For John McEnroe, the best tennis player in the world in 1981, the hardest part of the game is enjoying it. It is the one thing that does not come naturally to him.

"I'd like to enjoy tennis," he says. "There are guys who play baseball who love baseball. That's not the way I feel. I've never loved tennis the way I should, the way people think I should."

The way he loves playing the guitar. He wouldn't mind enjoying tennis that way. Someday, although he's reluctant to set himself this goal (goals create pressure and there is enough of that already), McEnroe says, "It's my intention to go for it."

Go for enjoying what he has become. Go for "playing tennis the way 'people think it should be.' " Go for finding out if "I can just go out and play, enjoying the fact of where I am, how good I am, that little kids are looking up to me, all the good things. I tend to look at the negatives. To enjoy playing well and doing well."

There is a truism in sports: great champions are not taken to the public bosom until they have been humbled by time, humanized by events. Only then can the masses identify. So Billie Jean King at 38 and Jimmy Connors at 29, are venerated. In their younger, brasher days, they, like McEnroe, challenged authority, bristled at officials who did not comprehend their perfectionism, betrayed a naked, unseemly desire to win.

McEnroe says he does not want to be loved: "I'd rather be respected. If they respect me, they care." Surely, it is not so difficult to respect and identify with his struggle to peacefully coexist with his success, and more than that, to enjoy it.

There is a risk in abandoning the temper that has carried him so far. And it raises questions, too, old ones he says, about whether "I can be nice, the all-American guy."

In one overlooked sense, he already is. One week after he lost two Wimbledon championships, singles to Connors, and doubles with his partner Peter Fleming, he is meeting the Swedes in St. Louis, his fifth consecutive year of Davis Cup matches.

Connors rests this weekend on his laurels. McEnroe puts himself on the line. He lives on the line. It is not very homey. Maybe this week he'd rather be at the beach, "just getting everything out of my system."

But that takes time. "It takes so long to unwind," he says. "I haven't been able to unwind for five years. To some degree, I can relax. I probably won't until I stop playing."

Last year, at Wimbledon, McEnroe declared officials the pits of the earth and won. England decided he was the pits. This year at Wimbledon he was gentlemanly, polite. He villified no one but himself and lost. "I was pretty relaxed," he says. "I was feeling all right. I said, 'You can't be relaxed. You've got to be uptight, You've got to be jumping out windows.' "

The question is: can he be as good as he is while being good? "I've proven I can be good," he says, referring to his 1981 victories over Bjorn Borg in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

But can he do it consistently? Will it make him a better tennis player, a happier person? "That's something I question myself," he says. "You do something one way and it works, why change it? . . . I think it's possible I could be as good as I was or better being all right. But I probably still have some doubt. I haven't gotten around to doing it yet. It's a possibility that I won't be. There is that possibility . . . I'd like to find out. I don't want to look back in five years and say, 'I never tried it, maybe I could have been better.' The one thing I'm concerned about is to reach the potential I've got."

The sentences are stream of consciousness. The thoughts flow, sometimes incomplete, sometimes elliptical, like his thinking on the subject. "It's probably elliptical because I'm not sure myself (about how I feel)," he said. "I don't like to say things unless I'm sure."

His father is sure that McEnroe doesn't need the act. "He doesn't think I need to do it," he says. "He's got a lot of confidence in me. I probably have less confidence. I'm not saying I'm insecure. Basically, I think I'm secure. In some ways, he's more confident about my tennis than I am."

One thing he knew for sure. "I didn't want to win Wimbledon if it meant going through what I went through last year. It wasn't worth it . . . It was the worst two weeks of my life. For two seconds, when I won that tournament, everything lifted from my shoulders. For two seconds, it was amazing. Then all of a sudden, I didn't go to the dinner and there were 1,000 people at the airport. I was so hung over I didn't even know my name."

So they gave him some: Superbrat, the Incredible Sulk, McTantrum. They looked at his face and saw a tantrum. He had a few. There was the day he called the umpire incompetent. "This year, I had something with the umpire, a thing in doubles. I called for the referee. In the meantime, he asked for play to continue. I said, 'If we play on, it will be over by the time he arrives.' He said he would penalize us unless we played on. We ended up winning the game. After, I said, 'Don't we have the right to wait for the referee?' He said, 'Only if you question his (the umpire's) competence.' Last year, I called him incompetent and got fined. This year, I had to say it to get the referee. I thought it was funny. They didn't think that was very funny. The people are so different. They're just on another wave length."

There is a paradox about McEnroe. He says he does not want to be known. Nobody should care what he thinks about politics, he says, or who he dances with at Studio 54. "I don't mind reading People magazine," he says, "as long as I'm not in it."

But knowing someone does not mean knowing whom he boogies with and where. In that more profound sense, McEnroe is uncompromisingly revealing. You can feel him trying to make his way through the pressures and the fame. "The difference between being No. 2 and No. 1 is a great difference," he says. "I didn't think it would be this great. There's guys in the top 10, people whose names you don't know, who make a great living. I think, 'God, it would be easier if it was like that.'

"It's hard to explain in words how much different it is. When you imagine being No. 1 in your mind, you imagine being No. 1. You don't imagine dealing with things all the time, being recognized anywhere. It doesn't seem so bad to the average guy. He doesn't realize how nice it would be to go to a concert and not be recognized. I don't like that stuff. I don't criticize people who love the celebrity status. I like to be left alone. I don't really want a lot of people to know me."

Some might wonder from his tone and demeanor whether he is happy. "I don't sit in my room and say, 'Why is this happening to me?'" he says. He is happy about what he has accomplished. He feels "pretty good" about himself, the way he has handled the pressure, the injury to his left ankle (better, thank you) that made him think about his body for the first time, and the losses. "I'm not the bummed-out type," he says. "They think if you're angry on the court, you're 10 times worse off, that you go back and start breaking rackets. I'm not saying I haven't. But I'm not the same on the court and off it."

Off the court, he is unhappy when he is scrutinized as though he were on it. "I'm unhappy because I don't enjoy the celebrity type thing . . . At this point, it still gets on my nerves. People yell, 'You're an ass.' Instead of turning another shoulder, I turn around and say something."

Not as often as he used to, though. "People say, 'How can he not be enjoying it? He makes zillions of dollars and this that and the other thing.' They can't possibly understand. I'm not trying to be condescending. I know because I went through it."

Eventually, he says, "I'll probably mellow out rather than fight it for so long as I have." But he says he'll never be another Borg. McEnroe will never stay back.