John McEnroe is done. Finished. Toast. The mad genius of tennis whose epic battles with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors dominated the first half of the '80s, and whose tormented battles with his psyche gouged the second half of the '80s, has arrived DOA in the '90s.
It seems to me, he lived his life like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain came in.
For reasons only he knows and the rest of us can hardly imagine, just after the 129th-ranked player in the world had shooed him off Centre Court and out of Wimbledon like a stray cat -- and in the very first round no less -- McEnroe said, "I would like to think this is just the beginning."
Since 1985 McEnroe has won no major championships. He has reached only one Grand Slam semifinal -- Wimbledon, last year, which probably explains the blithely romantic notion to seed him fourth this year when 34th would have been more appropriate. He has been banged out in first and second rounds five times. This is the EKG of a dead man.
Plus, he's 31 years old. "I don't think 31 is real old," McEnroe protested. It's not for a baseball pitcher, but it is for a tennis player. When Jimbo, the Methuselah of the baseline, won his last major, the 1983 U.S. Open, he was four months younger than McEnroe is today. And McEnroe has nowhere near the stubborn single-mindedness of Jimbo.
As usual, McEnroe is claiming he can win again because he's ready to commit himself to tennis. And so begins another in a series of nominal comebacks since 1986. "I've been distracted with family things for a couple of years," McEnroe said. "But now I realize I can separate tennis and family and be great at both." For the record, he's expressed these same sentiments at the beginning of the other comebacks: I feel good, I have a new attitude, I wasn't mentally ready to play before, I am now . . . and blah blah blah.
But is he ready to play? He hardly ever does play. Half the time he's afraid to play for fear he'll say something obscene, and get defaulted for the next 20 years. John McEnroe is a rumor. He's a $90,000 car you can't drive because it's always in the shop. His idea of preparing for Wimbledon was to hit for an hour on a back-yard court with Vitas Gerulaitis. Who's kidding whom? Grand Slam tournaments last two weeks. McEnroe can't control himself that long. He is so mentally fragile, he can barely last two sets without blowing up.
I remember watching McEnroe at the U.S. Open when he was still a genius on the court. His powers of concentration were such that while he was standing on the baseline waiting to return serve he would carry on conversations with fans sitting courtside. Even as his opponent was tossing the ball to serve, McEnroe would still be delivering sometimes witty, sometimes profane, always sardonic lines. He would stop cold, long enough to focus on the ball and smack a winner, then continue the dialogue -- that's how keen his filter was. But he can't block out the ground clutter anymore. Watching him play you see a balloon that's been blown up to the bursting point and suddenly let go, and the air escapes, making it do those loony circles until it falls to earth limp and exhausted. That's McEnroe now. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
"If I knew the answer to why I do these things, I'd be a senator from New York right now, if not president of the United States," he said. "There's just no answer for it, no excuse for it. . . . I have no one to blame but myself." This is the beautiful thing about McEnroe: He always blames himself. He announces he can't go on this way, things have to change, things better change, or he'll get out of the game for good -- then you see him six months later and it'll seem like de'ja` vu. It's a regular drill: McEnroe loses, hops up on the couch and psychoanalyzes himself for an hour or so. If he was any more introspective, he would wear his clothes inside out. When he's done you're always tempted to say: "That'll be 90 dollars, John. See you at the French."
People see him now and forget how great he was, particularly at Wimbledon, where the grass rewarded his power and quickness. Thin as he is, he was sneaky strong, like Ron Guidry. He had that wide left-handed serve that always kicked to righties' backhands -- chased them completely off the court on the ad side -- and the best touch volley ever. But he let the gift rust. He says he gave it "60 or 70 percent" the last few years. Now he'd "like to give it 100 percent," but he isn't accustomed to doing so. McEnroe was a natural, he never had to work as hard as others, so of course he didn't, so it'll be hard, so please bear with him. The problems of the rich, right?
McEnroe probably thinks that everyone understands he really didn't mean it when he cursed at that linesman, or hit a ball at that umpire, or ranted and lewdly berated everybody within earshot at every tournament he's ever been to. He probably thinks they understand it's all part of his personality; his fault, sure, but not really his responsibility, because, come on, he's an excitable boy, you know? He's such an eloquent spokesman for tennis, but such a terrible example of it, the pits of the universe, one might say.
Maybe the struggle will redeem him, but it's hard to imagine John McEnroe having the stomach for a struggle. He's rich and famous, and there's an endless supply of couches to hop up on. The risk is that his legend burns out long before his candle ever does.