"I may be 35," Arthur Ashe told the skeptics who concluded that his near-miss against John McEnroe in Sunday's Colgate Grand Prix Masters final was his last big-time tango in tennis, "but believe me, I have the body of a 28-year-old."

Every man of 35 would love to believe this about himself, but in the case of Ashe -- an uncommonly truthful man -- there may be more to the assertion than vanity.

He knows as well as anyone that his chances of reaching the pinnacle again are infinitesimal. But now that his left heel has been surgically recycled, you can believe him when he says: "I'll gladly stack myself up against any 28-year-old on the tour, because I work harder than just about anybody. I'm in excellent shape, I take care of myself, I lead a very disciplined life. I'll be around for awhile.


His sport needs him. It needs his voice of reason, his eloquence, his grace, his deportment. It needs him as an example of how a true champion conducts himself, on and off the court. And most of all, tennis needs his vision of order to counteract its anarchistic tendencies.

Ashe demonstrated last weekend that he can still play the game, that some whipcord remains in his crackling serve and backhand.

By coming oh-so-close to beating the wunderkind McEnroe -- a 4-1 lead in the third set, two match points at 5-4, before losing, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5 -- Ashe reminded us that he can cleverly vary his game, adjusting his tactics to surprise an opponent and pick on a weakness. He can temper the power with brainpower and guile. Just as he did in torpedoing the unsinkable Jimmy Connors with softballs in the 1975 Wimbledon final.

Having been blown out once by McEnroe, the talented 19-year-old lefthander who has won $463,866 since turning pro in June, Ashe studied his game before the return bout. He devised a new strategy -- move for more left than normal to receive, making McEnroe serve to the forehnd, and lob frequently to keep him from crowding the net he rules with quickness and agility.

Ashe chipped, dinked and hit little angles that made Kid McEnroe -- "Junior Jaws," as one fellow Long Islander called him -- search for teeth he had never had to call upon before. He made him prove he had a taste for blood.

"It was a good strategy. If I had executed a little better, I would have won," said Ashe, remembering that he got only 59 percent of his first serves in court, and returned McEnroe's surprisingly uncertain serve inconsistently.

Beforehand, Ashe had said this: "McEnroe's quick, he's got a good serve and great touch. Since the U. S. Open in September, he's been the best player in the world. But he can be had, just like everyone else."

Ashe said roughly the same of Connors in 1975, and nobody believed. Then he went out and made good on his words with a tactical masterpiece that electrified Wimbledon's Centre Court and earned him the No. 1 world ranking.

"That's just the nature of the locker room. If somebody wins too much, we'll all get together and figure out how to beat him," said Ashe, the thinking man's tennis player. "You have to execute, but there's a strategy to beat everyone. Very rarely do we fail to come up with one."

McEnroe, who was born in 1959, the year Ashe first played the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, was impressed with the old guy's flexibility:

"A lot of players don't feel comfortable changing their style for one match. But Arthur is able to do it, like against Connors at Wimbledon that year," he allowed. "It's amazing how much he can change from the way he usually plays. You think of Arthur hitting every ball as hard as he can, and that's all."

Yes, Ashe showed he can still play. And most of the 17,000 witnesses at Madison Square Garden proved he is still the people's choice, that dignity and class are appreciated as much as Connors' ferocious aggression, the topspin screamers Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas hit, or McEnroe's sublime racket control.

The irony of Sunday's match was not that the proud old warrir with the 35-year-old head and 28-year-old body reverted to being a bridesmaid instead of the best man of 1975. It wasn't that he let the match slip away, recalling so many painful "almosts."

No, the irony was that on this gloomy January day in his adopted hometown, Ashe misinterpreted the cheers and applause that cascaded down on him from the moment he walked on court. He thought these normally unsentimental New Yorkers were behind him, palpably willing him to win, because he was the aged underdog against the Johnny-comelately who has won everything but affection the last four months.

"I think I understand American sports crowds," he said. "They're very capricious. They can start off absolutely hating you. but if you do the right things -- if you're a master of psychology or whatever -- you can turn them around quite easily, especially in non team sports. They go back and forth because what they want is a good match. They'd rather see it go 7-6 in the third than see me win, 6-0 6-0."

That is a good generalization, but this crowd was fiercely pro-Ashe because he is genuinely admired, even beloved. Those people were paying tribute to one of the few authentic heroes still playing king of the hill in a game overpopulated by antiheroes, prima donnas, and bad actors -- players of exceptional skill and extraordinary self-centeredness.

Ashe may have underestimated the admiration of the Garden crowd, but their message was not lost on McEnroe. Rationalizing the partisan noise against him in his own backyard, the young hotshot from Douglaston, L.I., said: "I was playing Arthur Ashe, and people have liked him for zillions of years."