PHILADELPHIA -- John McEnroe talks of the garbage-filled streets of New York, the grime of tennis politics, the shame of playing matches at the lunch hour. His face is unshaven, his hair uncombed and his bald spot uncovered.
This is no longer the sound and the fury of an angry young man. Age matures some and enrages others. It definitely does not wear well on a rebel still seeking a cause.
Yesterday, McEnroe celebrated his 32nd birthday by playing in the semifinals of the U.S. Pro Indoor at the Spectrum. He was groggy from his quarterfinal match the night before, and outraged by the 12:45 p.m. starting time. Across the net was America's present and future tennis star, 19-year-old Pete Sampras. McEnroe was no longer looking into a mirror; he was staring into an abyss.
"Sampras is a great player," McEnroe would say later. "He is going to be a better player. He has the potential to be No. 1. He has the tools. He has all the confidence in the world."
Once it was that way for McEnroe. But not anymore.
Sampras, the defending champion, beat McEnroe, 6-2, 6-4, to move into today's final. He'll meet Ivan Lendl, who won six of the last seven games to defeat Brad Gilbert, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
It was only the third meeting between McEnroe and Sampras. Sampras won the previous two matches last year, a three-set summer tuneup at the Canadian Open, and a four-set rite of passage in the U.S. Open semifinals.
This was no contest. Sampras unleashed 10 service aces, never faced a break point, and had a twinge of doubt only once when McEnroe skipped away from one match point with a backhand that hit the tape and plopped in play.
"I was thinking then that I would lose the match and it would be a happy birthday for him," Sampras said.
No chance. The teen-ager had no problem against the aging artist.
"I wasn't in awe by any means," Sampras said. "I was expected to win."
At this stage in his career, ranked 17th in the world, seven years removed from his last Grand Slam singles title, McEnroe is accustomed to filling the role of the underdog. But he refuses to go quietly.
McEnroe has a personal trainer now, Rob Parr, whose client list includes Madonna and McEnroe's wife, Tatum O'Neal. McEnroe says he will make one more push to crack the top five and perhaps, even win another Grand Slam. But he makes no promises.
"If I'm not in the top five in the world and don't think I can win a major, I might not play a full schedule again," he said.
McEnroe questioned the scheduling in this tournament, which allowed him only a 14-hour break between his quarterfinal victory over Finland's Aki Rahunen and his semifinal against Sampras.
"I wasn't given a fair opportunity to play my best against Sampras," McEnroe said. "I would have felt better and less fatigued if the match was pushed back. When you're 19, you're sort of like a duck in water. You can get over it. When you're old, you've got trouble turning it around."
As usual, McEnroe spread the blame for the tournament schedule. In no particular order, he blamed the toothless rules of the ATP Tour, the silence of his peers, the lure of easy money.
"Because tennis is so badly set up and the politics are disgusting, they can get away with it," McEnroe said. "It's the same thing -- give 'em a little money."
McEnroe also tried to compare tennis to the litter problem in New York.
"Why can't people pick up the damn paper?" McEnroe said. "People are afraid. It's the same in tennis. Tennis is like a little microcosm of other things."
McEnroe admits he is fighting the same old battles. Litter, tennis, it's all part of a disordered world that enrages this aging perfectionist.
"When I was younger, I thought I'd change everything, change the whole rule book," he said. "You hit your head against a brick wall, it hurts. For awhile, it didn't hurt because my head was so hard."
At age 32, there is so little time and so much to do. The shots hurt. The battles never cease. And the teen-agers keep coming.