McEnroe `art' looks worse with steroids in picture

January 16, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

NO WONDER Mary Carillo rolls her eyes every time her former doubles partner, John McEnroe, opens his big mouth. Oops, sorry. McEnroe's mouth isn't that big after all. Otherwise, why did it take him 12 years to finally come clean about steroids?

Maybe McEnroe will turn out to be the Jose Canseco or the Ken Caminiti of tennis. His admission - long overdue - comes a few days after British tennis player Greg Rusedski revealed last week that he had tested positive for nandrolone last summer. Rusedski faces a possible two-year ban - although he is fighting fire with fire, saying Association of Tennis Professionals trainers are responsible for doling out supplements that have caused more than 40 players to test for elevated steroid levels.

Forty players sounds like a lot of mischief. In fact, Rusedski's decision to go public about test results has led to accusations that the ATP allowed some top-name players to go unpunished, prompting a debate about the tour's testing procedures. Just what tennis needs.

But it will be McEnroe's admission of steroid use during a time when he amassed some of his seven major titles that throws tennis into the ugly mix with baseball, track and field, and all the other sports where performance-enhancing drugs have changed the game and raised doubts about fair competition.

Now we know that it wasn't the inner child that frothed up in McEnroe after all. It wasn't a self-induced temper tantrum that the tennis champ used to zero himself into his nastiest competitive zone.

Who among us did not excuse most or all of McEnroe's tirades as a form of artistic expression? He was our all-surface Van Gogh, erupting in the heat of the U.S. Open or refusing to go gently into that faded Wimbledon lawn.

Better to curse an umpire as "the pits of the world" than cut off an ear. OK, sometimes McEnroe's embarrassed parents were shown on camera as their hotheaded son launched into Vesuvius mode. But this was necessary, we rationalized. For this artist to attain peak form, didn't he have to explode in a fit of pique? Turns out it might have been 'roid rage, which makes you wonder what and when Ille Nastase is going to have something to tell us.

"For six years, I was unaware I was being given a form of steroid of the legal kind they used to give horses until they decided it was too strong even for horses," McEnroe told a London newspaper this week. That's about seven months after ex-wife Tatum O'Neal accused McEnroe of taking steroids.

Clearly, McEnroe was not using steroids to get his serve to Andy Roddick-like velocity. But getting in shape and recovering from injury to compete for the big dollars is a good enough reason for some athletes to cheat.

You don't have to look like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float to reap the benefits of steroids. Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds may be in front of grand juries to talk about their friendly chemists at Balco, but you can't assume their physiques are courtesy of THG or HGH. It's just magnesium and hard work, the sluggers say.

Besides, as Mark McGwire once tried to educate us about why he wasn't a drug cheat: His use of andro only helped his muscles "recover" from workouts better, faster. It was not the source of his power, bat speed or hand/eye coordination.

It's so hard to pin these people down, which is why the Internal Revenue Service has gotten involved in investigating suspected steroid pushers. Baseball's policies are as soft and deceptive as a Jamie Moyer changeup. Tennis, however, is in line with Olympic standards for tests and punishments. Andre Agassi and Roddick said they were tested as many as 18 times each last year. A two-year ban is pretty serious in a sport where guys retire at 28.

McEnroe now concedes he began a six-year stretch starting in 1986 in which he "unknowingly" took steroids - a denial that seems absurd in the face of O'Neal's assertions in June.

In a TV interview, O'Neal said McEnroe used steroids when he was coming back after their son Sean was born in 1987. O'Neal said she did not know if tennis officials were aware of McEnroe's steroid use, but said she "made him stop because he was becoming violent." In response, McEnroe issued a statement saying he had hoped "after all these years she would see things more accurately and that she would share my concern for the welfare of our children." Now, however, he's revising his personal drug history.

This should make for an interesting Australian Open. Tennis' first Grand Slam event of the year starts next week. It will now likely draw the kind of smarmy scrutiny usually reserved for the Oakland Raiders, track and field sprinters, and any baseball player whose 50-homer season is about 33 more homers than his average.

As for McBrat? Thanks for those colorful Grand Slam memories, but they're a little less genuine now. McEnroe was the ranting but deft champ - an artist whose game was the epitome of great tennis: touch and angles, serve-and-volley, spinning serves and strategy.

That it might have been 'roid rage, not creative expression, that juiced him to such greatness changes things a little.

What did we see? How did he do that? These aren't the kinds of questions sports fans should want to ask about home runs, solo tackles, world sprint records or Grand Slam titles.

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