John McEnroe, dressed in a white sweat suit, collapsed on the couch in the players' lounge, still exhausted almost an hour after winning his fourth-round match at the French Open Tuesday. For McEnroe, this tournament is a constant strain, each match an ordeal. The red clay is not his favorite surface, the hot sun is tough on his fair skin and two weeks of best-of-five matches never is fun.
But at 26, McEnroe has figured out that nothing -- not even McEnroe -- is perfect. He is here because this is a major championship and a supreme challenge. He has won the U.S. Open four times and Wimbledon three times. He has not won here. He lost the final a year ago, blowing a two-set lead against Ivan Lendl in a match he calls "maybe my most disappointing loss."
For the most part, though, McEnroe has won. He is firmly established not only as the world's No. 1 player but as the game's No. 1 presence. His face is all over Paris on advertising for the tournament, on advertising for tennis equipment, even on a poster hawking yogurt.
He has been part of some of the game's greatest matches and part of some of its more unpleasant scenes. He is the man who surpassed Bjorn Borg when the Swedish master seemed unsurpassable. And, in spite of his behavioral transgressions, he has helped make tennis more popular.
"I enjoy tennis now more than I ever have," he said this week. "I've learned to look at the positive. The rewards are nice and so are the rivalries I've had with Borg, (Jimmy) Connors and Lendl.
"I'd like to win here because I haven't ever done it. Last year was disappointing because there was so much buildup around the match but also because I choked in a major final. It happens. It may happen again. I hope not, though."
It has been almost eight years since McEnroe made tennis headlines as an 18-year-old semifinalist at Wimbledon. Some called him precocious. Others called him obnoxious.
Since that remarkable fortnight, McEnroe has often combined magical tennis with monstrous behavior. Today, the magic finally seems to have become the focus.
There still are moments when he goes backward. Recently, he screamed an obscenity at an opponent during a pre-French Open tournament. After the loss to Lendl here last year, he refused to speak to the crowd during the awards ceremony.
But for the most part, McEnroe is no more tempestuous than many other players. Jimmy Connors, whose image has been so cleverly reshaped by his agents at ProServ, still makes obscene gestures almost routinely. And if some of the things Anders Jarryd yells in Swedish were translated into English, it might make Connors blush.
Today, many fans like McEnroe and admire his skills and competitiveness. Tuesday, when he fell behind Joakim Nystrom in the fifth set, the crowd at Roland Garros rallied behind McEnroe. Later, he said, "The fans gave me a rush when I was tired. They energized me."
Great matches seem to energize McEnroe. Of those he has played, most people talk first of the 1980 Wimbledon final with Borg, won by Borg, 8-6, in the fifth set after McEnroe had won the fourth-set tie breaker, 18-16. Of the 34 points in that tie breaker, only one ended on an error.
"All I remember about that tie breaker is winners," McEnroe said. "He would hit one, I would hit one. It was exciting tennis, I know that.
"But what I also remember about that match is that I choked. I beat him, 6-1, in the first set and I was dominating him. But I just couldn't believe that I was beating Bjorn Borg so easily."
Later that year, McEnroe got even during a remarkable four-day stretch at the U.S. Open. He beat Lendl in a four-set quarterfinal Thursday night, won the doubles with Peter Fleming in five sets Friday, beat Connors in a 4-hour 20-minute, five-set semifinal Saturday night and, finally, beat Borg in five sets in a four-hour final Sunday -- ending Borg's four-year unbeaten streak in five-set matches.
"That was as satisfying probably as anything I've ever done," McEnroe said. "It was satisfying because of the people I beat -- Lendl, Connors, Borg -- and because of the way I did it. It may not have been the best tennis I've ever played, but there was a lot of guts involved."
The next year, McEnroe beat Borg in four-set finals at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open and, in the opinion of many people, drove Borg out of the game because he could not deal with being No. 2 to McEnroe.
"As good as the two finals in '80 might have been, the '81 final at Wimbledon might have been my most important match," McEnroe said. "Wimbledon was getting to be a mental thing with me because things had been so unpleasant for me and I'd had so much trouble since '77, my first time there. If I hadn't beaten Borg in that match, I don't know what would have happened."
The most significant moment of that match came in the third set. Each player had won a set and McEnroe was serving at 4-5, 15-30. Borg hit a lob that was long. It was called long. But the chair umpire overruled, called the ball good and made the score 15-40: double set point.
McEnroe started to the chair, stopped, turned around and saved both set points, the game and, eventually, the set. "Everybody expected me to get ticked off, I knew that," he recalled. "But what was I going to do? I couldn't afford to go off right then."
McEnroe went on to win the match and, for perhaps the first time, many of the English fans.
McEnroe's relationship with England and Wimbledon is one of the sadder aspects of his career, sad that a country that loves tennis should constantly be at odds with such a good player. This year, McEnroe will play only one tournament in England -- Wimbledon -- because, he says, the English press makes life miserable for him when he is there.
The trouble at Wimbledon began in 1977, when McEnroe argued calls throughout a five-set quarterfinal with Phil Dent. That was when the tabloids began labeling him "McBrat" and "McNasty."
"It's ironic that was the match that started all that," McEnroe said. "That year here at the French, I played Dent and lost to him in five sets. During the match, I gave him several points on bad calls because when I played in juniors, that's what you did. If a guy got a bad call, you gave him the point.
