Bringing up baby

He walks onto the outdoor court at the Four Seasons Resort and Club, and the cheers fill the thick late-evening air even before the announcer introduces him as "one of the greatest tennis players of all time." John McEnroe raises his racket with his left hand, nods his head full of slightly graying hair, and soaks it in. He doesn't smile, but walks straight ahead, takes his spot on the court, and begins warming up by hitting balls to his opponent, two-time Australian Open champion Johan Kriek.

In a moment, McEnroe will begin serving, the crowd will begin cheering him even louder, and the fiery 39-year-old will begin cursing out the chair umpire as he has done for 20 years. Kriek will hold serve in the first set, take McEnroe to a tie-breaker, then go down quietly in the second set. The two players will, every now and then, turn a single point into a graceful, muscular marathon. They will dive for balls, swear in anger, pump their fists in defiance and delight. They will play not like so-called "seniors" with aching knees and sore arms, but like the young men you might remember seeing on television in 1982.

As recently as a decade ago, perhaps, a match-up of two men once ranked among the top 10 male tennis players in the world might have meant something. A decade ago, the humid air in Las Colinas might have bristled with something close to electricity. But on this September 25 night, there is barely even a breeze. What unfolds in front of the crowd of 3,000 more often than not barely resembles tennis.

Oh, they use rackets, they wear white. But somewhere between then and now, between McEnroe's storied career and its forthcoming undignified end, it stopped being a game and turned into a traffic accident. The most courtly of all professional sports has become Jell-O wrestling. McEnroe's matches with Kriek and, eventually, Jimmy Connors degenerate into temper tantrums. Dignity, McEnroe dare not speak thy name.

"This is the senior tour," Kriek says later, his voice shaking in anger. "This is not Wimbledon finals. This is the twilight of our careers. We don't need to act like it. I'm sick and tired of it, and if the owners of this tour want to kick me off the tour, go ahead, knock my ass right off the tour. That guy [McEnroe] has got a screw loose."

Welcome to life on the Nuveen Tour, the corporate-sponsored senior circuit where 40-year-old legends, shoulda-beens, and never-weres keep picking up paychecks till they can no longer hold a racket or play with their balls.

"It beats working for a living," McEnroe says when asked why, dear God, why? "I don't need the money, but the bills are still coming in. I don't want to dip too much into my savings. I'd rather be safe than sorry, and it keeps me in shape. I don't think I'll be doing it when I'm 50 years old, but this is my time right now. I get to compete. It's at a lesser level, but it's in your blood. My goal is to be the George Foreman of tennis."

Apparently, tennis legends do not retire; they do not disappear with grace and dignity. Out of the spotlight and in such places as Richmond, Virginia, and Aaland, Finland, and even Las Colinas, they continue to make money playing the golden-oldies tours. Such former greats as Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastasie, Yannick Noah, even Stan Smith dust off their old rackets, rub down their tired legs, and keep trotting out onto the court to make some quick scratch by entertaining the crowd with their monkey acts.

On this weekend, McEnroe and Connors--the only players anyone has come here to see, and they know it--and a few other lesser-knowns have brought their show to a part of the country where McEnroe and Connors played some of their finest matches so very long ago. McEnroe last played a professional tennis match in Dallas nine years ago, when he was still ranked the No. 4 male tennis player in the world. He was a 30-year-old superstar at the bottom of the top of his game, and he beat a forgotten Brad Gilbert in the World Championship Tennis finals at Reunion Arena, taking home his fifth WCT title in a decade. Ten years earlier, at Moody Coliseum, McEnroe won his first--beating both Connors (in straight sets) and Borg during a single tournament for the very first time in his then-young career.

Now, as he steps onto the court at the Four Seasons, that WCT victory seems like a lifetime ago. The tennis courts at the Four Seasons are hardly the old slabs once brought into Moody, much less Centre Court at Wimbledon. This is the playground for the vacationing rich, the rich and the puffy, not legends. It's like going to a high school gym to watch Michael Jordan play a game of pick-up ball, or going to Loos Stadium to watch Joe Montana throw deep.

Watching McEnroe play tennis in 1998 is like watching a ghost chase his shadow. He looks the same, moves the same--every now and then, he covers more court than concrete--but he is not the same. He is still sharp, though the blade can no longer cut through tin cans the way it used to. Even he readily admits, "Of course I don't have the same passion for the game I had 20 years ago." Still, most old-time tennis fans would rather watch McEnroe versus Johan Kriek than, say, Petr Korda take on Jonas Bjorkman. If nothing else, watching McEnroe throw a hissy fit is to be reminded that today's male tennis star is a bland superstar at best, just one replaceable part of a broken machine. Mark Philippoussis, Patrick Rafter, Carlos Moya, even bad-bad-bad-boy Marcelo Rios combined don't add up to McEnroe on his worst day during the 1980s. And will any of them ever be involved in a match as thrilling as McEnroe-Borg in the 1980 and 1981 Wimbledon finals? Never.

