Followers of the game who equate success only with how a player does in London in July and New York in September, or only with how many big names he has disposed of on the way, will be happy to know that McEnroe qualifies on both counts. "John's most important ability is as a quick learner," says his coach, Tony Palafox, the old Mexican Davis Cupper. "He knows fast how to dissect the games and beat most of the best players."
At the '77 U.S. Open—the last played on Forest Hills clay—McEnroe was embarrassed by the dirt master, Manolo Orantes. Two weeks later in San Francisco he beat Orantes indoors. A couple of months after losing to John Newcombe in their first meeting, McEnroe turned the tables again. Since he arrived on the scene at that first Wimbledon, McEnroe has defeated Eddie Dibbs, Dick Stockton, Adriano Panatta, Corrado Barazzutti, Roscoe Tanner and Borg, all the first time they met. He is already ranked fifth on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer. Arthur Ashe says, "Right now, McEnroe is the best player in the world."
Last week McEnroe paused during his busy tournament schedule to play some exhibitions in Italy. He sat in a drafty locker room underneath the Palazzetto dello Sport in Milan and shook his head at the wonder of it all.
"That's such a pressure statement by Artie," he said.
"I mean, he's putting the pressure on me. But I can handle it. People always ask if I'm surprised when I win a tournament. Was Borg surprised to win Wimbledon the first time? Was he surprised to win three times? As it comes, I can feel myself getting hot, getting better. But I want to get better and better." Thinking back to Stockholm, where he did not lose a set while beating Jan Kodes, Tom Okker and Tim Gullickson, in addition to Borg, he said, "I felt comfortable, in command. I don't think I was zoning. I don't think I was playing out of my mind. I wasn't letting anything slip away. I was so confident. Then, toward the end in Stockholm with Borg, I looked over at him and saw he was confused. You really had to be there and see the match for this to make any sense. But let's put it this way. Bjorn simply didn't know what to do.
"So, no, I'm not surprised at all. I don't want to be surprised. And I don't want to be satisfied. I mean, it's great to be 19, ranked No. 5 in the world and playing Davis Cup. But this isn't luck. I've worked for this. Let's put it this way. I deserve this."
It is not very often that a tennis player comes along who can beat Bjorn Borg three and four and call Arthur Ashe 'Artie" in the same month. Among other refreshing habits McEnroe has brought with him to the major leagues is an enigmatic appetite—chicken, cheesecake and ravioli in varying combinations, ice in his milk and beer ("John is a total barbarian," says his childhood friend, Mary Carillo)—and an avowed determination to be honest about his losses. The word "choke"—anathema to most athletes—is in his vocabulary. For example, McEnroe says that when he had Connors 3-0 in the third set at Boston two summers ago and lost, he choked. When he led Orantes 4-2, advantage server, in the third at Washington last summer, and lost, he choked again.
"Why kid myself?" he says. "People say, 'Oh, the other guy played well.' That's bull. I should not lose matches from that point—to anybody. Hey, I don't acknowledge the other guy's game. When he hits a great return winner, I think I didn't hit a good enough serve. I don't acknowledge anything."
Unfortunately, McEnroe's splendid talent likewise has not been acknowledged enough. The beauty of his technique seems to have been obscured somewhere along the way. Probably it was between the uproars caused by his constant bickering over line judgments and the controversy engendered when he delves into the outrageous, such as the time he spit at a woman spectator at the Longwood Cricket Club. "I spit in front of her. I never got her," McEnroe corrects.
Recently McEnroe went backstage in a San Francisco theater to be introduced to a pop singer named Harry Chapin. "Oh, yeah," said Chapin. "You're the Wimbledon bad guy."