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U.S. OPEN PREVIEW : Tournament Begins Today and the Question Is . . . : Will McEnroe Find the Answer?

August 26, 1986|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As the curtain rises on this year's United States Open Tennis Tournament, the couch rolls in. The psychiatrist's couch.

Could it be for ninth-seeded John McEnroe, playing in the first round today at the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadow?

McEnroe's public anxiety attacks have been building to such a crescendo that the man who was formerly known as Mighty Mac has of late become Flighty Mac.

After losing to Ivan Lendl last Sunday in the final of the Hamlet Challenge Cup at Jericho, N.Y., McEnroe spoke about retiring. He spoke about it a lot.

That was less than a month after his return to tennis from a seven-month layoff.

"It may come to the point when it is unacceptable to lose to players I think I'm better than," McEnroe said. "Obviously, I'm not happy with the way things are going. It's up in the air. I hope I don't get frustrated too soon. Right now, there are still reasons why I shouldn't be playing that well. If next year or so I see I'm getting worse, then that's time for me to get out."

McEnroe was displeased with the level of his game last week. He struggled in the semifinals against Paul Annacone and understandably lacked rhythm and sharpness. He will have to regain them quickly, since he is playing Annacone, No. 20 in the world, today.

"At this point, I don't expect anything," McEnroe said. "I feel, realistically, that there's not much of a chance of me winning (in the Open). I definitely have my doubts. I don't know for sure if it's going to happen. If it doesn't, maybe somebody's trying to tell me something."

These are not the words of a confident dominator. This is not the attitude of a person who hopes to overpower Lendl or Boris Becker, who lie in wait for McEnroe.

Which McEnroe fears most, the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world, or coping with his own inner turmoil, is not known.

Lendl, the defending champion, would like to win here in hopes of finally shrugging off his mantle of "choker." Even though the Czech has not fallen out of the top three since 1981, the reputation that he can't win the Grand Slam tournaments still burns. Until his break-through win in the 1984 French Open, the best Lendl could do in a Grand Slam event was to struggle to the final and lose big.

His win here last year may have proved more to him than to others, but now Lendl wants to repeat to show that the first title was no fluke.

Becker is seeded No. 3, behind Mats Wilander. Wilander is superior to Becker on this surface, a hard and fast concrete called Decoturf II. Wilander was a semifinalist here last year and, at 22, has already won two more Grand Slam titles than Lendl. He's ranked No. 2 in the world, indicative of his immense talent. Yet, he has said he does not have the drive and single-mindedness to be No. 1.

In that, he can abdicate to Becker, who appears to have enough ambition to carry him to No. 1 in a few years. Becker is another enormous talent, with a serve that is nearly unreturnable, and a powerful forehand. Still, the wunderkind is only 18. He can be inconsistent and, if his serve happens to break down, he doesn't have Wilander's ground strokes to fall back on.

Both players are coming off tournament victories. Wilander just beat Jimmy Connors in the final of the Assn. of Tennis Professionals tournament. Becker won the Players International the week before.

Connors will celebrate his 34th birthday before the tournament is over. It may well be his last Open. Connors, seeded No. 6, has won here five times and has enough savvy to fight his way past more talented players. Still, his best recent tennis may have been played when he last won the Open, three years ago.

Stefan Edberg, the serve-and-volley Swede, is seeded No. 4, and Yannick Noah, who won the Tournament of Champions in May but has a lingering ankle injury, is No. 5.

On the women's side, the return of Steffi Graf and the physical and mental statuses of defending champion Hana Mandlikova are factors that could keep this tournament from becoming another installment of the Chris and Martina Show.

Graf is seeded third here and is No. 3 in the world, yet the 17-year-old West German did not win a tournament in 1985. She came on earlier this summer and won four consecutive tournaments. Graf won 23 straight matches in that stretch before losing to Mandlikova in the French Open. Graf then suffered a broken toe in a freak accident last month at the Federation Cup.

Graf's mental toughness is well documented and her all-court game has done nothing but improve. Graf's 1986 record is 35-4, and it includes victories over Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova. Only Navratilova has lost fewer matches this year.

Mandlikova is both a question mark and an exclamation point. She withdrew from the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles with an ankle injury. Earlier this year, though, the 24-year-old Czech has fought off a rotator cuff injury and a groin pull.

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