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Friday, October 28, 2011 / 3:01 PM

John McEnroe’s Traveling Tennis & Rage Party at the Champions Tour: Still Angry After All These Years

John McEnroe’s Traveling Tennis & Rage Party at the Champions Tour: Still Angry After All These Years

We came for McEnroe. Yes, certainly, others were there, too—Jim Courier, the former No. 1, with his four Grand Slam titles; Michael Chang, who won the French Open at age 17 in 1989; the 6’6” tennis giant Todd Martin, who held serve against the big boys 20 years ago.

But McEnroe, “McNasty” to fans and critics alike, was in the house, smashing forehand winners at the Chaifetz Arena last weekend, and of course, it was his temper that so many fans had really paid to witness.

He did not disappoint.

The 52-year-old McEnroe—at least a decade older than the three relative children sharing the St. Louis Champions Series tour stop—has barely dimmed in terms of obnoxiousness.

Now gray-haired, with the same sour, colicky look that his face assumed through his ‘80s heyday, the legend turned to argue with the umpire after his very first serve of the night was called out. The crowd could only roar with laughter. Still the stormbringer, still starring in his one-man anger-clinic performance, after all these years, McEnroe has barely changed.

There was, though, an ironic sense of self-awareness. McEnroe seems to get that his argumentative aura will produce the inevitable shouting match, that he will throw his racket, that he will yell at himself like some kind of deranged Yosemite Sam muttering ugly things in far too loud a voice; that for him, these outbursts are about as regular as unforced errors, so he might as well take them as they come, and try to get the crowd behind him. No doubt, his penumbra of mellowness, if it can even be called that, comes from the fact that this is not Wimbledon, and he is long past his competition days. (Although the $500,000 purse for the Champions Series tour winner buys an awful lot of grip tape).

But, though we came for McEnroe, we had to like the first match-up, too: Courier vs. Chang. These guys still bring it. Like all the retired pros on this circuit, they are still capable of delivering a serious ass-kicking. Both Courier and Chang offered hard serves, great placement, laser-like passing shots, and tense volleys. At one point, a perfectly delightful lob from Chang arched over Courier’s head and landed, unhittably, in the very corner of the singles court. On the very next point, Courier responded with the exact same shot for a mirror-image winner over Chang—it was like listening to two great wits in repartee.

Still, the display of athletic prowess came in a bizarre context to all who don’t watch a lot of tennis (or golf or bowling) on TV—the strangely pious, silent devotion of the tennis fan, and the paradoxically church-like quiet of a full sports arena.

Tennis is a sport for which meek politeness is not a fan’s virtue, but a mandate. Talk—or even sneeze—at the wrong time, and you might even get tossed from the arena. Can sudden, strategic hooting from an opponent’s fan ruin a tennis pro’s serve? I suppose, but if everyone could talk or shout whenever they wanted, would it matter?

As it is, tennis on its most exalted stages is the sound of silence, broken by (vaguely sexual) grunting and whacking and the pitter-patter of sprinting tween ballboys and ballgirls (who we’re not supposed to notice, but in their twitchy obsequiousness, make for a kind of child-labor freak show that’s hard to ignore). The applause, measured out during pauses in the action, is nearly as proscribed as that by the audience to a classical symphony. People are not supposed to rise from their seats or walk to them during a point-in-progress, either. And the heads in the crowd turning back and forth like a metronome during the silences can make one feel part of an alien, cultish ritual that is about as distant from a baseball or football game as chess is from a cockfight.

Still, these are retired pros, and the atmosphere, like that of matches organized by sponsoring club the St. Louis Aces, had considerably more informality than a “real” ATP tennis match. These guys like to ham it up. McEnroe raised his arms to get the crowd cheering at several points. Courier refused to move to let a ballgirl get near a stray ball, and the crowd roared with laughter. All the players tease one another, verbally and often, between points. (But not, on this night, as pointedly as the infamous argument between retired studs Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras last year.
Even guys like Chang and Martin, not exactly known for being wiseacres, got into the act with the friendly teasing of their opponents and fans.

