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TENNIS

Noah No Challenge in Loss to McEnroe

June 20, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Has it really been 15 years since Yannick Noah won the French Open? Apparently so.

Noah, dreadlocks and all, looked as trim and youthful as ever. But with his mind on the World Cup and his backhand on permanent vacation, he was no match for the razor-sharp game of John McEnroe on Friday at The Challenge, the seniors tennis tour's version of the Skins Game.

Noah was embarrassed by McEnroe, 6-1, 6-3, in 65 minutes before 3,460 at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach.

Noah spent much of the match mocking his own sloppy play, but McEnroe was all business.

"It's my time for this event," McEnroe said. "I've lost it the last three years [in the finals]. I made a point of being prepared. For me, it's very serious. It's not like preparing for Wimbledon, but this is our biggest event."

McEnroe will win $150,000 on Sunday if he beats the winner of today's semifinal between Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

Noah had lost six of his seven previous meetings with McEnroe, and on Friday was at a bigger disadvantage than usual. Noah has been doing commentary for French Television on the World Cup and arrived in the United States on Thursday afternoon.

"I haven't been playing enough, I guess," he said. "I always have trouble with John anyway. He's always in control and that's hard. He reads me pretty well and I don't read him."

McEnroe lost only 10 points on his serve the entire match and picked on Noah's weak backhand throughout. Noah said there's nothing new there.

"I've had a problem with my backhand for . . . about 25 years," said Noah, 38. "But I've had better days with it than this."

Noah's only weapon was his serve, but McEnroe had that figured out too. He broke Noah's serve three times in the first set, and four times overall. Noah's accuracy was better when he served toward the bar behind the grandstand. When the bar patrons got a little too lively, Noah turned around and lofted a ball into the window to quiet them.

"For some reason, I return his serve very well," McEnroe said. "When Yannick's serve is on, it's the best in senior tennis. These were very difficult conditions for him. It was extremely bright, and I felt a lot more prepared than he was."

At 39, McEnroe doesn't hit the ball with as much authority as he did when he was the No. 1-ranked player in the world from 1981-84. But he still knows how to get to the net quickly and how to hit a passing shot like no one else.

"If anyone played the style I played they could take care of anyone that's out there," McEnroe said. "It's not an easy style to copy. But it's not out of the realm. All you do is commit to working yourself close to the net and cut off the angle. I was always taught the closer you are to the net, the better the chances of winning the point. Nine out of 10 guys now look like a fish out of water at the net."

In the third-place doubles match, Mel Purcell and Hank Pfister defeated Tim Wilkison and Bob Lutz, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6. Purcell and Pfister fought off five match points, four in the tiebreaker, before taking the match.

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