The minute John McEnroe can shake the nightmare of the Australian Open, he will begin to play the kind of tennis he's capable of playing.
He's not there yet.
The specter of what happened in Australia was still with McEnroe Wednesday night when he met Jimmy Connors in an exhibition match in front of 9,693 fans at the Forum--memories of the probing reporters, ever-present photographers, and grass courts that played like bad rental carpet.
McEnroe beat Connors, who was playing in his first match after being out five weeks with a back injury, 6-4, 6-2, in the Forum Championship Tennis Challenge.
But it was not vintage McEnroe.
McEnroe spent the better (or worst) part of this month fending off questions about the status of his relationship with actress Tatum O'Neal. So persistent were the media in Australia that McEnroe finally exploded. In a scene that made the evening news around the world, McEnroe pushed and spat on a photographer in a hotel.
Then, McEnroe played poorly on grass courts that had been ravaged by rains and overuse. He was eliminated in the quarterfinals. He also was fined for various code violations and next week will begin a 30-day suspension.
Earlier this week, McEnroe confirmed that O'Neal is expecting a baby and said the two would get married, although a date was not set.
"You're not going to see me in that facility ever again," McEnroe said of the Australian Open site. "It's the world's worst facility. I know it sounds like sour grapes. I wish I could have won the thing and said the same thing, believe me."
McEnroe said he was happy to play in an exhibition, "It's kind of nice. People here are nice to me and the crowds are good. It's good to get away from tournaments. You can show another side. It's good tennis, but also a fun side. It's not do or die, like some people make it out to be."
Five weeks ago, it was do or die for Connors. A back injury had kept him out of the Forum series twice before, and he was pleasantly surprised with his performance Wednesday night.
Asked how he felt, he replied: "I'm walking. The last four or five days I've been hitting balls. Coming out here and playing, it's like icing on the cake.
"This is great for me. I haven't played in five weeks and this shows me that I can still play on this level."
McEnroe started slowly in the first set after beginning the match by double-faulting on his first serve. He never really recovered on his serve, as he consistently missed his first serve.
"It's just a matter of days," McEnroe said. "I lost all my timing and rhythm in Australia. I lost everything I had in Australia. But it's a matter of days to get it back."
Connors capitalized on numerous unforced errors by McEnroe and broke in the seventh game of the first set. McEnroe returned the favor to pull even at 4-4. He held his serve then broke Connors again to win the set.
The mood of the event was light. Connors and McEnroe, between whom there is a distinct chill, kept up a banter throughout the night. Connors was particularly loose. As McEnroe ran him around in the second set, Connors looked across the net and said, "I'm not in shape, but I will be tomorrow."
In women's singles, Martina Navratilova defeated Pam Shriver, 6-3, 6-3.
Navratilova had little more than a mild workout with her doubles partner in a match that lasted less than one hour.
Navratilova said she is still on the emotional high after winning the Australian Open. That win catapulted Navratilova back to the top of the women's rankings. Chris Evert Lloyd had been ranked No. 1. Shriver is ranked No. 4.
Shriver and Navratilova have played exhibition singles two other times this year, and Shriver has yet to win. While Navratilova is on her way to an exhibition in Phoenix, if weather permits, Shriver said she's finished as her friend's punching bag.
"Go to Phoenix?" Shriver asked, laughing. "Heck no. I couldn't do this two nights in a row. I'm not a masochist. I'm going home."