Great tennis, good luck put McEnroe, 33, in quarters


July 01, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — He has gone from being a long-haired, headbanded teen-ager with a wonderful touch and a terrible temper to a short-haired, head-scratching 33-year-old whose shots are still magical and whose behavior still borders on maniacal.

Superbrat has turned into Superman at the All England Club.

Going into today's quarterfinals in the 106th Wimbledon, John McEnroe suddenly has become the focal point of the fortnight. He has gone from being an 80-1 long shot to an 8-1 contender, from a three-time past champion with little chance to a serious threat.

Not long ago a memory in men's tennis -- pleasant for some, who remember him as the greatest shot-maker in the game's modern history, unpleasant for those who recall his often boorish behavior -- he seems to have some memorable tennis left in him yet.

"Just because of the experience I've had, you can't totally discount me," McEnroe said when the tournament began. "If you get two or three guys to break their legs and, you know, if someone gets struck by lightning. . . . I've got a lot better chance than most of the guys in the draw, but I don't think there's very many guys that have a chance."

Nobody has broken a leg. Nobody has been struck by lightning. But McEnroe has advanced through his side of the draw with a combination of great tennis and even better luck, with victories over players who aren't as experienced or as fit as he.

Start with his second-round win over former champion Pat Cash, who tired in the fifth set. Then came the upset of top seed Jim Courier by Russian qualifier Andrei Olhovskiy, who, in turn, fell victim to McEnroe's mind games Monday in the Round of 16.

And now comes Guy Forget, certainly the best player McEnroe has faced at this year's tournament, seeded ninth and ranked the same. But Forget, a 26-year-old Frenchman with a wicked serve, has a history of getting nervous in big matches, as he did when he double-faulted with a chance to extend Boris Becker to a fifth set in the quarters here last year.

"You know, since I was a kid, my dream was to play someone like John," Forget said after beating Jeremy Bates of Great Britain. "That's always what we dream about."

Crowd favorite

McEnroe certainly will try to turn Forget's victory over Bates to his advantage, knowing that he now will be the crowd favorite as well as the underdog.

"It's just a mental thing," McEnroe said. "You feel like if you go out there and miss a shot or things aren't going the way you want, for example, that you don't start getting down on yourself just because you're supposed to win. When the pressure is on the other person expecting to win, it's always a different approach."

There had been little hint of this performance from McEnroe. With the exception of his run to the quarterfinals in this year's Australian Open, during which he beat defending champion Becker in the third round, there have been no significant victories. He is ranked 30th in the world.

It was in Australia that he began working with Larry Stefanki, a former men's tour journeyman who had bumped into McEnroe earlier and persuaded him to go back to the game that made him the dominant player in the world from 1981 through 1984.

Stefanki's advice was simple, similar to the words Tony Palafox, McEnroe's first coach, told him when McEnroe returned from the second seven-month hiatus he took between 1986 and 1988: Don't try to hit with the power of the young Americans -- Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- or players such as Becker and Michael Stich, this year's defending Wimbledon champion.

A blast from the past

The only blast McEnroe should give is one from the past, #F Stefanki told him. It was like telling a magician that he should give up the glitz and smoke and go back to pulling rabbits from a hat.

"A lot of them had said he can't do it at 33," Stefanki said Monday. "But he's surprising them. Fatigue can be the biggest factor, but he has spring."

Said McEnroe: "I mean, for me to be angry because guys hit the ball harder and my time is past is absurd. I'm fighting to be a legitimate player based on what's happening now. This is the present, and I've got to deal with the fact that players have gotten a lot bigger and more powerful."

The one thing that has been noticeable during the past nine days has been McEnroe's fitness, especially his legs. He has dropped between 6 or 8 pounds by eating smarter -- this from a man who once said he was on a "Haagen-Dazs diet" -- and training harder.

It has allowed him to reach drop shots that seemed beyond him a couple of years ago and to chase down lobs that were irretrievable. It has enabled him to wear down Cash in the second round and shake off Olhovskiy in Monday's 93-degree oven.

"His leg speed is a lot better. He's very, very fit," said Stefanki, who has become the first coach to travel with McEnroe. "His attention and energy levels are so high. His concentration is the thing. There's only one player who's been doing that on tour this year, and that's Courier."

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