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Mac is back

McEnroe's SAP doubles win a sign of things to come

Posted: Tuesday February 21, 2006 4:23PM; Updated: Wednesday February 22, 2006 12:22AM
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In winning the SAP Open doubles title, John McEnroe served notice that his return to the ATP Tour is no mere goodwill tour.
In winning the SAP Open doubles title, John McEnroe served notice that his return to the ATP Tour is no mere goodwill tour.
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Five years ago I was in the players' locker room at a small pre-Wimbledon grass court event in Surbiton, England, when a debate ensued about John McEnroe's ability to compete in doubles on the ATP Tour.

Now, everyone that follows my blog knows that there is nothing I enjoy more than a good debate, especially one in which I am armed with more information than my opponents. This was one such case.

I had practiced with John a few times and even competed against him when he came to play in the charity event I run for my foundation, the Justin Gimelstob Children's Fund, at my hometown club in New Jersey. I was convinced he could still compete in singles in the right conditions, mainly fast indoor and grass courts, and that he could certainly be one of the best doubles players in the world if he so desired. Players scoffed at me. They said he was too slow, that his second serve would get killed, that he couldn't generate enough pace. I was bemused by their ignorance then and even more so after I watched Johnny Mac dissect the second-seeded team in the first round of the SAP Open in San Jose last Wednesday night before proceeding to win the tournament, his first doubles title since 1992.

In Mac's first match back -- against last year's SAP Open doubles champion and Australian Davis Cupper, Wayne Arthurs, and his compatriot, 2005 Wimbledon doubles champion Stephen Huss -- he showed why he is considered the best doubles player of all time. His instincts at the net, his ability to absorb and re-direct pace, and his clutch serving were still sharp. McEnroe was the dominant player on the court. His array of shots was magical. On successive return points he hit winning returns and an angled off-forehand passing shot that created the pivotal break of serve. His serving was precise, if not overpowering, and his volleys were infallible.

On the evening of his first-round doubles victory, McEnroe turned 47, yet his skill, timing, and athleticism are nothing short of incredible. He is one of those rare champions who can still compete at a high level, well after his prime, and the sport should be very thankful and appreciative of it. McEnroe entertained the crowds all week, and spectators stayed well into the night to support and watch this phenomenon take place. As long as McEnroe complements himself with partners of Jonas Bjorkman's caliber, I fully expect him to be in the hunt in every tournament he participates in.

A new hope for England

While the doubles final produced the SAP Open's oldest champion, the singles final crowned its youngest. Andy Murray, 19, upset Lleyton Hewitt in a final set tiebreaker to win his first ATP Tour title; this after defeating Andy Roddick in the semifinal.

Murray burst on the scene during the grass court season last year and has captivated his fans in Great Britain with his mature game and comfort on the biggest stages. His arsenal of shots and his understanding of when and how to use them is incredibly impressive for someone so young.

He frequently changes the pace with the use of his slicing backhand, but is equally adept at attacking his serve and return. He has all the tools physically and mentally to be at the top of the world rankings, sooner rather then later, and maybe he will provide the Grand Slam title his home nation so desperately craves.