LA JOLLA — When John McEnroe retires from tennis, he will be remembered as one of the sport's greatest singles players. Others will remember him more for his on-court tantrums that made him one of tennis' more controversial players.
But Peter Fleming said people should also remember something else when they think of McEnroe.
"He was a better doubles player than a singles player," Fleming said. "You certainly couldn't say that anybody was better than he was on a doubles court."
Fleming would know. He was McEnroe's doubles partner for 10 years. In that time, Fleming and McEnroe won 54 doubles titles, including four at Wimbledon, three at the U.S. Open and seven at the Nabisco Masters.
Fleming, who has been retired for four years, became a better player and famous in tennis circles by being McEnroe's doubles partner. But Fleming said his partnership with McEnroe worked both ways.
"He might have been a completely different player had he not played doubles," Fleming said. "I had some input in him developing those first couple years. We were a good team. He was my coach and I was his coach."
Fleming, 37, will be without McEnroe this weekend in La Jolla when he appears in the Tennis Classics tournament at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. He is the second-seeded player in the eight-man singles tournament that begins today. The singles and doubles tournament, which runs through Sunday, will offer $40,000 in prize money.
Fleming opens singles play Friday against Ross Case. Later, Fleming and Anand Amritraj play Bob Lutz and Case in doubles.
But it will be hard to watch Fleming play doubles without thinking of McEnroe. Fleming wouldn't say whether he would rate himself and McEnroe as the best team ever, but he said their contrasting styles made a perfect match.
"He was left, I was right," Fleming said. "I hit it hard, he had touch. I was tall, he was short. We worked so well together."
But Fleming said he and McEnroe, who became friends while playing junior tournaments in New York, didn't always play so well together. They were a flop in the first doubles tournament they entered, the 1977 Pacific Southwest event in Los Angeles.
They lost in the quarterfinals to Roscoe Tanner and Marty Riessen.
"Both of us were embarrassed by our play," Fleming said. "By the end of the match, I couldn't even breathe. I was afraid to say anything to John, but then he told me he was sucking wind, too. That was our first taste of the severe L.A. smog."
Fleming and McEnroe quickly recovered from their embarrassment in Los Angeles. They reached the finals of Wimbledon less than a year later. Then, in 1979, they won Wimbledon and the Masters.
While McEnroe and Fleming were emerging as the best doubles team in tennis, they were also among the top-rated singles players. McEnroe won the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1980, and Fleming was ranked eighth in singles in July of 1980.
Today, few highly ranked singles players participate in doubles. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s mostly everyone played doubles.
"There's just so much money in playing singles now," said Fleming, who was runner-up in 1976 NCAA singles tournament while at UCLA. "(Doubles) is not worth the effort."
Fleming said it was always worth the effort to McEnroe, regardless of the circumstances.
"John didn't like to practice," Fleming said. "And Harry Hopman always told us that anytime you can play a match under pressure it's better than practice.
"We must have played hundreds of matches that went past midnight. But we were on that schedule and we got used to it. John would play his singles matches at night, then we would play a late doubles match. We'd wind up eating after midnight and staying up till three or four in the morning."
But no matter how grueling McEnroe's singles match had been, Fleming said McEnroe was usually ready for doubles.
"One of the things that made him such a great doubles player was that he was a great team player," Fleming said. "He was into every point and he kept you prepared."
Of course, Fleming said, there were other factors that helped McEnroe excel on a doubles court.
"He was one of the best serve-and-volley players ever, he had a great return of serve and he had the quickest hands I've ever seen," Fleming said. "If I hit a good serve, there was almost no way he wasn't going to kill their return."
But while McEnroe's singles skills translated to the doubles game, his theatrical skills didn't.
"John was more laid-back," Fleming said. "He had a partner to feed off of. It wasn't quite that me-against-the-world thing in doubles."
Now that McEnroe is considering retirement from the main tour, he has expressed interest in playing on a seniors tour. That possibility has Fleming contemplating a return to tennis on a part-time basis.
"What's been lacking in a seniors tennis tour is unmistakable stars, like Connors, Borg and McEnroe," he said. "You can't run a tour on the Gulliksons, myself and John Lloyd. You're not going to draw any appreciable crowds."
Eventually, Fleming said he would like to see senior tennis rival the success of golf's senior tour.
"If it's worth your while to compete and get in shape, guys will do it," Fleming said. "I don't need to make a million dollars. If can play 12 to 15 weeks and make a decent living, that would be fine.
"Jim Courier told me, 'You have to make this thing work. I want a job in 10 years.' "
Tom Gullikson is the tournament's top seed. His brother, Tim Gullikson, is seeded third and Sandy Mayer is fourth. Seating for the four-day event will be limited to 500 general admission seats per day. Seats are $15 a day and can be purchased at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Play begins today and Friday and 3 p.m., Saturday at noon and the singles finals are scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m.