"After the match, Dent came over to me in the locker room and told me that you just didn't do that in pro tournaments. He said it all evens out eventually and when you're a pro you don't worry about the other player. You just worry about yourself and stand up for your rights.
"I thought about that when people got so upset with me at Wimbledon after a match with, of all people, Dent. It was ironic but it did teach me to not worry about the other player out there because when I do, I play worse."
Some of McEnroe's best moments have come in Davis Cup. In an era when people like Borg and Connors shunned Davis Cup, McEnroe played -- always. His presence on the U.S. team not only helped win the Cup four times but helped restore the tarnished image of the Davis Cup.
Because of that, McEnroe was hurt when the U.S. Tennis Association demanded this year that all U.S. players sign a letter agreeing to adhere to a new code of conduct.
The new code came about after Louisiana Pacific, the U.S. team's corporate sponsor, had formally complained about the behavior of the team during its loss in the final last December in Sweden. Most of the controversy involved Connors. Yet, McEnroe was deemed guilty, apparently by association.
"I can't believe after my involvement with the Davis Cup that they would do that to me," he said. "They can say what they want in general but to compare me to Connors in Davis Cup is ridiculous.
"I've always liked playing Davis Cup. I like the team feeling. I enjoy that very much. We had some good teams that won and some good teams that lost. But I couldn't stand it when we weren't a team, just individuals out there playing. I'd rather lose than feel that way. Sweden (with Connors) was the worst it's ever been.
"It was disappointing and frustrating and then people made it sound like the problems in Sweden were both of us. That just wasn't fair. I'm just going to take a year off, let the air out of the thing and then see what happens. I'd like to play again if the circumstances were right."
Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe basically sides with McEnroe. He was against the signed code of conduct. Of Sweden, he says, "The problems were with Connors, not John. He was a good boy. He just played lousy. His behavior was fine."
There is hurt in McEnroe's eyes when he talks about Davis Cup. There, more than anywhere else, he feels unappreciated.
The fact that Connors, who has rarely played Davis Cup, has managed to shape a "man of the people" image during the twilight of his playing years is one of the reasons for their frosty relationship.
"There is a personality conflict between us," McEnroe said. "We're just very different. We're the same in that we both want to win badly. If you go to see us play, you definitely get your money's worth. I'll give Jimmy this: he tries harder than anyone I've ever played against -- Borg, Lendl, anyone.
"But he has this hate thing with the other player. I'm not that way; he needs that."
McEnroe has a break-even or better record against all three of his great rivals: 8-8 with Borg, 17-12 with Connors and 12-11 with Lendl. He says he enjoyed the rivalry with Borg the most "because I thought that was the best tennis. We just seemed to bring out the best in each other and had great matches. (With) Lendl, for some reason, it's usually a rout one way or the other depending on who is more ready. With Jimmy, it's been the most intense because of the personality thing."
That is why McEnroe says his 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 defeat of Connors in last year's Wimbledon final might have been both his best and his most satisfying victory.
"It was satisfying because it was Jimmy," he said. "It was during a time when things were really bad between us, we weren't even speaking. I didn't just beat him like 3, 3 and 3, I really beat him."
McEnroe said there was one other thing that made that day satisfying: "I really felt like playing that way at Wimbledon in the final kind of showed people that tennis is on a different level now. I don't think the great players of way back or any of the guys like Stan Smith or Nasty (Ilie Nastase) could play on that level. I just don't think they could."
Given that, given that McEnroe should have several more years at his peak, where does he belong among the game's great players?
"I don't really know," he said. "The players I've seen, (Rod) Laver would definitely be No. 1. He's always been my idol and I don't think I could ever put myself ahead of him. I'd put Borg and Connors up there right behind him and I'd put myself in there somewhere with Bjorn and Jimmy.
"I don't worry about records, though. People say I haven't won the Australian. Well, if I never win it that's no big deal to me because it isn't a big deal to me. If I ever won here and Wimbledon and the (U.S.) Open the same year I would feel a moral obligation to myself and everybody to play."
Fulfilling obligations always has been important to McEnroe. He once said that he played Davis Cup because he promised his mother as a boy that he would finish college and play Davis Cup, and when he left Stanford after a year, "I figured I'd better play Davis Cup."
As he has grown up, albeit sometimes in a manner painful both to himself and to others, he has changed. The tennis is better. The behavior, still not perfect, is better. When people complain about McEnroe now, they often say, "Why doesn't he ever smile out there?"
McEnroe smiled at the question. "I've heard that," he said. "I guess it's because I was brought up to believe that you don't show that on the court. Sometimes I'd like to laugh or smile or relax and enjoy it. But you can't because if you do you might lose concentration, your game might drop and if it does, especially nowadays, you're in trouble.
"When I first came on tour, I really enjoyed it: the travel, moving up on the computer, everything. Then, when I was first No. 1, I felt the pressure and didn't handle it very well. Now, I think I can take the pressure. I love the feeling of playing well, of coming through when there's pressure.
"That's why the rivalries and the great matches are something I've enjoyed and that I'll always remember. Now that I'm a little older, I think I can feel good about my tennis.
"The game is fun for me now."