Missing the artistic and volatile McEnroe

GENIUSES tend to be an incomprehensible species, whatever their fields, whatever their disciplines. They are God's very special creatures, although not too many of them can necessarily be god- like. For a person with a brilliant but wicked mind can also be a genius.

They tend to create violent reactions in the society they live in; and even in their fellow beings sometimes. It is never easy for people to come to terms with such people.

They surprise you. They shock you. They infuriate you. For you do not understand their actions. Nor do you appreciate them properly. It makes them furious. But they can also dazzle you by their rare, even extraordinary, talents in their respective vocations.

You may love them. You may hate them. But you cannot ignore them. They compel you to sit up and take notice of their skills even if you are seemingly disinterested. In your heart of hearts you do admire them for what they are.

John McEnroe was one such genius. A player of incredible natural talent, McEnroe was one of the sport's most enigmatic figures as well.

While his brilliance and flair raised his game to the level of art, his on-court tantrums reduced matches to shambles. Why, many a time McEnroe spoiled his own masterpieces.

They would call McEnroe a tormented genius, a complex character, but they could not help marvelling at his vintage tennis bordering on the sublime, especially when the mood seized him.

Like Muhammad Ali in boxing, McEnroe attracted so much universal attention, inflamed high passions, provoked controversies of a high magnitude and a high-octane mix of curiosity, admiration, envy and ire.

McEnroe stood out in an otherwise much gentlemanly sport of tennis because he was different. He was a rebel. Aware of his ability to raise both his own game and the tennis itself to almost unsurpassed heights, McEnroe's urge for perfection was so intense that even the slightest of errors by himself or his judges on the court would make him behave boorishly.

He smashed, he spun and he argued. To those who had their fill of his foul-mouthed assaults on officials which, like his tendency to over- react to grievances, both real and imagined, did not diminish but grew more vehement with each passing year, McEnroe was always a cocky petulant brat. Hence the label ``Superbrat''.

``I've never been fined for saying anything obscene. It's always something like `You are the pits.' Is that the most unbelievable thing that has ever been said?'' argued McEnroe at Wembley in 1981. Exactly ten years later he was at his worst, defiling the hallowed turfs of Wimbledon in 1991 when he threatened a linesman with a flurry of the choicest four-letter words.

Vijay Amritraj once said: ``I may not be as aggressive as most but, if I had to be like McEnroe to be No. 1, then I don't want to be No.1.''

Apologists like the late Arthur Ashe defended McEnroe saying that his eruptions were instinctive and not designed to buy time or distract his opponent.

But the same McEnroe gave the game away, having been disqualified in the 1990 Australian Open, by admitting he would not have said what he did to officials as he realised he was only a penalty point from expulsion.

``I guess it was bound to happen. It's too bad. I don't feel good about it but I can't say that I'm totally surprised,'' he said afterwards. ``They have written the rules for me. Pernfors (McEnroe's opponent) could have been cursing a lot but people think that it's funny because Swedish sounds funny.''

Subsequent events suggested that McEnroe learned nothing from that experience. He was fined 6,250 pounds at Wimbledon in 1991 when an ITN microphone picked up his tirade against a line-judge, as said earlier. He was fined 4,000 pounds at the French Open in 1992 for abusing court-side photographers.

So much for those who argued that McEnroe would have seen the light had he been thrown out of Wimbledon in 1981.

While critics saw McEnroe as surly and difficult, his friends described him as modest and shy. His entire career had been paved with good intentions. He admitted in the early 1980s: ``I must stop acting this way, it can only hurt me.'' But few survived the flimsiest test.

His trouble was that while these outbursts inspired him in the early days, they probably destroyed him subsequently as his fitness failed to keep pace with his enormous talent.

Yet, at the top of his form McEnroe was a rare genius, cast in the same mould as Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona or Vivian Richards. They all had an uncanny facility for creating the illusion, mainly by instinct, of having more time and space in which to operate than anyone else.

``McEnroe has been classed as a genius by some and an eccentric by others. Whichever category covers him, his game is truly amazing. The wide left-handed serve causes even the greatest of his opponents serious problems. He can play every shot in the book and many which have not been written about yet. His top spin backhand and forehand is produced with infuriating ease, and his speed around the court intrudes on the privacy of every square inch,'' observed Tania Cross in her book The Man With the Rage to win.

His hand-eye co-ordination was better than most players. His ability to sight a serve early, and take it on the rise, enabled him to dictate rallies from the outset. At the net, where his feather-light delicacy of touch on the volley and half-volley so sharply contrasted with his abrasive attitude, McEnroe had possibly a few peers and no superiors.

``I fall in love with his game every time I see it, though I'll never understand it,'' said Ion Tiriac once about the great man. And this is what Tiriac's pupil Boris Becker had to say: ``Tennis has to be careful. Not everyone is a computer. It's good that we have John McEnroe. I hope we have a couple more.''

