Masters of Legends ... and me
Living out my childhood dream, playing with my idol
Posted: Friday December 21, 2007 1:41PM; Updated: Friday December 21, 2007 2:10PM
DÜSSELDORF, Germany -- To say it was fortuitous would be an understatement.
I was in New Jersey last week, prepping for my annual charity fundraiser against my childhood hero, John McEnroe, when I got a phone call from his agent, Gary Swain. He asked if I would be interested in partnering up with Mac for the McFit Masters of Legends, a team competition here in Germany.
John was supposed to play with his brother, Pat, but the victorious Davis Cup captain had a nagging injury and they were in desperate need of a substitute. Whatever excuse I might have had due to time constraints went right out the window when I nearly threw up in excitement.
My normal lack of a personal restraint aside, I would have played for free. (I hope the tournament organizers don't see this!) I was finally going to get to do something I had dreamed about since I was a young kid who watched Johnny Mac play, imitating his strokes in the mirror and his temper tantrums in my junior tournaments. I was going to play doubles with him.
The format of the competition is six teams divided into three groups. The winner from each group advances. We started off Wednesday night playing Germany. I was playing the second singles position and beat Carl-Uwe Steeb, the former Davis Cup player and captain. I battled through some early nerves that were undoubtedly due to my idol, and now partner, telling me I needed to "Win!"
After my singles match, the main event took place: McEnroe vs. Boris Becker. The atmosphere was electric. A huge, live national television audience watched as two of the real legends of the game battled each other to the wire. It was impressive tennis, but even more enthralling entertainment.
Becker served for the match, up 5-4, 30-love, in the ninth game of the set before Mac mounted a comeback, eventually winning in a tiebreaker. The doubles then became irrelevant to everyone -- except me. I wouldn't have cared if it were a game of tiddlywinks -- I was still going to get to team up with my idol.
I made sure to speak to the photographers before the match and made them promise they'd take plenty of pictures documenting the occasion. We got off to a great start, and Mac even threw me a couple of compliments, which felt like a 1,000-ton brick house coming off my back.
The whole week has been like a fairy tale for me. I'm sure all the things I'm trying to savor this week have become second nature to Mac at this point. But for someone who grinded through the lower levels of the ATP Tour during large parts of my career, I'll never quite grow accustomed to the first-class accommodations and treatment that one of the true stars of the games gets on a regular basis.
The greatest part of this experience has been the time I've gotten to spend with Mac -- the time driving to the courts, hanging out in the locker room after the matches and conversations about tennis, family and life. The fun in practicing with Mac every day and then the opportunity to really see his genius up close while he's playing. It truly is a miraculous thing to see.
We'll be playing in the finals Saturday afternoon against either the French team of Henri Leconte and Cedric Pioline or the second German team of Michael Stich and Marc-Kevin Goellner, and then we'll both be flying to New York to spend the holidays with our families.
I hope Mac and I will be having a celebratory beer up in the skies in the first-class cabin. But regardless, I'm thankful that, once again, tennis has afforded me the opportunity to fulfill one of my childhood dreams.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob writes on alternate Fridays for SI.com.