This McEnroe: More and more the word applied to this McEnroe is "genius." Of course, that's most unusual with an athlete, with a physical sort, but then, the thunderous, gee-whiz appellations that usually adorn champions seem out of place in his case. What, for instance, do you see first? A body pasty-white if not beet-red and chestless; a forehead high and scholarly, the better to furrow; and above it the curly hair he fretfully pokes at as if fleas were sequestered there. Certainly there is no immediate sense of command, no fear of his squashing anyone, no intimation of the dashing eminence his racket transforms him into. In a world full of sleek, sententious heroes who jog and lift and meditate on the body-as-temple, this McEnroe's tabernacle is a carry-out shop, a body to go.
"Have you tried the Haas diet?" a lady with a note pad and bronzed muscle tone asked him the other day, referring to a regimen prescribed by Martina Navratilova's nutritionist, Robert Haas. "No, I prefer the Häagen-Dazs diet," McEnroe smirked back. He's so tight-jointed he can barely reach below his knees, yet he hardly bothers to stretch before a match. Boring. Practice, too, is for mortals; a nice dreadnought doubles final breaks more of a fun sweat. A few years ago, for something to do, he developed a monster serve and a classic serve-and-volley style, just like that, as you would slip on a fresh jockstrap.
"Wizard," perhaps, would be even better, suggesting as it does conjurers in pointy black hats with wands. After all, to isolate this McEnroe from his racket is to imagine Annie Oakley without her gun, Captain Kidd without his plank. But then, the other appeal of "genius" is that it goes so naturally with "mad," which all too often is what McEnroe appears to be—convinced, as he is, that he has eyes like an eagle and judgment the equal of his drop shot. One senses his woeful despair in the company of lesser beings who dare to err: Stop me before I kill again!
So, the raves of a cruel world: "John McEnroe...the worst advertisement for our system of values since Al Capone" (The New York Times). "Superbrat! McNasty!" (Fleet Street). "El Irascible!" (from our Spanish-speaking friends). Why don't you smile, John?
"All they write about is how I don't smile," he says.
So, why don't you smile?
"I never see Bernard King smile, but they never write about that. I keep waiting for them to write about that."
What's worse, too often a lot of people don't even see the best player play. Oh, they watch him, but only like those urban cretins who watch potential suicides, cheering for the jump. So many fail to see the esthetics, the elegance, the guts, the sovereignty, because all that will satisfy them is the blowup, the mad genius, Van Gogh cutting off his ear instead of Van Gogh merely painting a canvas.
As near as these things can be measured, John Patrick McEnroe Jr. is now exactly halfway through the meat of his tennis career. It has been a Biblical seven years since he burst upon our consciousness, reaching the semis of Wimbledon at age 18, an amateur only weeks out of high school. For a future benchmark, look seven years ahead and you see Jimmy Connors, just shy of his 32nd birthday, still a contender but succumbing to the dusk. McEnroe is approaching the summit. "I still think I can play better," he says. Perhaps, but chances are that, generations from now, when the old geezers look back at what was McEnroe, this is the time they will remember and relish.
After all, what more can there be? He can't get any faster; the legs go first, don't they? A slightly better overhead? Maybe a little more power off the forehand wing, but tighten the strings for that and you lose touch off that precious slice backhand. McEnroe can serve down the middle and in like a righthander, and he can do things wide that some lefthanded servers made whole careers out of.