andre Agassi, the 18-year-old reason that the undertakers of American tennis can temporarily put aside their spades. No, the object of the French crowd's desire was the unlikeliest of princes, one John McEnroe—excusez-moi: McEnreau—who when last seen, on CBS's 60 Minutes, was baby-sitting his two boys, verbally wasting Ivan Lendl, serenading interviewer Diane Sawyer with a few bars of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and vowing to get it together again.
Imagine the surprise, then, when McEnroe hit the clay courts of Roland Garros, his weakest surface no less, and sailed past Alexander Volkov, Christian Bergstrom and Michael Chang to earn a round-of-16 spot against Lendl, a player he never used to see until a Grand Slam semi. By the time their match was finally completed, a couple of days late thanks to the testy skies over Paris, the city was buzzing about McEnroe's play. So much evoked the old Mac: the precise approach shots, the uncommon confidence, each stroke taken as if he had just drawn his racket from a scabbard.
In his interview with Sawyer, McEnroe had made some harsh assessments of Lendl ("I have more natural ability in my one finger than he has in his whole hand") and of the lot of tennis as long as Lendl stands at its summit ("I think tennis is boring with me and ridiculous without me"). For his part, Lendl said he had only heard about the interview "fourth-hand," and frankly didn't "give a——" what Mac thought.
Lendl's 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory didn't exactly bear out McEnroe's assessment. Lendl hit what Mac conceded was "an unheard-of number of lines," and the affair was anything but boring. With a break point in the second set, McEnroe conjured up a shot that recalled his luminous, prefatherhood form. Lendl had just flung an overhead into the left corner, from where McEnroe sent a desperate forehand—it was a chop, really—that snaked around the net and landed for a winner. Mac clasped his hands over his head in a gesture to the standing crowd, as if tennis were nothing but the fight game and he a renewed Sugar Ray.
June 12, 1988
McEnroe wasn't finished. When Lendl won the set with a return that might have been long, Mac assumed a familiar guise during the changeover, pleading with the umpire to examine the mark in the clay and then imperiously waving away the line sweep to preserve the evidence. The crowd whistled its displeasure. The umpire's pleas for silence just set off more hoots, and only when McEnroe acknowledged his following did a shhhhhh! course its way through the stands. So long as Mac was around, play would proceed at his pleasure.
This was curious. At the French Open over the years, between kicking clay into the photographers' pit and calling the tournament referee a "——French Frog fag," McEnroe had been at his petulant worst. A favorite parlor game during this year's tournament involved trying to explain the French crowd's baffling partisanship. Among the theories:
•The Vin de Grand Cru Theory. McEnroe's favorite. "It's like wine," he says. "The older you get, the more they appreciate you. The French do know a lot about wine." (Burp.)
•The Jerry Lewis Theory. Americans can't understand France's fascination with the telethon host and putative actor. Cultural historians try to explain it by invoking the auteur principle—that the French see development in Lewis's work and respect him for his growth. It's a test that McEnroe, given his attempt to remake himself, may be meeting.
•The Appreciation-Gap Theory. McEnroe's seemingly effortless game isn't so much overrated in Paris as underappreciated in such anglophone precincts as Flushing Meadow, N.Y., and Wimbledon. Both the Yanks and the Brits relish grunting and conspicuous sweat. But the Gauls will take sheer talent anytime. And if a prodigy should happen to engage the chair in a few Socratic exchanges, it's no different from what the French routinely do on TV talk shows and in sidewalk cafes. Says Alan Page, a British journalist based in Paris, "I saw McEnroe play the closest thing to a perfect match against Joakim Nystrom in 1985 at the U.S. Open, and the crowd hardly rippled. For us, it's content. For the French, it's form."
Until Paris, Mac's latest comeback had puttered along in fits and starts, though the fits were mild next to his shameful blowup at last year's U.S. Open, the incident that exiled McEnroe to life among hoi polloi. Upon his return in April, he won the Japan Open by beating No. 3 Stefan Edberg. But in May he lost to 136th-ranked Diego Perez of Uruguay. He actually let pass a few very arguable line calls and seemed determined to put behind him what he called "that whole business."
Thus comeback No. 3. "Even if I don't become Number 1 again, I'll get a lot of positive things out of it, not only on the court but off," McEnroe said last week. "I realize deep down that it's a long shot but also that I can do it. If I don't, at least I'll be able to go out on my own terms."
In fact, McEnroe has an acute sense of history and what his place in it may be. He doesn't believe Lendl really supplanted him as No. 1 in 1985 or that Lendl has advanced the game, as McEnroe did when he overtook and built upon Bjorn Borg. "It was as much me losing it myself as it was him taking it away from me," says Mac.
Worse is the specter of Ilie Nastase, who McEnroe knows is remembered more as a clown than as a great player. "I hope people will spend more time focusing on the records and what I've accomplished," McEnroe says. "But if I went out the way it was, there'd be more focusing on the other stuff."
His play at the French suddenly put "the other stuff' and "that whole business" and "the way it was" in the background. With the shorter points on grass more suited to McEnroe's still-suspect stamina, he'll go into his first Wimbledon in two years with confidence.
"He played as well as I've seen him since '85," said Wilander of McEnroe's play against Lendl. "He was taking the ball early, taking chances and looking confident. When the calls went against him, he kept his cool. He would have beaten Lendl on any other surface."
Exactly what beating Lendl means right now has been called into question. The world's No. 1 player is now 0 for 2 in this year's Grand Slam events. Perhaps a multimillion-dollar suit-counter-suit imbroglio with his old management representative, ProServ, has something to do with his lack of success. In his quarterfinal loss in Paris to unseeded Jonas Svensson of Sweden. Lendl was leading 5-3 in the first set when striking aircraft engineers began chanting, singing and sounding claxons outside the stadium. Lendl promptly lost his serve, and then in the second set strained a pectoral muscle. After his 7-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory, Svensson asked about the racket.
"A demonstration." someone said.
"Against...me?" said Svensson, taking self-effacement to its limit.
Actually, it was Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova—"queens in distress," as Le Figaro called them—who found their palaces being stormed. Each lost in straight sets—Evert in the third round to 16-year-old Arantxa Sanchez of Spain and Navratilova in the fourth round to Natalia Zvereva, 17, of the Soviet Union. By the semifinals the women's draw looked like a seating chart at a pajama party—Gabriela Sabatini, unseeded Nicole Provis of Australia, Zvereva and Graf average 18 years, one month—and caused Graf to mock-lament about being over the hill.
Graf's 6-0, 6-0 skunking of Zvereva in the final showed the difference between an 18-year-old playing her sixth French and a 17-year-old her second. Zvereva won but 13 points and kept Graf busy for 32 minutes—less time than Graf took to make her way to the press conference. Afterward Graf apologized for the ruthlessness of it all, and Zvereva—from Russia, with love and love—cried. Clearly, Evert and Navratilova have had their reigns prolonged because the Lost Generation—Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger—has flamed out. Enter Graf and Sabatini, who was Graf's semifinal victim but who has won two of their three matches this year. Said ladies' tennis couturier-curator Ted Tinling, "This tournament was a watershed."
With the early exits of Evert and Navratilova, and McEnroe a game loser, Agassi distinguished himself as the only American to reach the semis. He is a package of contradictions, a 5'10", 150-pound power player, a teen idol who dislikes rock 'n' roll, a devout Christian from Las Vegas. He wears a watch on the court, as if he's in a hurry to get somewhere. He's not. He'll skip Wimbledon to return to Vegas, pump iron and try to be a typical teenager.
'Truthfully, if someone gave Andre a million dollars to go to Wimbledon, he'd still want to go home," said his coach, tennis pedagogue Nick Bollettieri, after Agassi's 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-0, sorry-tank's-empty loss to Wilander. "He's still a baby. Winning today would have been too soon. There's a law of nature, and to defy it may prevent winning from having a continuous effect."
Two other Bollettieri protègès, Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein, were young sensations with laserlike forehands before they won discontinuously and thus gave rise to the phrase Bollettieri Burnout. Both lost in the first round at Roland Garros. "Agassi is a more complete player than Arias and Krickstein," said Wilander. "He attacks better and has a much better backhand."
Agassi plays the game loose, treating it as if the ball boys were showgirls and choreographing floorshow stuff for each stroke. Against Wilander he let out a whoop ("Yee-haw-haw!") after muffing shots. He mimed paying off a linesman after getting the upside of a dubious call. He even grabbed an umbrella from a spectator during a passing shower and looked at Wilander as if play should continue with Agassi holding it. "Number one for me is to enjoy myself," Agassi said. "That's what makes me play better." Indeed, after stealing a brief rest in a linesman's chair, he broke Wilander's serve at 3-3 and went on to win the fourth set.
But Wilander has won an astonishing 11 of 12 Grand Slam fifth sets, and he wore down Agassi, just as he had Bobo Zivojinovic in the third round after having fallen behind 5-2 in the final set. The French Open is special to Wilander; it's where he stepped out as a 17-year-old champion in 1982. He reached the finals against Yannick Noah in '83, but, as he says, "I just could never get into that match. The crowd was all for Noah. I felt that by winning I'd be spoiling the party." Wilander won again in '85.
The fans were curiously indifferent toward Leconte when he met Wilander in Sunday's final, and there was no party to poop. The bottled water the finalists slugged down during changeovers reflected their styles: Leconte is a Perrier freak, Wilander a noncarbonated Evian man. On clay, non-gazeuse will win more often than not. Wilander missed only two of 74 first serves in his 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 victory and didn't attempt a single volley, because he didn't have to. Equally remarkable, he committed only one unforced error in the last two sets. He kept the points long, testing the patience of his impetuous opponent—whom he has described as someone who "plays great tennis without being a great tennis player"—and then passing him with backhands. "It was like facing a bulldozer," said Leconte.
By Sunday afternoon Wilander allowed that he was probably the best in the world right now, a significant admission from someone who is disinclined to step to the fore. Like Mac, Wilander plays some guitar. "Rhythm." Wilander told Tennis magazine's Peter Bodo. "McEnroe plays lead."
So last week Mac's playing captured Parisian hearts. But the image of McEnroe's French, and the French's McEnroe, is incomplete unless hung next to that of Nastase, who with Ion (This Guy Just Kills Me) Tiriac played Fred Stolle and Cliff Drysdale, Team ESPN, in an exhibition doubles match on Court Central soon after Mac and Lendl had finished. Nastase came out on crutches, kicked balls at the ball boys and issued a kamikaze yelp as he served on match point. Everyone had a good laugh. Perhaps Agassi took notes.
But McEnroe was not amused and looked instead across the Channel, where the grass could very well be greener.