John McEnroe's bid to show the world he can master the slow clay surface of the French Open tennis tournament was destroyed today by his own quick temper and the cool, methodical game of defending champion Mats Wilander.
The 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 defeat of McEnroe in the quarterfinals of the championships also spelled an end to U.S. hopes of winning back the title after 28 years. Monday, No. 1 seed Jimmy Connors was upset by Christophe Roger-Vasselin, who is ranked 130th in the world.
Wilander will meet the winner of the Guillermo Vilas-Jose Higueras match. That match was halted today after 4 hours 13 minutes, not including a 1 1/2-hour rain delay, by rain and darkness with Higueras leading, 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, 4-6, 2-1. The other semifinal will be an all-French match between Roger-Vasselin and Yannick Noah.
The McEnroe-Wilander match had all the makings of a classic encounter between players of very different styles and temperaments. McEnroe, 24, a left-hander, was at his creative best in the first set when he caught Wilander off balance with a series of beautifully placed drop shots. He was at his sulky worst in the third and fourth sets, when he lost 23 straight points and 11 straight games in a final humiliating rout.
Surrealistic farce took over at the beginning of the fourth set, just as McEnroe's game was collapsing and he was engaged in running arguments with the umpire, two line judges, a group of photographers and a large segment of the whistling, jeering crowd. In the midst of all this, out of a windy Paris sky appeared the U.S. space shuttle Enterprise, flying on the back of an Air Force jumbo jet several hundred feet directly above Roland Garros Stadium.
This apparition evoked another fit of pique from McEnroe, who had complained of distractions from the crowd throughout the match. He retired to his chair on the sideline and sarcastically applauded the shuttle, which was making an exhibition flight from the Paris Air Show.
Earlier, play was suspended for several minutes in the third set when McEnroe disputed a line judge's call with the match tied 4-4, one set all. He harangued the umpire, calling him "a moron" while attempting to get him to come down and say exactly where the ball had landed. Further confusion followed when the umpire's microphone went dead and he was forced to shout above the noise of the crowd to make himself heard.
A few moments later, McEnroe took off his shirt and entertained the crowd by flexing his muscles.
Unlike similar incidents in the past, this particular one had a much more damaging effect on McEnroe than on his poised 18-year-old opponent. Wilander's game seemed to improve in rhythm and sparkle while McEnroe's went to pieces.
After racing desperately for a series of well-placed returns of serve and passing shots, McEnroe seemed to lose all interest in the match. He won only seven of the last 47 points.
McEnroe blamed his defeat on a lack of experience on clay and a loss of concentration at a vital moment.
"I should have won the second set. He played much better in the third set but that's no reason why I lost it. I was afraid. I missed shots that I should easily have won," he said.
McEnroe's performance on clay seemed to have improved during the tournament after a shaky start. Wilander acknowledged that he felt worried early in the match.
"John took me by surprise with all those drop shots . . . He showed today that he is able to play on clay," he said.
McEnroe appeared to have a good chance of winning when he was serving at 4-2 in the third set, with two game points for a 5-2 advantage. But Wilander pulled even, breaking McEnroe's serve with a magnificent passing shot down the line. It was then that the 23-point rout set in.
Wilander, No. 7 in the world, said his strategy had been to play to McEnroe's relatively weak backhand. He added that since last year, when he became the youngest player to win the men's singles at Paris, he had tried to improve his game by volleying more at net.
Asked about McEnroe's shows of temper, he replied diplomatically, "They didn't worry me in the least, but I think he was certainly disturbed by it. I think he should do it less since it's making him lose his concentration."
At the beginning of the match, McEnroe appeared to be making a strenuous effort to keep his feelings under control. He already had been fined a total of $3,350 here, bringing his total fines this season to $5,750. This leaves him less than $2,000 short of an automatic three-week suspension from the game that could disrupt his plans to take part in Wimbledon later this month.