Not that tonight's McEnroe-Kriek match is one for the history books.
It does not take long for McEnroe to begin playing like a bad memory. He questions the chair umpire's call a mere two points into the match. Dessie Samuels, a quiet middle-aged woman from Terrell, calls his second serve out. McEnroe insists it's not and approaches the net, stalking it for several seconds, staring at the spot on the court where he thinks the ball hit--as though it has left an impression in the concrete. The crowd begins cheering; theirs are the shouts of satisfaction, because McEnroe has given them what they want. "Tell 'em, Johnny!" they holler during the early games of the first set. "Go, Johnny Mac!"

The crowd, for a while, laughs at his tantrums. They're delighted to witness in person the madman they've only seen on television, long ago. And he offers the occasional brilliant tennis to go along with the spectacle: During the seventh game of the first set, McEnroe covers almost the entire court to rescue a dying ball and sends it out of Kriek's reach. It's almost like watching a highlight film come to life as he dives for the ball, reaching for it as though a Grand Slam tournament is at stake. Even Kriek admires him from the other side of the net. "That's not a bad shot," he tells the crowd as much as McEnroe.

But suddenly the game takes a decidedly nasty turn. When Kriek ties the seventh game at deuce on a call that makes McEnroe unhappy, McEnroe fires a ball over the net and almost hits a line judge on the opposite side of the court. Then McEnroe demands that the chair umpire have the lights turned off on the practice courts behind the press box. At first, she says she doesn't know what he's talking about.

"Don't answer me with that crap!" he yells at her. "You sound like Clinton." For such language, such behavior, he would have been penalized in any real tournament--perhaps even disqualified. Here, his requests are granted. Later, he will admit that "I can get away with anything here, as long as it doesn't land me in jail." The lights are turned off. Then he accuses Samuels of interrupting his serve. "Make that big noise in the mike before I serve," he tells her. "Go on." The crowd begins turning against him, clapping in unison to drown out his protests. It's as though McEnroe's offering his K-Tel Greatest Hits, performing such golden-oldies as "You Cannot Be Serious" and "Are You Insane?"

After one more call he doesn't agree with, he begins shouting at Samuels, spitting his words at her. "Get the hell off the court, lady!" he yells, walking toward her chair at center court. "Who the hell are you? Hunh? Who the hell are you?" After the next point, he fires a ball right at Samuels. It hits just below her chair, and an enormous thud reverberates throughout the stands. When he wins the ninth game to go up 5-4 in the first set, he throws his racket in disgust.

When Kriek ties up the first set 6-6 to force a tie-breaker, McEnroe begins yelling at Samuels again. "No goddamned call has gone my way this whole goddamned set!" He eventually wins the first set 7-5.

The second set begins as the first set ended, with McEnroe questioning every single call. Kriek becomes so disgusted, he yells at McEnroe, "When in the hell are you gonna grow up?" McEnroe points his finger at Kriek as though he were a child aiming a pretend gun. The crowd begins booing McEnroe; he, in turn, sneers at the crowd. Later, McEnroe would compare the whole scene to professional wrestling. Kriek, not so amused, would say it's more like daytime talk-show television.

"I'm sick and tired of his bullshit," Kriek says of McEnroe after their duel. "I am 40 years old, I have a 5 1/2-year-old in kindergarten, and this has become The Jerry Springer Show of tennis with this guy on the other side of the net. We have to put up with this bullshit all the time...If I'm the only one that has the guts to say he needs to be kicked off the tour, fine, kick me off. I work too hard for this tour to be treated like this. You know how many people are going to walk out of the arena tonight and say, 'What an asshole'?"

Yet despite all the outbursts, the foul language and abuse aimed toward a woman who surely deserves better, McEnroe's anger appears to have been tempered by time, comfort, and immortality. Even he will admit after the match with Kriek that his outbursts are as much a function of giving the crowd what it wants as they are of his genuine dissatisfaction with a call.

"It's a big joke," McEnroe says after the match, wearing an Oasis T-shirt and drinking a Budweiser. "When Kriek told me to grow up, I felt like saying, 'Well, unfortunately, there are some things people don't want you to do.' It was funny, because someone [in the crowd] said, 'John, don't grow up.' Listen, they write in my contract that two or three times I have to question a call. It's part of the deal, I hate to tell you. If I sat there and did nothing, people would be all bent out of shape: 'What the hell's wrong with McEnroe? He's just playing tennis? This is crap!'

"This is where it should be wrestling, as far as I'm concerned. Let's put some fun into this, for God's sake.


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