John McEnroe was standing in front of a counter the other day, trying to buy cough medicine. He was pointing at various brands, changing his mind, asking for something else and coughing.

While McEnroe spoke with a clerk, two little girls stood behind him, staring. "It is him," one said to the other. "Go ahead, ask him."

The second girl, huge brown eyes open wide, tugged slightly at McEnroe's sweatshirt. "What's your name?" she asked shyly.

McEnroe turned, leaned down and, in an almost conspiratorial whisper, answered, "It's Jimmy, what's yours?"

Now, the little girl was confused. She stared at McEnroe for another brief moment. "No, it's not," she said. "Sign your name."

McEnroe took the paper and scrawled his name, not the name of Jimmy Connors. He did the same for the other girl. They both beamed, then returned to the hotel lobby to spread the news. By the time McEnroe left the gift shop, a small crowd had gathered. He signed all the autographs.

A woman with a camera approached. "I know you're entitled to your privacy, John, but could you?"

McEnroe could. He put down his medicine and patiently posed with three more children, putting his arms around them as the woman snapped away. He also kept coughing.

Finally, he settled into a chair in the corner of the lobby. "I remember I used to think it would be nice to be recognized by people," he said. "But now, I really can't go out and do anything without stopping all the time. I understand it, I think, but I also understand now when I hear famous people talk about how hard it can be."

It may be hard for McEnroe, but he signs and poses, anyway. He is not outgoing by nature. His smiles always seem forced except when he is with that small group of people he trusts. But, as he finishes his first year as the undisputed No. 1 tennis player in the world, he seems to be changing.

After winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year, beating Bjorn Borg in both finals, McEnroe wants something else: he wants to be liked.

"A lot of people don't understand John," said Davis Cup Captain Arthur Ashe. "He's a hell of a lot smarter than people think he is. He knows when he makes a mistake. I think, I hope, in the future, you won't see him make the same mistake twice."

Ashe expects near-perfect behavior from McEnroe this weekend during the Davis Cup final against Argentina. Ashe already has told McEnroe he will default him if he behaves badly. And McEnroe doesn't expect any problems, either.

"It does bother me when I hear people say that maybe I shouldn't play Davis Cup because I might embarrass the United States," he said. "If people think I'm wrong the way I act, then maybe I should change. It affects me when people criticize me. It's tough for me now, though, because whatever I do, right or wrong, some people are going to jump on me.

"I'm not saying I'm a great guy or that I'm never wrong. But most of the time I have a legitimate gripe when I complain. When I do now, people get on me over the littlest thing. Everything I do gets blown out of proportion."

In fact, since his stormy Wimbledon fortnight, McEnroe has done little to rate criticism. He behaved impeccably during the U.S.'s 4-1 victory over Czechoslovakia. Playing here, before the U.S. Open, he won many fans during the final when he purposely threw away a serve because he believed his opponent had been wronged.

For McEnroe, this could be a decisive weekend. If he plays well and behaves well, he can take a step toward the acceptance he wants so much. But if there is an embarrassing scene he might not even be invited to play Davis Cup next year.

McEnroe has played Davis Cup since 1978, never turning down a chance to participate. He was a part of winning U.S. teams in 1978 and 1979 and a part of the team that lost, 4-1, in Argentina a year ago. That match, in which McEnroe lost White Hat -McEnroe's -Heady Aim By John Feinstein Washington Post Staff Writer

CINCINNATI, Dec. 10 -- John McEnroe was standing in front of a counter the other day, trying to buy cough medicine. He was pointing at various brands, changing his mind, asking for something else and coughing.

While McEnroe spoke with a clerk, two little girls stood behind him, staring. "It is him," one said to the other. "Go ahead, ask him."

The second girl, huge brown eyes open wide, tugged slightly at McEnroe's sweatshirt. "What's your name?" she asked shyly.

McEnroe turned, leaned down and, in an almost conspiratorial whisper, answered, "It's Jimmy, what's yours?"

Now, the little girl was confused. She stared at McEnroe for another brief moment. "No, it's not," she said. "Sign your name."

McEnroe took the paper and scrawled his name, not the name of Jimmy Connors. He did the same for the other girl. They both beamed, then returned to the hotel lobby to spread the news. By the time McEnroe left the gift shop, a small crowd had gathered. He signed all the autographs.

A woman with a camera approached. "I know you're entitled to your privacy, John, but could you?"

McEnroe could. He put down his medicine and patiently posed with three more children, putting his arms around them as the woman snapped away. He also kept coughing.

Finally, he settled into a chair in the corner of the lobby. "I remember I used to think it would be nice to be recognized by people," he said. "But now, I really can't go out and do anything without stopping all the time. I understand it, I think, but I also understand now when I hear famous people talk about how hard it can be."

It may be hard for McEnroe, but he signs and poses, anyway. He is not outgoing by nature. His smiles always seem forced except when he is with that small group of people he trusts. But, as he finishes his first year as the undisputed No. 1 tennis player in the world, he seems to be changing.

After winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year, beating Bjorn Borg in both finals, McEnroe wants something else: he wants to be liked.

"A lot of people don't understand John," said Davis Cup Captain Arthur Ashe. "He's a hell of a lot smarter than people think he is. He knows when he makes a mistake. I think, I hope, in the future, you won't see him make the same mistake twice."

Ashe expects near-perfect behavior from McEnroe this weekend during the Davis Cup final against Argentina. Ashe already has told McEnroe he will default him if he behaves badly. And McEnroe doesn't expect any problems, either.

"It does bother me when I hear people say that maybe I shouldn't play Davis Cup because I might embarrass the United States," he said. "If people think I'm wrong the way I act, then maybe I should change. It affects me when people criticize me. It's tough for me now, though, because whatever I do, right or wrong, some people are going to jump on me.

"I'm not saying I'm a great guy or that I'm never wrong. But most of the time I have a legitimate gripe when I complain. When I do now, people get on me over the littlest thing. Everything I do gets blown out of proportion."

In fact, since his stormy Wimbledon fortnight, McEnroe has done little to rate criticism. He behaved impeccably during the U.S.'s 4-1 victory over Czechoslovakia. Playing here, before the U.S. Open, he won many fans during the final when he purposely threw away a serve because he believed his opponent had been wronged.

For McEnroe, this could be a decisive weekend. If he plays well and behaves well, he can take a step toward the acceptance he wants so much. But if there is an embarrassing scene he might not even be invited to play Davis Cup next year.

McEnroe has played Davis Cup since 1978, never turning down a chance to participate. He was a part of winning U.S. teams in 1978 and 1979 and a part of the team that lost, 4-1, in Argentina a year ago. That match, in which McEnroe lost twice in singles, still annoys him.

"The way the people acted really bugged Junior," his doubles partner, Peter Fleming, said. "At one point, he turned to where about 20 of us (Americans) were sitting and told us to be quiet because when we did anything, the Argentine crowd really got into it."

"It sounds funny now, but it wasn't then," McEnroe said. "How would you like to have 6,000 people yelling at you?"

McEnroe would love to have 16,000 yelling for him this weekend. That won't happen because only about 7,000 tickets have been sold. The reason: single-session tickets are priced at $30, $25 and $20.

While the rest of the U.S delegation has tried to be diplomatic about the high-priced tickets, McEnroe has talked about them all week.

"How can they expect people to sell the place out at those prices," he said. "The kind of people who come out and cheer can't afford to pay that kind of money. I don't want to play in a place that's half full. I'd rather play someplace smaller and fill the place. So maybe they'd make a little less money; big deal."

He has tried all week not to criticize Connors for choosing not to play here. But when Ashe said he would default McEnroe for misbehaving, McEnroe could not hold back.

"I can't believe they'd write something criticizing us when we're here and there are guys who say (the tone became mincing and high-pitched), 'Oh, I just can't play, I have an excuse.' And then the press says, 'Oh, okay then' and they come out with this stuff criticizing us to try and sell papers. I can't believe it."

McEnroe feels his playing Davis Cup is taken for granted. Why, he wonders, hasn't anyone written that he and his teammates are patriots for playing when they could make more money playing elsewhere this week?

"I don't play Davis Cup because I expect people to say good things about me," he said. "I play because I've always wanted to. I remember when I was a kid the year (1972) when Stan (Smith) went to Romania and won singlehanded almost, with all those people screaming at him. I thought that was the greatest thing I'd heard about. Hopefully, maybe in five years, I can do something like that.

"I really admire guys like Stan and Arthur and Borg or whatever who can play without showing any emotion. I think I hold a lot of things in now that I might not have two or five years ago. But people don't see that, they just see the other stuff."

McEnroe was particularly upset during his first match at the U.S. Open this year. Playing against Juan Nunez, the 193d-ranked player in the world, McEnroe dropped the first set. Suddenly, 15,000 people were on their feet screaming for Nunez.

"That match really disappointed me," McEnroe said. "Here I was, seeded first for the first time. I had won Wimbledon. I had been received pretty well during the Davis Cup and all these people, 99.9 percent of them, including myself, having never heard of this guy, are screaming for him.

"I understand it when people root for the underdog. But that wasn't it. They weren't rooting for him. They were rooting against me. Deep down, that hurts me. I want people to like me. Or at least I want them to respect and understand me. I hope someday maybe people will look back at what I'm doing here and say that McEnroe had a little to do with the Davis Cup becoming important again. But maybe I'll have to wait until I start losing before people will like me.

"People like Connors now and he really hasn't changed. Maybe years from now when I'm old and gray people will like me. I hope I won't have to wait that long, though."

Perhaps he won't have to. Today, as the U.S. team was introduced to several hundred people before the draw, a large cheer went up when McEnroe was introduced. A couple of people even waved American flags.

McEnroe noticed. He looked at Fleming. He tugged at his shirt collar.

Finally, he smiled. Not a put-on, pose-for-the-picture smile.

A real smile.