Much as his detractors condemned his behaviour, they could not subscribe to the view that tennis would have been better without McEnroe - any more than cricket literature would have benefited from Neville Cardus' absence or hockey from Dhyan Chand's. Undoubtedly, McEnroe was the most talented player of his era and possibly the most gifted and artistic ever seen. ``I've seen him play Goliath with a pea-shooter, seen him win tournaments by just being there. By being John,'' remarked his long-time doubles partner Peter Fleming.

``Mac simply nickels and dimes you to death. A slice, a nick. You don't know where the ball is going or with what spin or speed. He's the greatest talent since I've been around,'' was the opinion of his Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe.

``I've never been made to look an idiot on the court before - not by Borg, not by anyone until I played McEnroe today,'' confessed John Lloyd after the 1978 Davis Cup final. ``The best way to beat him was to hire an assassin! He can hurt you with so many things. He has incredible control. He hits hard and accurate and the way he plays is very orthodox,'' said Matt Mitchell about McEnroe after losing to his Stanford University mate in a crucial match.

McEnroe first hit the consciousness in May 1977. He was playing Ricardo Ycaza of Equador in the final of the WCT World Junior Invitational in Dallas and broke down and blubbed on court when he lost. ``What a jerk,'' reacted one journalist spontaneously.

Just two years later, having become the first qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semifinals and helped America regain the Davis Cup, McEnroe was in Dallas again, playing none other than Bjorn Borg in the final of the WCT's main event. The ``jerk'' won 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6. Magician Mac, at 20, had well and truly arrived.

Known as much for his whinning as his winning, McEnroe won three Wimbledon singles and four U.S. Open singles titles. He won 77 championships in all and also played 12 years for the U.S. Davis Cup team; he subsequently captained it, too.

Some of McEnroe's milestones as well as tours de force stand out. None was more enthralling than that unusual four-set, 18-16 tiebreak with Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final. And none more damaging than his outrageous behaviour at The Championships a year later when, after a nonstop feud with officials, he ended Borg's five-year reign; then he failed to show up at the champions' dinner.

He did turn up after his successful defence in 1982 but did not quite get away with it. Halfway through her speech Martina Navratilova looked along the top table and said: ``Oh, hello John, I'm surprised to see you there!'' Touche. 1984 was certainly McEnroe's annus mirabilis. He won the Wimbledon for the third time, devastating Jimmy Connors in a virtuoso display the like of which Centre Court had never seen. He won the U.S Open for the fourth time, Ivan Lendl being the hapless victim. He won the WCT Masters and nine other grand prix titles. All told, 82 of the 85 singles matches he played that year.But two of those three defeats left him scars he would always carry. In the final of the French Open in Paris he was two sets clear with points for a 3-1 lead in the third over Lendl when he became distracted by noise from a television cameraman's headset and flipped. It was an open invitation to the shrewd Lendl who accepted it gratefully. ``The loss hurt me more than any other in my life,'' he admitted recently. ``Even now I think about it. And it was my own dumb fault. I had it won.''

But that was not the case in the Davis Cup final against Henrik Sundstrom in Gothenburg. McEnroe, his form blunted by a three- week suspension, was routed in the singles and then, with his regular partner Fleming, beaten in the doubles as well. It marked a bitter end to an otherwise brilliant year.

Until he ducked out of the first half of 1986, McEnroe appeared to have taken his talent for granted. The break marked a watershed. The game changed course, too. On his return he was visibly out of step and off the pace. But being McEnroe, he would still produce an occasional flash of the genius that had the world gasping back in 1984. Why, even at 40, McEnroe could electrify a crowd with a wave of his wand. Those who saw him at Wimbledon in 1999, pairing with Steffi Graf in mixed doubles, will vouch for this.

Love him or hate him, could tennis really have meant so much without McEnroe?

Tennis, like most sports, numbers a few bores among its so- called stars and superstars. But no one ever slept when McEnroe was on the court. Or even at his press conferences. He has always had something to show, something to say. His sense of duty for his country, whose call he has answered more often than any other American, has long been among the more positive aspects of his personality. ``I've never seen him go back on a commitment. I mean here is a guy who has played Davis Cup competition every year that he's been asked, at some considerable financial sacrifice,'' said Fleming.

McEnroe, a much mellowed man now, is still a big draw. He continues to be in demand. People on the street recognise him. The media all over the world wants to speak to him. The television companies request for his presence. It is still a very busy schedule for McEnroe who is a respected television commentator now.Already tennis is not the same since McEnroe called it quits. He is being missed; no doubt about it. Warts and all, McEnroe will be missed much more than some may realise as the one-dimensional power game has taken an ever firmer hold in the new age. John McEnroe was inducted into the international tennis Hall of Fame in 1999.