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McEnroe, Pillar of Decorum

There were tantrums at the Australian Open, but they weren't thrown by up-and-coming Patrick McEnroe

By Richard Yallop

Issue date: February 4, 1991

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThere they were, Becker versus McEnroe in a Grand Slam tournament. At one end of the court at Melbourne's National Tennis Centre one of the players was fast losing his mind, pacing the baseline and shouting to himself. You say you're not a bit surprised?

Ah, but consider this: It was Boris Becker who -- like the other 15,000 people in the stadium -- was having all kinds of trouble at the Australian Open last Friday, adjusting to the names and numbers on the scoreboard, which showed that B. Becker had dropped the first set of his semifinal match to P. McEnroe by the score of 7-6.

What's more, Becker, the No. 2 player in the world, was now down 0-30 on his service at 2-all in the second set. While Becker raved, wild-eyed, the boyish, waiflike figure on the other side of the net, with his baggy shorts and Charlie Chaplin walk, stood impassive and unmoved. Patrick McEnroe, No. 114 in the world and the younger brother of you-know-who, was taking his breakthrough to the big time in stride.

Becker, by his own admission, was becoming unhinged. "Strange things always happen to me in Australia," he said after taking five hours and 11 minutes -- the longest singles match in tournament history -- to beat an Italian named Omar Camporese 7-6, 7-6, 0-6, 4-6, 14-12 in the third round. That was only the latest episode in a series of misadventures for Becker in the Australian Open. In 1985, when he was the reigning Wimbledon champion and the Australian Open was still played on the grass, Becker had lost to a lowly ranked Dutchman named Michiel Schapers. In 1987, against Wally Masur of Australia, Becker lost his mind, the match, $2,000 in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct and his coach, Gunther Bosch, who parted company with young Boris after years of devotion. Now, in 1991, here he was, in the semifinals for the first time in six attempts, and he was being upstaged by a man whose main claim to fame was the family name.

Becker had the look of someone who had just seen pigs fly: Hadn't he led 3-0 in the first set, and hadn't he held set point at 5-4? Was that really Patrick - McEnroe who had served an ace for a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker and who took the first set with a forehand crosscourt winner? It was, wasn't it?

Down in the locker room, Ivan Lendl was blinking, too. He had delayed going into the interview room after his five-set semifinal win over top-seeded Stefan Edberg to watch the tiebreaker on television. How did he feel about the prospect of meeting McEnroe in the final? "Surprised," Lendl said. "He has hit some good shots."

In Los Angeles, John McEnroe couldn't believe his ears. Telephoned at the end of the first set by Mary Carillo -- a childhood friend who was doing commentary for ESPN on the match in Melbourne -- John had to be convinced that what she was telling him was for real. Meanwhile, a 24-year-old New Yorker was undergoing an identity change in Australia. Somehow, after years of incubation, a righthander with a determination to disregard comparisons with his far more gifted lefthanded brother had lifted his game to unforeseen heights.

In the end, though, that would not be enough against Becker, who finally settled down and got his head together. With the help of 23 aces, he rolled to a 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 victory. Afterward Becker wouldn't speculate on how he would feel if he won the title, which would give him the No. 1 ranking on the computer for the first time in his career. Instead, he crossed his fingers against the possibility that anything else "strange" would befall him in Sunday's final against Lendl, the two-time defending champion.

"The important thing is that I don't lose my mind," he said. After Lendl reeled off a 6-1 rout in the first set and had a break point in the first game of the second, Becker, stiff from a muscle spasm in his back, looked to be in danger of doing just that. But he held, steadied himself, and in the 10th game his Melbourne nightmares began to give way to a dream ending. The Wimbledon Becker, all diving volleys and smoking forehands, took over. In the flash of a racket head, Lendl was broken to level the match at one set apiece. The act was repeated in the 10th game of the third set, which Becker won with an inspired down-the-line forehand passing shot on his sixth set point.

Another forehand winner on match point gave Becker a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win and launched him into a delirious orbit, along with the racket he tossed high into the stands. He jumped around, seemingly in a daze, and suddenly disappeared in the tunnel leading from the stadium. Several minutes later a / tournament official found him running in a nearby park, letting off the tension and exhilaration. Still euphoric sometime later, Becker was lost for words at the presentation ceremony. "It's unbelievable," he said. "I can't say anything, I'm sorry."

Later in the interview room, he said, "It's difficult to explain. I've trained for this [achieving the No. 1 ranking] for seven years, and I've done it. I've been so close for so long, and I didn't expect to do it here. For an hour I've been No. 1, and I can't believe it myself right now."

He didn't know how long it would last, or even if he wanted it to last. "I am not the type of person who likes to be No. 1 for five years," said Becker. "I would like to move on in my life to do something else. I hope I can be strong enough to stay a couple of years."

