NEW YORK -- Stefan Edberg is gone, Ivan Lendl is gone, Jimbo never showed. Martina Navratilova is gone, so are Monica Seles, Zina Garrison and Jennifer Capriati. For the first time in two decades we have no Chrissie. There is only one match to root for, one that would be compelling and worth anticipating at this U.S. Open: McEnroe vs. Agassi in the men's final.
They are the two men in tennis, the only two, who make you want to holler, wave both your hands. You can enjoy the elegance of Edberg, the power and majesty of Boris Becker, the robotic consistency of Lendl. But none of them inspire passion. Mac and Agassi make you crazy.
This tournament, with all of its absences, will be remembered as John McEnroe's tournament if he can just win one more match and get to the final. Nobody does what McEnroe is doing. Okay, Sugar Ray Leonard, but that's about it. Nobody in tennis. Two months ago on a humid night in Rock Creek Park, McEnroe looked as if he couldn't beat a good club pro. Here at the Open, it appeared as if Mac had gone back to the future. Back when he was Mac the Knife, you would watch him play and your eyes were riveted to him. If the opponent wasn't Borg or Connors, you didn't care who it was. Might not even notice. The great ones never play opponents, they play themselves.
You'd just watch Mac's genius, the way his racket would caress the ball and send it back at angles nobody else on the tour could. The maddening serve that wouldn't burn you, just set you up to be embarrassed. How could somebody so physically ordinary -- the next muscle Mac builds will be his first -- make you look so bad. It was like that Wednesday night in the quarterfinal against -- who was it? -- David Wheaton.
He was expressive, spontaneous, creative, artistic even. Some of us can never get enough of McEnroe. For those of us who love him, there is so much to celebrate. For those who have hated him, even they must admit that when he left, there was nobody to replace him. No, his boorish behavior, his despicable cursing of lineswomen, his venomous explosions for more than a decade cannot be explained away.
We baby boomers, people like Mac in our early thirties, excused him then. He was young and brash, he waved a hand (at times obscenely) at anyone who symbolized authority. A generation loved it. In retrospect, we realize -- Mac realizes -- most of it was silly and unnecessary.
But Mac didn't fascinate us because he exploded almost weekly; his tennis was and is one of a kind. Other than a track record of offensive behavior, he and Agassi have almost nothing in common.
Agassi, too, inspires passion. Fans love him. He signs autographs, he throws his shirt to the crowd. In some ways he's the new Connors. He plays 100 mph almost every second (now that he seems to have dropped tanking from his repertoire). But it's all so contrived. The neon clothes, the entourage.
Becker, bless his heart, put the question of Agassi's clothes in proper perspective today. Asked what he thought of Agassi's wardrobe, Becker said, "It does not fit." The size or the color? "Both."
Agassi doesn't dress in the French Open locker room like everybody else; he has a special room where he can change in the company of only his entourage. Sadly, Davis Cup Captain Tom Gorman seems about ready to give in to Agassi and his silly demands that would allow his entourage (brother, agent, hitting partner, guru Nick Bollettieri, a babysitter from Nike, etc.) privileges afforded (nor asked for) to no other player. This after he stiffed the Davis Cup team because his entourage wasn't allowed to come along earlier this year. McEnroe, in contrast, lists some of his Davis Cup victories among his career highlights.
Mac, whatever his faults, respected tennis. He had his problems with the stuffed shirts at the All England Club, but he played. Agassi says he'll play if Nike can create something that satisfies his need for flair and Wimbledon's traditional-white rule. Please. Mac has said some ugly, mean things to linespeople and officials. He never spit on an umpire as Agassi did last week. Had the umpire climbed down and slapped Agassi across the side of his earringed head, it would have been justified.
And when it comes to comparing the two in tennis, there is no comparison. Agassi is the leader of this new generation of players who pound, pound, pound the ball from the baseline until an opponent hits a short ball that can be blasted off the court. Yes, that takes a certain talent, we suppose. Agassi has all the components, speed, strength, endurance. Perhaps nobody has hit a tennis ball harder.
Still his game lacks that Wow! There's no particular originality, no element of surprise, no evidence of imagination at work. Thursday night that style got him a straight-set victory over Andrei Cherkasov. Agassi may use his talents to win several Grand Slam events and his rock star image to make more money than anyone ever has in professional tennis.
However, he will never replace McEnroe. Say this for Agassi: He has the good sense to want to see Mac in the final, even though it may stop him from winning his first Grand Slam event.
Some of the younger players in this New Kids on the Block generation say they had no fear of McEnroe's game. Mac heard that and said he understood. Then he raised his head and the old Mac bravado jumped out. "If I continue playing the way I am and improving the way I am," he said, "they'll be plenty scared; I can promise you that. That's one of my goals, to get people scared of me." That may very well include the loud young Agassi.