NEW YORK, SEPT. 5 -- The John McEnroe show returned to the U.S. Open today.
Since the last time he reached the final here in 1985, McEnroe has lost his top-ranking in the world, lost his air of invincibility and, for a while at least, seemed to have lost much of his persecution complex.
Today, his temper almost cost him a match and it certainly cost him several thousand dollars in fines. He turned what looked like a routine three-set victory over Slobodan Zivojinovic into a life-and-death, four-hour, five-set struggle, finally winning, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (7-3) 6-4, 6-3, just before dusk fell.
But Zivojinovic was not the only person who almost took No. 8 seed McEnroe out of the tournament today. Enraged by a line call when he had a point to win the second set, McEnroe unleashed a profane tirade directed at chair umpire Richard Ings that lasted three games.
After being broken while serving at 5-3 in the second set, McEnroe stalked to the chair, screaming at Ings, "You cost me the damn set."
Ings, 22, from Australia, is one of five full-time umpires on the men's tour. He has a reputation as a no-nonsense guy in the chair and he proved it today. When McEnroe continued arguing with him, Ings slapped him with a code-conduct warning. McEnroe became profane and Ings responded with a point penalty for verbal abuse.
That meant Zivojinovic, serving to even the set, started with a 15-0 lead. He quickly held at love and then broke McEnroe, who was muttering and complaining all the while, to go up, 6-5.
Back to the chair went McEnroe. As he changed his shirt, he kept up a stream of abuse directed at Ings. "You should be in the Guinness Book of Records for lousy umpires," he said at one point.
"I'm getting tired of this conversation," Ings said, turning away.
McEnroe wasn't quite finished. As he left his chair to start the next game, he turned to a CBS technician holding the boom microphone and screamed an obscenity.
Ings responded by giving McEnroe a game penalty, which gave Zivojinovic the set, 7-5. It was also the second strike for McEnroe in the three-strike code of conduct rule. First comes the point penalty, then the game penalty. The third strike is match penalty -- default. One more word and Ings might have defaulted him. McEnroe knows the rules. He walked around in a circle for a couple of moments while the crowd hooted.
"I was thinking that I didn't want to go out this way," McEnroe said. "I got defaulted in Dusseldorf and I didn't want to get a reputation as a quitter. If I was going to lose, especially here where I've had so much success, I wanted to go down fighting."
McEnroe conceded that, "under the rules," Ings had the right to give him the penalties. "I told him to stuff it in no uncertain terms," he said. "I used obscene language. That isn't right. He was wrong, the calls were wrong. But that doesn't make what I said right.
"Sometimes when an umpire knows you're upset about a call he'll let you blow off some steam during a change. I wish it hadn't happened that way. I always seem to make things difficult for myself."
That was certainly true today. McEnroe gathered himself after the game penalty and kept his mouth shut most of the time for the rest of the match. But Zivojinovic was rejuvenated and he played a wonderful third set, saving two set points at 4-5 with huge aces and then winning the tie breaker convincingly.
McEnroe was in serious trouble. "One more set and I lose," he said. "One more word and I'm gone. Of course, I've got experience with the last one."
And yet, angry at the world, in trouble against a player who beats big names, McEnroe came back. He broke Zivojinovic at 4-all in the fourth when the Yugoslavian double-faulted and then got the break he needed in the fifth with a vintage game, finishing with a gorgeous backhand down the line.
It was over after that, McEnroe ending the match with one last brilliant return, a backhand crosscourt. "I'm glad I won," he said. "I know I'll get fined, probably suspended or something and 15 other things. But at least I won."
Boris Becker, playing on the adjacent grandstand court, had to save two set points in the fourth set and needed almost four hours to beat Andrew Castle, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. Other seeds cruised, led by defending champion Ivan Lendl and five-time champion Jimmy Connors. Other winners were Andres Gomez (the No. 9 seed), Henri Leconte (11), Brad Gilbert (13) and Anders Jarryd (16).
The top women also moved on virtually untouched. Second-seeded Martina Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova (4), Helena Sukova (6), Gabriela Sabatini (8), Claudia Kohde-Kilsch (9) and Bettina Bunge (12) reached the fourth round without dropping a set.
But all that paled when compared to the ride McEnroe took everyone on late this afternoon. With his huge serve, the 6-foot-5 Zivojinovic is capable of upsetting anyone and had beaten McEnroe in their only previous meeting, the 1985 Australian Open.
But for almost two sets today, he looked helpless. McEnroe was master of this court again, making Zivojinovic look like a giant puppet, jerking him around the court at will.
McEnroe won the first set with two screaming winners as Zivojinovic served at 4-5. He slapped a forehand return at Zivojinovic's feet to get to set point, then ripped a backhand crosscourt for the set.
Quickly, he broke to take command in the second, hitting the line with a backhand and then jamming Zivojinovic, who smacked a forehand volley deep. That made it 3-1. McEnroe proceeded routinely to a 5-2 lead.
McEnroe must wait until this morning to learn how severe his penalty will be. He is currently in stage two of the Men's International Professional Tennis Council fine system, meaning the next time he reaches $7,500 limit he is suspended for two months. He has $350 in fines right now, dating back to May 25 when he went over $7,500 mark for the first time under the new system. Then, he was fined $10,000 and began at zero again.
Judging by the post-match comments of those who will decide his fines, McEnroe could be in trouble.
"John transgressed today, he deserved to penalized," said Grand Prix Supervisor Ken Farrar. "He knows the code of conduct will be administered if he breaks the rules. I thought the chair umpire did a sensational job."