He wasn't the only player at the Open struggling to deal with the No. 1 ranking. Edberg opened the way for Becker to topple him from the top spot by double-faulting on his second match point against Lendl. Lendl did not give him a third and won 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Steffi Graf, the women's No. 1, but without a Grand Slam win since last year's Australian Open, was hunted down in the quarterfinals by Jana Novotna, the 22-year-old Czech now coached by Hana Mandlikova. Novotna, who came into the tournament at No. 12 but left it at No. 8, relentlessly attacked Graf's vulnerable backhand en route to a 5-7, 6-4, 8-6 victory. That defeat, coupled with Monica Seles's 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Novotna, nearly gave Seles the No. 1 ranking.

Despite having two Grand Slam titles at age 17 (the other came at last year's French Open), Seles said she needed to put more work into her game. She said that she couldn't lob and that she had to improve her serve and volley if she was going to become No. 1. But the scrap is clearly on in the already competitive women's division. Said Mary Joe Fernandez, who held a match point against Seles before falling 6-3, 0-6, 9-7 in the semis, "Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. You can't go into a tournament knowing who is going to win anymore."

Going into the tournament, winning wasn't a realistic goal for Patrick McEnroe; he merely wants to crack the top 50 by the end of the year. Becker, for one, likes his chances. "I think everybody saw in the semifinal that he can play great tennis," said Becker. "He has a great arm, a good eye, takes the ball early and has a good feel for the ball. He can beat many, many guys if he keeps up this level of play. He will soon be ranked much higher."

The pretournament status of the younger McEnroe -- who lost in the second round of last year's U.S. Open in his only other singles appearance in a Grand Slam event -- was reflected in the nearly deserted interview room after he had reached the third round by upsetting Jay Berger. Patrick swigged mineral water in the interview chair with no apparent concern while waiting to see how many people would turn up to hear what he had to say. The voice and intonation were John's, and the Irish-American wit and the family facility with words had clearly been passed on.

By the time of the Becker match seven days later, Patrick packed the interview room. Had it occurred to him that he had matched his brother's best Australian Open performance by reaching one semifinal (John's was in 1983)? "No," Patrick said. "Maybe I can equal what he has done at Wimbledon, how about that? That would be nice."

Would the players look differently at him now? "I did come out of nowhere in some respects," he said, "but the players know I have been around for a while. So I don't think there is any huge difference. I feel much more confident that I can beat more players."

Would the public still see him as McEnroe's brother? "Probably." Did he get sick of constant references to his brother? "Yes, sometimes." Had he heard from people in the States? "I've heard from my family and a couple of close friends. Other than that, no one cares about me."

With his baby face, Patrick can effectively do the orphan routine. Becker may have won the men's singles, but McEnroe won the charm title, which is no small feat, considering that just 12 months earlier his volatile brother had landed himself on Melbourne's Most Wanted list after being disqualified from the tournament after verbally abusing the tournament supervisor, Ken Farrar. Now Patrick, with his teddy bear appeal, was everyone's nominee for Mr. Nice Guy. Said Patrick, "I was obviously disappointed at what happened to John here last year, as everyone in my family was. It was tough for me to take, but coming here I didn't think about it at all."

Instead he focused on staying calm in his matches. "I realize who I am, and the position I'm in," said Patrick. It's beneficial to me to be as composed as I can."

He reaped his benefits right from the start. He won his first-round match against Thomas Hogstedt of Sweden from two sets down, and he received an additional bravery citation for his five-set quarterfinal win over Cristiano Caratti of Italy, against whom he strained a back muscle in the second set and played the remainder of the match with a back brace. At the end he buried his head in a towel, savoring a personal milestone.

As the press began to take note, Patrick patiently covered old ground. He had started playing because he loved tennis and competing. "I didn't want to play because of John," he said, "and I didn't want not to play because of him."

Like John, he had been coached by Tony Palafox, though it was John who suggested he move his hands together for his two-handed backhand. Also like John, he attended Stanford, but while his brother left after one year, Patrick graduated. Patrick joined the tour and made his name as a doubles player, winning the French Open and Masters titles with Jim Grabb in 1989. (Last week in Melbourne, he and David Wheaton reached the finals, where they lost to Scott Davis and David Pate in four sets.) In the past year he worked on speed and conditioning. "I've never had the talent or speed, so I knew I had to work harder," said Patrick. "It's nice to know the dedication I've had the past year has paid off. After this I'll work even harder."

While in his prime John had dancing feet and shotmaking skills that could soar to places never before seen. Patrick's feet are planted firmly on the ground. Less aggressive than John, he has a rather conventional game -- a semiwestern forehand, a workmanlike serve and a deceptive double-fisted backhand. But in Australia, he was mighty effective. He was plain, punchy and smart. And a lot more popular than big brother.

Issue date: February 4, 1991

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