Moments after he walked off Wimbledon's center court in July, having been decimated in the quarterfinals by Kevin Curren's blistering serves, John McEnroe was asked how he had felt during the match.
McEnroe sighed. "I felt," he said, "old."
And then he continued the thought: "It's a funny feeling, because, as a person, I'm still very young, I'm still learning things every day. But as a tennis player I'm getting old."
McEnroe is 26. At that age, most doctors and lawyers are just starting their first job. But McEnroe has been the world's No. 1 tennis player for five years. He is a millionaire many times over. And, he is the No. 1 seed and the defending champion when the U.S. Open now being contested in New York.
Old: This summer, he has been shaken--"scared"--to use his word. He went more than three months without winning a tournament. He was humiliated at Wimbledon--a tournament he has won three times in four years, and a tournament won this year by a 17-year-old, Germany's Boris Becker. McEnroe is going through jock middle age, that period when an athlete starts getting signals from his body that tell him that, although the end may not be near, it is definitely down the road.
The question for McEnroe over the next several years will be this: Can an "old man" stay at the top in an era when tennis is producing single-minded automaton perfectionists, high school dropouts who do nothing more than hit a tennis ball and collect money?
When Becker was asked what he likes to do to relax, he answered, "I like to practice my tennis." When 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini was asked what gave her joy away from the tennis court, she answered, "My joy comes from my tennis."
Their agents tell them when to play and what products to endorse. Their coaches arrange for 10 hours a day of practice, for hotels, for airplanes, for meals. They are exemplars of achievement and success in the 1980s. Like the associate lawyer who burrows through books all night in pursuit of a partnership, like the newspaper reporter who grinds away all weekend in pursuit of the next Watergate, the babes of tennis do one thing all day, every day.
Their success has a price, of course. They don't have lives, as most of us have lives. But if they did, would they also make partner, get the story or win the tournament? If not, can there be Life after Success? And what is left when there is no grail of perfection to quest after? It's a question less sheltered people--and less talented ones--are apt to ask, and perhaps even answer, before they are 26.
As for McEnroe, he said recently: "I know now that there's more to life than seeing a tennis ball."
A simple lesson--in theory. But one that many athletes have great trouble dealing with in practice. If this summer is any evidence, McEnroe may not have that problem. He is in love. He has added the word "compromise" to his vocabulary and, even faced with the possibility of losing his grip on the No. 1 ranking, McEnroe can say, "I'm happier now than I've ever been."
He seems to have found a new challenge in life: becoming an adult. McEnroe, the tennis player, is getting older. McEnroe, the person, is getting better.
To his tennis-playing friends, McEnroe has always been "Junior." The nick name always seemed just right. He is, after all, John Patrick McEnroe Jr. He was also the baby of the locker room, younger than most of his colleagues when he first came on tour full time in 1978. And, he was very much the baby of the court, constantly complaining about line calls, his face a mask of unhappiness even as he accumulated wealth and fame.
During those first years on the tour, McEnroe came to be the personification of the spoiled athlete of today. He appeared to have everything, yet always wanted more. His ranting at officials became as much a part of the show as the tennis and for a time it appeared McEnroe's magic as a player might be lost amidst the controversy over his personality--his immaturity, his singlemindedness, his obsession with success.
There is paradox in this. The three great rivals of McEnroe's career have been Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. Two of the three--Borg and Connors--have been far more popular players than McEnroe. Only Lendl, who is perceived by players and fans as a great talent with no guts, is less popular than McEnroe.
Borg, who almost never showed any emotion on the court, became an almost larger-than-life figure during his career. It was only after he quit, burned out at 26, that people noticed that he had dodged playing Davis Cup for Sweden unless he had financial guarantees and had left his homeland for Monaco to avoid high taxes.