The crowds at the French Open found one of their own to cheer last week, but it wasn't Henri Leconte, the flaky Frenchman who reached the final. It wasn't even one of the several touristes of distinction, like men's titlist Mats Wilander or women's champion Steffi Graf, both of whom are now halfway to the Grand Slam. Nor was it semifinalist Andre Agassi, the 18-year-old reason that the undertakers of American tennis can temporarily put aside their spades. No, the object of the French crowd's desire was the unlikeliest of princes, one John McEnroe—excusez-moi: McEnreau—who when last seen, on CBS's 60 Minutes, was baby-sitting his two boys, verbally wasting Ivan Lendl, serenading interviewer Diane Sawyer with a few bars of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and vowing to get it together again.
Imagine the surprise, then, when McEnroe hit the clay courts of Roland Garros, his weakest surface no less, and sailed past Alexander Volkov, Christian Bergstrom and Michael Chang to earn a round-of-16 spot against Lendl, a player he never used to see until a Grand Slam semi. By the time their match was finally completed, a couple of days late thanks to the testy skies over Paris, the city was buzzing about McEnroe's play. So much evoked the old Mac: the precise approach shots, the uncommon confidence, each stroke taken as if he had just drawn his racket from a scabbard.
In his interview with Sawyer, McEnroe had made some harsh assessments of Lendl ("I have more natural ability in my one finger than he has in his whole hand") and of the lot of tennis as long as Lendl stands at its summit ("I think tennis is boring with me and ridiculous without me"). For his part, Lendl said he had only heard about the interview "fourth-hand," and frankly didn't "give a——" what Mac thought.
Lendl's 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory didn't exactly bear out McEnroe's assessment. Lendl hit what Mac conceded was "an unheard-of number of lines," and the affair was anything but boring. With a break point in the second set, McEnroe conjured up a shot that recalled his luminous, prefatherhood form. Lendl had just flung an overhead into the left corner, from where McEnroe sent a desperate forehand—it was a chop, really—that snaked around the net and landed for a winner. Mac clasped his hands over his head in a gesture to the standing crowd, as if tennis were nothing but the fight game and he a renewed Sugar Ray.
McEnroe wasn't finished. When Lendl won the set with a return that might have been long, Mac assumed a familiar guise during the changeover, pleading with the umpire to examine the mark in the clay and then imperiously waving away the line sweep to preserve the evidence. The crowd whistled its displeasure. The umpire's pleas for silence just set off more hoots, and only when McEnroe acknowledged his following did a shhhhhh! course its way through the stands. So long as Mac was around, play would proceed at his pleasure.
This was curious. At the French Open over the years, between kicking clay into the photographers' pit and calling the tournament referee a "——French Frog fag," McEnroe had been at his petulant worst. A favorite parlor game during this year's tournament involved trying to explain the French crowd's baffling partisanship. Among the theories:
•The Vin de Grand Cru Theory. McEnroe's favorite. "It's like wine," he says. "The older you get, the more they appreciate you. The French do know a lot about wine." (Burp.)
•The Jerry Lewis Theory. Americans can't understand France's fascination with the telethon host and putative actor. Cultural historians try to explain it by invoking the auteur principle—that the French see development in Lewis's work and respect him for his growth. It's a test that McEnroe, given his attempt to remake himself, may be meeting.
•The Appreciation-Gap Theory. McEnroe's seemingly effortless game isn't so much overrated in Paris as underappreciated in such anglophone precincts as Flushing Meadow, N.Y., and Wimbledon. Both the Yanks and the Brits relish grunting and conspicuous sweat. But the Gauls will take sheer talent anytime. And if a prodigy should happen to engage the chair in a few Socratic exchanges, it's no different from what the French routinely do on TV talk shows and in sidewalk cafes. Says Alan Page, a British journalist based in Paris, "I saw McEnroe play the closest thing to a perfect match against Joakim Nystrom in 1985 at the U.S. Open, and the crowd hardly rippled. For us, it's content. For the French, it's form."
Until Paris, Mac's latest comeback had puttered along in fits and starts, though the fits were mild next to his shameful blowup at last year's U.S. Open, the incident that exiled McEnroe to life among hoi polloi. Upon his return in April, he won the Japan Open by beating No. 3 Stefan Edberg. But in May he lost to 136th-ranked Diego Perez of Uruguay. He actually let pass a few very arguable line calls and seemed determined to put behind him what he called "that whole business."