Bad Boy of tennis still smashing

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:11 AM ET

Over dinner the other night, I mentioned I had interviewed both Anna Kournikova and John McEnroe since they were coming here for tomorrow night's Legendary Nights of Tennis at the Corel Centre.

"Oh, The Bad Boy of Tennis," said my 15-year-old daughter, Emily.

Given McEnroe's greatest glories were well before she was born, I asked her, "How do you know that?"

"He was in the movie Mr. Deeds." "He was throwing eggs at cars or something."

If that's McEnroe's legacy, it's too bad, because it sadly sells short his tennis.

Not that he doesn't come by The Bad Boy of Tennis label honestly. He earned it with his legendary tantrums which made famous phrases like "You cannot be serious!" and "You are the pits of the world!" which he fired at umpires and line judges like rocket serves.

The label seriously shortchanges McEnroe's tennis as he was one of the game's most gifted players, a serve-and-volley master, and its fiercest, loudest competitor.

He was a clenched fist of a player, his hair wildly sprouting from beneath a headband. He heightened the sense of anticipation, leaving those watching not knowing what was coming next, a stroke of brilliance or a monumental meltdown.

He won seven Grand Slam singles titles and his 1984 victory over arch-rival Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, in which he committed just two unforced errors, is viewed as close to a perfect match as there's been.

RUNNING BATTLE

McEnroe forced tennis officials, with whom he had a running battle, to rewrite the record book. It's been said the tennis rule book was 100 pages when McEnroe started and 250 pages by the time he finished.

McEnroe will play an exhibition against Jim Courier tomorrow night at the Corel Centre and don't be surprised if you see some flashes of the old "Superbrat," the label hung on him by the British tabloids.

He lost it in a seniors' tournament in Chicago and apparently sent a water bottle flying into the crowd.

"I see it, but I don't understand it," Pat Cash, who has played in seniors' events with McEnroe, told Julian Rubinstein for a New York Times Magazine profile.

"It's a fine line between genius and insanity. John is the best player who ever walked on a tennis court. He also always walked that line. Sometimes he goes over it."

McEnroe was in Copenhagen when we talked, the strains of guitar in the background as he came on the line.

McEnroe, bigger than life on the court, lived life large off it, too.

Tennis was hardly his life. The game opened doors for him and he gladly took advantage. He recently returned from a trip to Chile with Bobby Kennedy, Jr., a good friend of his, Dan Aykroyd and Julia Louise Dreyfuss and various members of their families. They went white water rafting and camping in an area that could be destroyed by a planned hydro-electric project.

"There was nowhere to go but the campfire at night," said McEnroe, a native of New York City who enjoyed his share of big city nocturnal charms. "I had never slept in a sleeping bag. It was really roughing it. I'm not rushing to go back."

Through tennis, McEnroe got to run with the best. He learned to play guitar from the likes of Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and Eddie Van Halen. McEnroe took a run at the music business, too, touring with the Johnny Smyth Band, named partly after McEnroe's wife, singer Patty Smyth, whom he married in 1997 (he was divorced from actress Tatum O'Neal in 1992).

"Once I got away from tennis, I figured I should use the other side of my brain," he told the Sun. "We played a few shows and that made me appreciate tennis even more. I realized I was not a real good musician. We went to Belgium one time and when I got home, Patty made it pretty clear if anybody was going to be travelling for music, it was going to be her."

McEnroe, an Emmy-nominated broadcaster, plays about 10 tennis events a year and 3-5 one-night exhibitions like tomorrow night's.

He takes them seriously, he said, because he doesn't want people walking out of the Corel Centre saying the 46-year-old couldn't win the A-Flight at their tennis club.

McEnroe works to stay in shape and has trained with Detroit Red Wings veteran Chris Chelios.

"He's a great guy to work out with because he makes me realize I have to work a whole lot harder."

McEnroe will face Courier in singles and team up with Kournikova against Courier and Jana Novotna in mixed doubles tomorrow night.

"You have to treat these events with respect. I take pride in preparing myself. Every match counts because I don't play the Wimbledons anymore," he said.

There is always the chance there could be some fireworks.

"There's an edge because (Courier) gets teed off if I start beating him and I do, too. That's the tough part. The easy part is when I team up with Anna Kournikova. Jim's single so he's probably jealous."

MCENROE'S TAKES ON ... ROGER FEDERER:

"Federer, from what I've seen, is the greatest player that ever lived. But a guy like (Pete) Sampras would have given him a real problem. He would have kept coming at him. He's playing guys now that are counterpunchers, (Lleyton) Hewitt, (Andy) Roddick ... (Federer) is the greatest all-round talent, but I'd like to see some guys run at him, get under his skin, make him work for it."

ON THE LACK OF A BIG RIVALRY IN MEN'S TENNIS NOW: "Anytime you are in a 1-on-1 sport, it's critical to have rivalries and a lot of personality whether you like or don't like the person. It's almost better when you don't like the person. You get somebody like a Federer and you can't dislike this guy. Even the players like him. We've got to find somebody who comes along and rubs some people the wrong way."

ON HIS RIVALS: "Two of my greatest rivals were guys I didn't like or basically didn't like me, (Ivan) Lendl and (Jimmy) Connors. I didn't have to look too far for that. But my greatest rival was (Bjorn) Borg because we were so opposite in every way. He was actually the only guy I got along with on and off the court."

ON OPPONENT ILIE NASTASE: "He made it a goal of his just to get me pissed off. He'd drive me crazy like he did to a lot of other players and then he would come up to me after the match -- he called me Macaroni --and he'd say, 'Macaroni, let's go eat dinner.' He'd be absolutely unbearable on the court and then he'd put his arm around you and say: 'Let's go to a nightclub.' It was part entertainment and part he was just nuts. My game was try and hit him between the eyes with the ball. I was too busy trying to hit him in the forehead rather than win the point."

ON JIMMY CONNORS: "It was like bulls banging heads. He brought out the best and the worst in me and I like to think I did the same with him. Jimmy is one of the greatest players that ever lived, in my opinion. He's like the Pete Rose of tennis. I never seen a guy try as hard as this person on a tennis court. That's something I really respected."


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