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TENNIS / LISA DILLMAN

Outspoken McEnroe Wants to Help the Game That's Served Him So Well

July 11, 1999|LISA DILLMAN

Even at 40, John McEnroe continues to weave his Magic Johnson-Michael Jordan-Larry Bird magic. Quite simply, he makes everyone around him better, as well as livelier and more opinionated.

In the broadcast booth.

On the tennis court.

Mac speaks, and his colleagues try to keep up with him. In the darkest days of men's tennis--before Andre Agassi got his groove back-- McEnroe was the most compelling reason to watch tennis. What would the guy say next?

He has made the senior tour a lively force in the sport. And McEnroe turned mixed doubles into a must-see event when he joined Steffi Graf at Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals before an exhausted Graf, hobbling with a sore thigh, withdrew to concentrate on singles.

Graf was laughing and joking with McEnroe on the court. When she missed a return on the first point of their first match, he threw a mock tantrum, tossing his racket on the grass and putting his hands on his hips. When he missed the next return, Graf imitated his racket toss.

"I have made an effort to try to make sure, whatever happens, to enjoy myself," he said.

Anyway, it was great theater.

Wimbledon was an apt prelude to McEnroe's induction Saturday into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, R.I., showing his influence on the game has continued long after his retirement from the tour. He could have walked away, totally, from tennis and that would have been understandable, considering he has a large family from his first and second marriages.

But he cares about the game and will keep talking, writing and agitating until his final breath. Judy Levering, president of the U.S. Tennis Assn., discovered the extent of his interest when they recently had lunch.

"I think tennis can come back to where it was in the '70s, but it can't do it unless everyone is on the same page," Levering said. "A lot of it is listening to people. What do you think it needs? We should be the coordinating body. And if we're not doing that, we're not doing our jobs."

Presumably, Levering was allowed to speak during the lunch. McEnroe wants to be some sort of tennis czar, since apparently his wish to play Davis Cup doubles won't be granted any time soon.

"This guy cares passionately about the sport, which I kind of felt he did, but I didn't realize how much," she said. "Our job is to find a way so he can [get involved], instead of appearing to put up road blocks--which we really aren't--but perception sometimes is reality."

Looking over his career before his Hall of Fame induction, McEnroe spoke with particular pride about his Davis Cup accomplishments.

"I've been part of five [Davis Cup] winning teams, no one can take that away from me," he said. "The final match I played with Pete [Sampras], Jim [Courier] and Andre was absolutely fantastic. And if that's the last match I ever play, that's a hell of a match to go out on."

The full Mac record started when he won the mixed doubles, as an amateur, with Mary Carillo in 1977 at the French Open. The temperamental left-hander won seven Grand Slam singles titles, 10 Grand Slam doubles titles. In all, he won 77 career titles and was a finalist 31 times. Of his 10 Grand Slam doubles titles, he won with four different partners--Carillo, Peter Fleming, Michael Stich and Mark Woodforde.

"Well, I'm not as hungry as I used to be," he said. "But I'm still hungry, still hungrier than the average Joe."

That was unmistakable at Wimbledon. He dearly wanted one more doubles title and was within two matches of attaining that goal when Graf gave him the news. He said it felt like a punch to the stomach. She said it wasn't easy to tell him, saying he tried to talk her out of it.

"Come on," McEnroe told her. "We could win this."

It was a Hall of Fame combination, broken up before its time.

Maybe McEnroe can talk Graf into suspending her retirement from Wimbledon for one more mixed-doubles run next year. Knowing Mac The Mouth, it wouldn't be an upset.

NOTABLE

* Pre-qualifying for the Mercedes-Benz Cup, Monday through July 18, has attracted 150 players vying for one spot, organizers said. The main tournament is July 26-Aug. 1 at UCLA and has drawn a stellar field, including three of the four semifinalists at Wimbledon--Sampras, Agassi and Tim Henman.

Also scheduled to appear are Courier, Marcelo Rios, Greg Rusedski and Michael Chang. Chang, in an effort to rejuvenate his game, is tuning up for UCLA by playing a challenger event in Aptos, Calif., later this month.

* Francesco Ricci Bitti of Italy is the new president of the International Tennis Federation, replacing Brian Tobin, who served an eight-year term. Former USTA president Harry Marmion finished second with 91 votes. And what of Ilie Nastase? He received nine votes.

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