(Incidentally, I would love to hear the ice-cold, stone-silent Ivan Lendl bust out with even the most wanly delivered joke. Though he didn’t come to St. Louis, he’s on the Champions Tour, too. To see a crack in the façade of his Eastern European humorlessness would be like a raindrop falling in the desert, and I have to wonder if, in retirement, he’s become capable of forming a simple smile.)

After Courier dispatched Chang 6-4 (in the one-set-format tourney), it was time for the main event: McEnroe vs. Martin. On McEnroe’s side of the net, you have a former No. 1 who won three Wimbledon and four U.S. Open singles titles, plenty of other Grand Slam doubles and mixed-doubles championships, and is No. 3 on the all-time money list. On Martin’s side, you have 11 years of precious time (he’s 41 to McEnroe’s 52).

What you don’t have, by the way, is Bjorn Borg. Borg was scheduled to come to the Lou, but bowed out due to injury. You don’t even have to be a tennis fan to appreciate the intensity of the McEnroe-Borg battles of the early ‘80s. They made for amazing theatre, and the chance to see these old lions wrestle again surely drove tickets sales for the event at Chaiftez, but alas, McEnroe’s headbanded Swedish foil was not up to the task, and canceled.

McEnroe was there, though, and he brought his attitude.

The vintage McEnroe outbursts are viewable on youtube, and all these years later, they’re still jaw-droppers. The biggie was probably the one that became a catch phrase, the “You cannot be serious!” screamed at an umpire. The runner-up is (arguably) the notorious “Answer the question, jerk!” invective.

Indeed, youtube has scores of McEnroe tantrums, and it’s sad (yet a gawker’s delight) to see that plenty of them were filmed within the last five years of semi-pro, semi-retired, not-exactly-semi-mellow action. Here’s an ugly McNasty tantrum from four years ago on the very same Champions Tour, which is apparently not all fun and games.

McEnroe erupted with his first kvetch when his match was less than a minute old. (See above.) Immediately, several jokers in the crowd held up homemade signs that read “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!” It was awesome.

He did not yell at himself and the umpire, and throw his racket on occasion. He yelled at himself and the umpire, and threw his racket with frequent regularity. It was so childish and so obvious you have to wonder if he’s changed psychiatrists in 35 years, because he doesn’t seem to be getting his money’s worth (unlike us in the audience, that is).

After one of his predictable tirades, something absolutely unbelievable, that you have never seen, nor will never see a tennis player do, happened. Todd Martin approached the ump and told her to go ahead and give McEnroe the disputed point. Whether Martin thought the call should have gone McEnroe’s way and was being graciously honest, or he just wanted to spare the Champions Tour further embarrassment by its star monster, nobody will ever know. More incredibly, the point-change put the game back at deuce. Martin earned a gold star for good behavior. McEnroe looked like even more of a schmuck.

Because McEnroe cannot control his temper, what he does do, these days, is acknowledge it with humor. He peppers the anger with mock-anger, as if to say “Who, me? I’m a lover, not a fighter.” At one point in St. Louis, a young child cried out from somewhere in the stands, and the enraged one said to the assembled, “Quiet, please.” Everyone laughed at his little joke. And then was amused/horrified by his next freak-out. And then laughed at his next jibe. And so the audience’s queasy laughter and bemused discomfort alternated in a roller coaster of unbalanced emotions—but that’s just McEnroe’s patented shtik, performed between serves and volleys.

Martin polished off McEnroe 6-4. After the match point, McEnroe crumpled to the ground, playing dead, but soon thereafter whipped off his shirt and threw it into the crowd like a rock star (though he’d just lost). He then donned a custom sweatshirt that read, in large letters down his back, “McNificent,” and began autographing tennis balls for kids and adults who’d rushed forward in the stands to beseech him.

In the anticlimactic final, Courier defeated Martin 8-7. Just a few days later, the entire season ended, with Pete Sampras the overall tour winner. (Courier took second, followed by Agassi, Chang, Martin, McEnroe, Belleville’s own Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, and Mats Wilander).

There was so much good-natured teasing between the old pros on this circuit, they should seriously consider mic-ing up the players so everyone in the crowd can hear and enjoy all the jokes. Then again, maybe McEnroe is exactly why they don’t. He still has the moves, but he still has the lip. His performance is a calculated, theatrical human train wreck that you’ll want to see and hear for yourself, if you get the chance.
 

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