WIMBLEDON, England -- This is John McEnroe 'round midnight of a tennis career, when the light is flickering and the room is emptying. The hands still make the beautiful music, but the legs keep him from reaching the high notes, the ones he used to play a long, long time ago.
He's 32 and strictly playing the middle range, a headliner looking for a curtain call but slipping into the lounge.
Yesterday, on the greatest stage in tennis, he came out flat. He hit the turf. He punched his racket in despair. He even had to be led back to his chair on a changeover like some punch-drunk heavyweight looking for his corner.
He lost, and lost badly when Stefan Edberg of Sweden rocked him at Centre Court, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-4, in the fourth round at Wimbledon.
"If you can make anyone work, you can break anyone down," McEnroe said. "I knew my work was cut out."
But McEnroe couldn't move. He was a balding old man come to play a child's game. He had a few mini-tantrums and still threw in the classic stuff, the junk at the net and the occasional high hard one on the serve. But this is a new era of tennis, the one where speed and power rule.
"Guys go for bigger shots," McEnroe said. "Now, it's outright force."
The new generation thrives on power. While McEnroe was fading out on a rain-shortened day, others were muscling into the quarterfinals.
Reigning French Open champion Jim Courier continued to pay his dues on grass and defeated Karel Novacek, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Next up for Courier is Michael Stitch, a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 winner over Alexander Volkov of the Soviet Union. One day after ousting Ivan Lendl, David Wheaton crushed Jan Gunnarsson, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1.
And on Centre Court, there was McEnroe absorbing body shots from Edberg, the defending champion who was swarming the net. Daring McEnroe to pass in the first set tiebreaker. Whipping off 20 of 22 points in the second set. Punching a service winner to close the third.
"Grass," Edberg said, "has always been a serve and volleyer's paradise."
Grass was where McEnroe made his name. The feisty kid from Queens coming to Centre Court to battle Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, fighting the crowds and the legends in pursuit of perfection.
Now, the crowds come out to cheer for McEnroe. Eric Clapton sits in the family box with McEnroe's wife Tatum, and Johnny Carson peers down from a seat just above the Royal Box. Kids yell "John," every time he comes to a break point.
There may be magic in the racket but there is only lead in the legs. He was bounced in the first round of the French Open, and never really played well at Wimbledon. The birth of his daughter, Emily, left him happy yet distracted. Still, he says, "hope springs eternal." There is always New York in August, the U.S. Open he yearns to win again. But he admits his career is winding down.
"My plan is to play this year and next year," he said. "I'm hoping that's longer than Connors."
McEnroe smiled because Connors may never retire. And then McEnroe said: "If he's still playing the following year, I'll reconsider."
The years have dulled McEnroe's game, and doused his NTC intensity. He's a father of three who likes to play electric guitar and sit courtside at Lakers' games.
"It gets so much tougher because your priorities are different," McEnroe said. "You see the world in a different way. You have other interests. I have three children I love, a wife that I love. When you're younger it's your whole life. You don't realize it at the time, but you realize later on, when it's too late."
McEnroe did so much, yet there was so much left undone. He admits, "life is just like a long learning experience." The kid who knew how to win has become the old man who is learning how to lose. Tennis belongs to those like Edberg and Boris Becker, cleanup hitters who can run all day.
"John played unbelievable tennis," Edberg said. "I still believe he can play some very, very good tennis out there, but he is not as consistent as he was before. He has lost a little bit of speed as well, but you can see there is a lot of greatness out there when he is playing."
But Edberg says McEnroe will never win Wimbledon again. Yet McEnroe remains good enough to dream.
"It would be fantastic to be able to do it," he said. "Stranger things have happened. I'm certainly not expecting it to happen, but if it did, I wouldn't be in shock. Certainly, I'm not going to pledge my life savings on it."
He'll keep playing though, trying to hit the high notes, trying to create the beautiful music. The career needs an encore.