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MIKE DOWNEY

Even McEnroe Couldn't Have Bettered This

September 23, 1985|MIKE DOWNEY

When the show must go on but the star can not, the understudy gets shoved onto the stage. Sometimes he or she does not belong there. Sometimes the show is not as good. But the audience will not fling tomatoes, as long as the understudy gives it all he's got.

Paul Annacone put out. He gave it his all. He busted a couple of rackets. He soaked through a couple of shirts. He lunged for passing shots, hustled for lobs, endured strenuous tiebreakers and overcame tenuous calls. He did everything John McEnroe might have done, had the divine Mr. M been on hand.

Nobody really wanted Annacone to be where he was Sunday. The fans in the stands were expecting McEnroe. When they bought their tickets to the $315,000 Volvo men's tennis tournament at UCLA, they paid top dollar because McEnroe was worth it.

Boris Becker wasn't entered. Ivan Lendl wasn't entered. Jimmy Connors was entered but he couldn't play because he exceeded his fine limit. It was not exactly the tournament of champions. But as long as McEnroe was playing, this was big-time tennis. You never knew what McEnroe might do. You never knew what dazzling shot he might make or whether he would accuse a line judge of having the eyesight of Mr. Magoo.

Unfortunately, McEnroe called in sick Saturday. Tatum O'Neal actually made the call, from their place in Malibu. A doctor came out, told McEnroe to turn his head and cough, then agreed that he was too ill to go to work.

That left Annacone in both a good spot and a bad spot. Good, because it put him in the final against Stefan Edberg and gave him a shot at a $50,000 payday. Bad, because you could sense, going into the match anyway, that the paying customers really didn't want him there.

What they wanted was McEnroe. Some, perhaps, had never even heard of Annacone, even though he was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 1984. The 22-year-old New Yorker has been more successful as a doubles player, usually with the colorfully named Christo van Rensburg as his partner.

Annacone spoke what everyone was thinking. He said Saturday that he "felt bad for the tournament and bad for the fans that came expecting to see John." All he could do, he said, was go out there and play and hope to give the folks a good show.

He gave that and more. For close to three hours, Annacone participated in an engaging struggle with Edberg, the Swedish teen-ager who already has defeated Becker, Lendl and Connors this year. The first set went to a tiebreaker, which Annacone won. The second set also went to a tiebreaker, which Edberg survived, Annacone having had five match points.

And the third set? Another tiebreaker. Annacone won, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. Tennis matches do not get much closer than this.

As a matter of fact, it was not a good tennis match.

It was a great tennis match.

Annacone made a few friends Sunday. He made friends and he won admirers. The funny thing was, although he was both American and underdog, he was not necessarily the people's choice. Edberg may have been a foreigner, but he was no stranger. He won the Olympic (demonstration sport) gold medal on this same UCLA court. Half the crowd was probably his.

During the third set, Annacone made McEnroe lovers proud. When bad breaks went against him, he challenged a couple of judges' calls. Yet at no time did he let his emotions get the best of him--or worst of him, whatever. He just kept playing harder.

It made for a memorable tennis match, one that was worth seeing, no matter who was or wasn't playing.

Maybe it would have been more fun to watch McEnroe, particularly if he had gotten on the cases of the judges now and then. But the tennis could not have been any more suspenseful or much better than what the people saw.

And there was a lovely moment toward the end, in the third set. Annacone was after a point that was going to put him ahead in the set, 6-5. A close call went against him. But after Annacone protested, Edberg told the judges that yes, his opponent deserved the point.

John McEnroe wasn't here Sunday. But some of us were glad we were.

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