Another New John McEnroe arrived at the Volvo International at Stratton Mountain, Vt., last week, ready to make yet another comeback. If you thought he looked and sounded like the old John McEnroe, you were mistaken. The Volvo has become a kind of watershed for McEnroe. Last year he showed up with a conditioning coach who had whipped Mac's fast-food body into shape during a six-month sabbatical from the tour. This time he arrived in the company of a mystical mentor. And unlike last year, when Boris Becker had the role of nemesis, this time McEnroe was out to get Ivan Lendl. But one thing hadn't changed—John, we were assured again, was sounder of body and mind.
McEnroe's tennis career hasn't gone too well in the past 12 months. In perhaps the best men's match of 1986, he lost 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 at the Volvo to Becker, after having squandered four match points, one of which torments McEnroe to this day. He remains convinced that his volley nicked the baseline.
"That just started things off badly," said McEnroe last week, "and it took me almost until the past month to start feeling comfortable." When he lost in the first round of the French Open in May, his comeback screeched to a halt. He took his bad back and his inner demons to L.A. and thus began Sabbatical II.
During his latest hiatus, McEnroe picked up some exotic accoutrements. At the U.S.- West Germany Davis Cup tie last month in Hartford, he wore a diamond stud in his left ear. Then in Stratton he unveiled a new adviser, Seo Daeshik. Seo, 48, wears white from head to toe, as a good guru should. A South Korean who came to the U.S. in 1975, he runs a one-man sports-medicine clinic in Merrimack, N.H.
"He has always been my favorite player," says Seo of McEnroe. "I followed him for years, and I tell him once that if he does not have proper training, there will be problems, and he will lose titles. His father not sure about me, so nothing happen then. One year after I talked [in 1984], he lost title."
Indeed, after McEnroe dropped the 1985 U.S. Open finals to Lendl, his game headed south. "He had several professional doctors look, and no one knows what exactly is the problem," says Seo. "Chiropractors, therapists—no one help. Nutritionists, they gave him wrong instructions." How did Seo know McEnroe wasn't getting the proper attention? "I can research on TV because I am a professional."
Earlier this year Seo approached the McEnroe camp again, and this time Mac and Papa Mac were receptive. On July 4, Seo flew to Malibu for an audition. "First day I found overstressed muscles," says Seo. "I fix in one day."
McEnroe holed up in southern New Hampshire for 12 days in July, practicing with his longtime coach, Tony Palafox, and having long sessions with Seo. "Six hours a day I put in for him," says Seo. "Physical conditioning, physical training, nutrition, counseling for sports psychology." The latter was intended to help McEnroe control his notorious temper. "Some think he's a mean person," says Seo. "I guarantee he's a gentle man. He must bring this to tennis."
A practitioner of martial arts, Seo felt his pupil was ready for the ultimate lesson. "I don't teach everybody martial arts," he says. "They have to prove to me complete discipline and self-control and an individual philosophy of life. The first time John asked me to teach him, he had not proved these things. The next time, he proved, and I teach."
At Stratton Mountain the Karate Kid and his mentor drew murmurs and curious glances as they briskly walked about the tournament grounds, Seo toting the rackets. During a changeover in McEnroe's quarterfinal match with Brad Gilbert, Seo rushed onto the court. Shouting, "Emergency! Emergency!" he delivered a mystery potion that looked just like iced tea.