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So far, Junior's absolutely horrid on-court nature has managed to obscure his wonderful talent. A soccer and basketball player in high school, McEnroe picked up tennis very quickly. Early on he was a natural, and his game mirrors that of his teacher, Palafox—all spins and angles and changes of pace.
A rarity in today's double-fisted tennis world, McEnroe hits one-handed from both sides with the racket head held extremely low. The preparation for each stroke is so casual that often the racket appears to be falling from his hand as he drills winner after winner. McEnroe has such a gift for touch, such a delicate feel, that the ball is seldom out of control. Because of his active, quick wrists, he also gets away with many late hits, the racket suddenly flashing out from his shoulder socket as if no arm were needed as middleman.
"Watch this," McEnroe says as he pretends to fire off another rifle from the backhand wing. "Who was that?" Of course, it was Rod Laver.
Ashe says, "I've never played McEnroe, but you can watch and see he never overpowers anyone. Against Connors and Borg you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer. But this guy is a stiletto. Junior has great balance and hands and he just slices people up. He's got a ton of shots. It's slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you've got blood all over you even though the wounds aren't deep. Soon after that, you've bled to death."
After his ambush in Sweden, Borg said he had tried to attack McEnroe's weakness, but he couldn't find one. The kid was fast enough to run everything down, he kept filling Borg's side with no-pace "nothing" balls, and, on serve, he smartly bounced spinners as wide as possible into the deuce court, sending the Swede galloping out of bounds for bad-position backhand returns. (Of Borg's five conquerors this year, four have been lefties who preyed on this flaw.)
As McEnroe has progressed, his consistency on service and sophistication of deliveries have steadily improved. His rigorous weekly doubles competition in which varied placements are demanded has contributed greatly toward this end. Now his world rank in doubles is higher than in singles—No. 3.
It is no coincidence that the players who have troubled McEnroe the most are those notably quick, crafty tour veterans who have not been befuddled by his off-speed stuff and his all-court game: Connors and Nastase—and Harold Solomon on clay. A Gerulaitis-McEnroe match, which a lot of tennis fans are clamoring to see, has not yet taken place except in meaningless exhibitions.
When Connors first heard of McEnroe at the centennial Wimbledon two years ago, he said he would "hate to watch anybody who reminds me of myself." On account of the comparisons made between the two, however—precocious lefthanders, both NCAA champions, shy, mannerly types—it is obvious that Connors has pushed himself sky-high for their four encounters, in two of which he had to come from behind in order to survive.
But even in the face of Connors' savage run to the Open title in September, when he thrashed McEnroe and Borg in equal measure, Junior refused to give an inch. "The guy threw incredible winners at me," McEnroe says. "But if I don't blow the 5-1 lead in the third, I'm right back in it. Let's put it this way. I just didn't rise to the occasion."