McEnroe volleys with the past

September 30, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

John McEnroe played last night like the world's No. 1 player that he was in the days of wooden rackets and canvas shoes.

He took one set from Todd Martin and split sets with Jim Courier before 6,129 at Pam Shriver's Signet Bank Tennis Challenge at the Baltimore Arena.

Courier won the event in a tiebreaker, but McEnroe entertained the fans with his good humor and great play.

For McEnroe, who recently has played in exhibitions in Chicago; Phoenix; Charlotte, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Berkeley, Calif., tennis has been cathartic. Twelve days ago, he lost one of his closest childhood friends, Vitas Gerulaitis, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 40.

A fellow New Yorker, Gerulaitis was 4 1/2 years older than McEnroe. He showed McEnroe the ropes at the Port Washington Tennis facility, gave him an appreciation for art, taught him how to play the guitar and made him a believer in the power of charisma.

"I looked up to him," McEnroe said. "He was 18 when I was 14. He was sort of like the Joe Namath of this sport. He was liked by everyone on and off the court. He had charisma."

So does McEnroe. He has a by-appointment art gallery in SoHo in Manhattan. He is a television commentator at Grand Slam events. And he enjoys playing exhibitions.

"He seems to love it and seems to be fairly generous with it," said McEnroe's girlfriend of "a couple weeks," rock singer Patty Smyth.

Last night was the first time Smyth has seen McEnroe, who is divorced from actress Tatum O'Neal, play tennis. Smyth was watching a man who clearly was having fun playing two regular tour players, both of whom were 14 years old when McEnroe won his last Grand Slam title 10 years ago.

McEnroe playfully gave Courier a book to read during one of the changeovers. At the 1993 ATP Championships, Courier was caught reading Armistead Maupin's novel, "Maybe the Moon," during one of his matches.

After Courier received a beneficial call, McEnroe cracked: "It's not Courier's charity, it's Shriver's charity."

McEnroe exhibited the soft hands and great left-handed serve ++ he's famous for. He beat Martin, 6-3; lost to Courier, 1-6, 6-4 and 8-6 in the tiebreaker. Although he also has defeated both Andre Agassi and Michael Chang in recent exhibitions, McEnroe has no delusions of returning to the regular tour.

"I've thought about it," McEnroe said. "But in my smarter moments I haven't seriously considered it."

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