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When Aer Lingus flight 159 landed at Dublin Airport last Sept. 27, one of those on board was John McEnroe, who was about to set foot on the Auld Sod for the first time. Five years ago, when Pope John Paul II arrived in Dublin he consecrated the ground with a kiss. But the newest Johnny-come-lately didn't even kiss the Blarney stone. All he wanted to do was play tennis.
McEnroe had come to Ireland to take part in a Davis Cup tie. Both Ireland and the U.S. had lost first-round matches in 1983, and the loser of this one would be banished to zonal play in 1984. McEnroe intended to be on his best behavior, for he regarded his appearance in Ireland as a sort of homecoming. He has bragged he had a purer pedigree than Ireland's No. 1 player, Matt Doyle, a Yalie from Menlo Park, Calif. who has one Irish-born grandparent fewer than McEnroe. Ireland lets anyone with at least one native grandparent play on its team, and Doyle, then ranked No. 103 in the world, had one—his paternal grandfather. The No. 2 Irish player, Sean Sorenson, comes from Waterville, Maine and lives in West Germany. His parents are Irish.
But McEnroe's best intentions were dashed by the inventive invective of the Irish press. At the airport press conference, the ever-wary McEnroe lacked the gift of gab. The 12-hour trip from San Francisco had him beat. He carefully chewed off his words in a monosyllabic drone.
Dublin's five daily papers compensated by building a character out of the minutest clues. They concocted vignettes out of his anatomy: his sleepy eyes; the way he scratched his shoulders as he spoke and reflectively licked the tip of his nose. "He had little pink eyes, which he kept scrubbing with his knuckles," reported The Irish Times. "And he had deep purple gouges rather than bags under them. He looked about eight, as if he should have been put to bed hours ago."
The Irish Independent and The Irish Press were more preoccupied with the elusive McEnroe smile. "Smile please," implored one of the photographers.
"But I did already," McEnroe pleaded.
"You call that a smile?" asked the photographer, and McEnroe tried to oblige.
Under the front page banner headline TIRED 'SUPERBRAT' SAGS AS HE ARRIVES IN DUBLIN, the Independent observed, "With some effort he raised the side of his mouth for a fleeting second, then resumed his original tired grimace."
"It was hardly the most expansive of smiles," allowed The Press, "but from the taciturn McEnroe it was a major concession." McEnroe summed up his plans to tour the countryside in what The Times called a "major speech": "Well, uh...if I get a chance, I will...and if I don't I won't.... I don't think it's maybe the ideal time right now, but I would...at some point."
The Times followed him around the practice court later that afternoon like a hyena stalking a pea hen, and came away with this intriguing shred of conversation between McEnroe and the American captain, Arthur Ashe: