NEW YORK -- Labor Day weekend, and John McEnroe is still in the U.S. Open, still delivering the most gorgeous shots in tennis, playing the big matches like they might be his last.
He can't stop and savor anything, now. Not the standing ovations he receives as he walks on the court, not the roars that ring out when he leaves. That will come later, during the winter, when he decides once and for all whether this is a last hurrah or a long reprise.
Yesterday, McEnroe beat Richard Fromberg, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4, in the third round at the Open. And then he sat and talked about a lot of things. Retirement. The game. And the next match against the No. 1 player in the world, Jim Courier.
Until he's out, American men's tennis at the Open is McEnroe and everyone else.
Andre Agassi brings style and celebrities. Pretty in purple, playing before Barbra Streisand and Michael Bolton, Agassi demolished Jan Siemerink. And Courier, the best baseline basher in the world, out-muscled Cedric Pioline, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
But let's face it, with Jimmy Connors gone, the heart of the tournament is McEnroe. And this could be his final stand. At 33, with a wife, two kids, and a fat bank account, he's talking $H retirement. Or at least a long, slow goodbye.
"It's probably the toughest thing an athlete has to do," McEnroe said. "You feel like you are in a certain way. You are sort of, but you have to retire."
Still, there are moments when McEnroe says he realizes he can stay in the game, remain a force. He made it to the Wimbledon semifinals on something more than memory. And he is blasting his way through this Open, losing one set in three matches, bringing out all the old, familiar weapons, from the high-kick serve to the touches of genius on the run, those gorgeous soft-touch volleys.
"I don't want to be a punching bag out there," he said. "It doesn't matter how old you are -- it matters how good you are."
McEnroe can still defend himself, still deliver body shots. He's the 16th seed and he's an underdog, his career coming full circle.
When the Open camped out at Forest Hills for two weeks, McEnroe was a ballboy. Then he helped bring the tournament from the country club to the National Tennis Center.
"The Open was in my backyard," said McEnroe, who lived in Douglaston, Queens, a 15-minute ride to Forest Hills. "And Wimbledon, that was more like a fantasy."
Of course, McEnroe put together a career that was part fantasy, part nightmare. He'll probably be remembered for the awful moments, for the "pits-of-the-world" speeches at Wimbledon, for the four-letter shouts at the Open.
But he also gave the sport a little beauty. You don't win three Wimbledons and four Opens on anger alone. Yet while he was winning, McEnroe acknowledges he didn't fully appreciate his accomplishments. And now, it's too late to go back.
"Ideally, you would peak in your 30s and work your way up," he said. "But that's not the way sports is. You have to accept the good with the bad.
He isn't sure of his future. Honest. If he wins the Open, he'll play full-time another year. If he doesn't, then he'll try a few exhibitions, announce a bit, and maybe, just maybe, play some of the Slams.
But he needs a few weeks to plan the rest of his life.
"At some point, you have to decide you are going to stop being a kid and grow up a little," he said.
Yet here he is, still playing a game dominated by teen-agers. And he's in a big match again, going against Courier tomorrow in the fourth round with Agassi likely waiting in the quarterfinals. And then, who knows, a roll like that is too big to contemplate?
"I'll be here playing the No. 1 player in the world, so if I lose badly, that means I won't be much of a factor," he said. "But I am there with the opportunity. And now, I just need to pick it up another level. I feel like I played real well and gotten to where I am supposed to get. But this is a whole other deal. This separates the men from the boys."
Can he win? "Yeah, if Courier gets in a car accident, or if he gets nervous or something," McEnroe said.
He laughed. And then he left.
Labor Day weekend, and McEnroe is still in this thing.