- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Of his teammate's glorious turnabout, McEnroe says, "Peter just got used to playing all week. When he'd lose in singles, he had to stay mentally tough for the doubs. He worked hard. It helped his concentration all around."
"I learned from Junior," says Fleming. "He was so into our doubles. Always. If he was beaten in singles, he'd try even harder in doubles. We would never tank just because one of us got beat. The doubs got to be 99% a lock if the other poor bastards had to play us after Junior had lost."
The partnership was hardly prepared for what happened last September. Fleming was in the midst of a hot streak in which he would eventually win 22 of 25 singles matches, when he made it to the Jack Kramer final at L.A., only to find McEnroe waiting for him. In the doubles semifinals the night before, Fleming and McEnroe were so subdued—"both of us were psyched thinking about playing each other the next day," Fleming says—that they lost to Wotjek Fibak and McMillan.
The next day Fleming beat McEnroe 6-4, 6-4 despite the obligatory furious disputes over line calls and stalling tactics by his partner. These delays cost Fleming his composure and nearly the title. "How much longer before you give this guy a point penalty?" Fleming screamed at the chair at one juncture.
Afterward, Fleming publicly praised McEnroe and thanked him for his aid and inspiration, but he couldn't resist throwing in a few joking references to "the brat." The following week in San Francisco the two didn't speak en route to the doubles final. They would meet again in the singles final, too.
"Our girl friends were with us that week, making the whole thing tolerable," says Fleming. "But before the singles, we sat down and had it out. It was resolved that our friendship, our doubles, was more important than winning or losing any individual tournament. We said no matter if we threw punches at each other in our singles match, there was no way we were losing the doubles again."
After Fleming blew a set-up, breakup lead to McEnroe and then lost 6-2 in the third, without punches, the pair wiped out Fibak and McMillan 6-1, 6-4. After the Kramer Open, in fact, the team never lost again in 1979.
Daily workouts against McEnroe have undoubtedly solidified Fleming's already dangerous game, which is based on a punishing serve, a marvelous (especially for a big man) facility for angles and the rare inclination to go for broke on all returns. As receiver, Fleming simply winds up and blasts the ball, notably off the backhand side from the deuce court. This is a whippy, rolling topspin, opposite-court response to down-the-middle deliveries—a truly difficult shot to hit and one that Fleming consistently produces as well as any player in the world. It is particularly effective against the left-handed guillotine slice serve of McEnroe, whom Fleming has beaten in four of their nine singles meetings.
Fleming's serve and return were the points at issue in what had been weirdly different approaches to singles and doubles play, an ill-considered strategy that he corrected with a vengeance late last summer.
At the Canadian Open last August, Fleming had lost early to Butch Walts. "I was a basket case," says Fleming. "I mean, Walts is a good player, but three and one in the last two sets? He isn't that amazing. All season I'd be playing along real well and then just collapse and bag it. From the end of April through mid-August I didn't reach the third round in singles, but never lost a match in doubles. I'm right up there in stupidity. I finally figured out something was amiss. It was unbelievable."