The little girl in Poltergeist II has nothing on men's tennis if last week's Buick WCT Finals in Dallas is an accurate harbinger. While most of the game's marquee players treated the eight-man tournament as just another layover on their tour of the world's banks, who should slip in to win the title but old Fire Eyes himself, John McEnroe.
No one could recall which number this was in the roll call of McEnroe comebacks, but the fact that he shook off personal demons past, present and future—this time in reverse chronological order: Andre Agassi (page 64), Ivan Lendl and Brad Gilbert—to win his fifth WCT Finals crown made the victory special. "Number six [Mac's computer ranking] is not where I want to be, but I'm happy with the progress," said the 30-year-old McEnroe after whipping Gilbert 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 in the championship match. "This is as good as I've played since the birth of my children." Sean is 1½, and Kevin is not quite three.
Aside from Mac's performance, did Dallas get as good as tennis's best could give? Boris Becker, the hottest player on the circuit, pulled out at the last minute with the flu. Jimmy Connors was slated to replace Becker, but he never showed. Next in line were Henri Leconte and Thomas Muster, and they, too, took a pass. That left Gilbert, who promptly disposed of Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg in straight sets. Thanks for the memories, Stef. Hey, no problem. Mats Wilander, last year's Australian, French and U.S. Open champ, would uphold Sweden's reputation. Boink. Wilander lost his opening match to Mikael Pernfors, who couldn't uphold Sweden's reputation, either. Were the big guys psyched for Dallas, or what?
March 13, 1989
As for Agassi, he was leading McEnroe 6-4, 0-3 when he abruptly defaulted, blaming a muscle pull in his thigh that he had suffered the previous week in Philadelphia. Agassi hadn't mentioned the injury in Philly, and no one in Dallas, McEnroe included, detected a limp. "Unbelievable," said Mac. "This wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. I would have liked to kick his rear end."
Speaking of butt-bootings, one of last week's semis pitted McEnroe against Lendl, who had beaten McEnroe three straight times since Mac took his sabbatical in 1986. But after McEnroe swept the last four points of the second-set tiebreaker and broke Lendl twice in the third set to go ahead 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, the Reunion Arena crowd of 16,123 sounded as if Adrian Dantley was down there punching out Mark Aguirre.
Later, with McEnroe serving at 4-4, 30-40 in the fourth set, Lendl drew a code violation for arguing with umpire Gerry Armstrong, who docked Lendl a point for using the F word. "What is that?" Lendl screamed. "Whisper it in my ear." When duly informed, Lendl insisted he had said no such thing, sat down and refused to play, whereupon Armstrong hit him with a game penalty: 5-4 McEnroe. Audio replays appeared to vindicate Lendl; the courtside microphone caught Lendl shouting to a lines-woman, "It's a foot out, you stupid lady," in reference to a McEnroe serve. So much for the F word. McEnroe went on to win the set 7-5 and, after four hours on court, ran to the sideline to kiss his wife, Tatum O'Neal. The time was 11:40 p.m.
McEnroe got only four hours of sleep before he faced Gilbert, but the match was without incident. Vengeance might have been a factor. McEnroe's only loss to Gilbert in 11 matches had come at the 1985 Masters, and that defeat had driven him from the sport. "I'm not going to play tennis if I lose to jerks like that," said McEnroe after that loss. And he didn't—for six months.
Fast forward to 1989. Mac is 15-2, having lost only to Lendl at the Australian Open and to Becker in Milan. The week before Dallas he beat No. 9 Jakob Hlasek to win a tournament in Lyon. Is Mac really all the way back? In discussing his play over the last couple of years, he said on Saturday, "I never got it going. I got suspended, had some injuries, just got burned out. At one point I had one child and was expecting another. There's no way you can prepare for that. It took time to feel confident, that this is what I want to do for a living."
Before Dallas there was some doubt about that. However, last week McEnroe confirmed that family life has contributed to his new enthusiasm. "Kevin's awake," said Tatum one day, interrupting Mac at a press conference.
Dad leaned into the microphone. "Kevin's awake," he said and followed Tatum out the door. Welcome back, all you Macs. Tennis just woke up as well.