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To the rescue of this winsome yet confused creature, or so it seemed, came McEnroe. Their upbringings—in New York bedroom communities—had been similar. Their reactions—instinctive, outrageous, often ill-timed—were alike. Their tastes—T-shirt wardrobes, New Wave music, gobbling up vast amounts of food at a single sitting—were virtually the same. They even knew each other from way back when.
When McEnroe made his huge splash at Wimbledon in 1977, Fleming remembered him as the same brash 12-year-old he used to spot games—and lose—to at the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. In the locker room at the All England Club, McEnroe hadn't changed. "Everybody thinks of himself as a player," Fleming says, "but it's more like 'yeah someday.' But there was Junior, just out of high school and in the third round at Wimby against Karl Meiler, and he was saying, 'This guy stinks. If I lose to this guy, I'm quitting the game.' What confidence! That really startled me. I think I began to believe in myself more."
Later that summer the two struck up a friendship, entered some doubles on the West Coast and even reached the semis in San Francisco. In 1978, after McEnroe had polished off his NCAA championship for Stanford and joined the big tour, the pair began kicking rears and taking names. Four moments in 1978 stand out:
Wimbledon, second round. Fleming-McEnroe lead Smith-Lutz two sets to one, but the veteran team wins a fourth-set tiebreaker to tie the match. At the changeover, McEnroe says, "Come on, these guys stink. How can we lose to these guys?" Minutes later it flashes on Fleming that McEnroe is denigrating Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, a storied team, Davis Cup heroes, his heroes. "I realized right then we were not in over our heads," Fleming says. "Everything was relative. We had become as good as them. We won in five. My self-worth changed for all time."
Wimbledon finals. Fleming-McEnroe are defeated by Hewitt-McMillan 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, the worst defeat in the championship round since 1911, as Bud Collins was sure to inform the Americans. "A sickening psych-out," Fleming says. "We were so impressed with them, so worried about their touch and angled stuff, we tried to hit impossible shots they couldn't reach. We played into their hands rather than playing our own game. We have too much power to piddle around. We should have just hit straight through them. We never forgot that."
U.S. Open quarterfinals. Fleming-McEnroe are defeated by Mark Edmondson-Geoff Marks. "Ham Richardson told us we were terrific return men and volleyers but that we didn't take advantage of it. We were hanging too far back from the net," Fleming says. "I moved up five feet. Junior practically climbed on top of the tape. We won seven of our next eight tournaments."
Cologne finals. Rematch against the two aging lions, Hewitt-McMillan. Early on, McEnroe takes sitter and unloads running, swinging, screaming volley six inches from Hewitt's face. Hewitt stares him down in intimidation move. Hewitt says, "You want to die?" McEnroe, enraged, says "What? You want some more, old man? Next time I won't miss:" On the next point with McMillan serving, Fleming smacks winner down the line depriving Hewitt of get-back, in-face volley. Americans break at love, win match 6-3, 6-2. "It was all over for them," says Fleming, "and they knew it. They've never beaten us since and they never will."
The new world champions are the absolute best at the two key elements of the doubles game: serving and returning. First, a team must cope with Junior's skidding parabolas, which curve into the corners from that anteater's stance off the southpaw wing. Then come Fleming's high-kicking, vicious fastballs descending from somewhere out of the rafters. Because both men guard the tape so well, the result is that neither serve can be attacked consistently.
On return, McEnroe is the scalpel and the trickster—probing with angled thrusts, then tossing his spinning, slicing junk every which way. Meanwhile, Fleming whacks away like a bludgeon, slugging the ball with so much speed that the opposition can do nothing but helplessly feed it back into McEnroe's net-covering clutches. Flaunting these skills, Fleming and McEnroe disdain consistency for the spectacular shot, the winner. They hold serve with such ease that they can gamble in their return games, gamble that a couple of chancy dynamite sticks will fall in, and then run out the matches from there.
When they are feeling especially feisty, or hungry for commotion, they are not above using the opposition for target practice, a favorite pigeon being Fibak. In Stockholm two years ago, Fleming-McEnroe accused Fibak-Okker of baiting the crowd in a match the Americans subsequently lost. A nasty locker-room confrontation followed. Since then Flam-Mac have taken turns headhunting the Polish player whenever possible; in Philadelphia, McEnroe finally struck, bouncing a ferocious roaring overhead into a wildly retreating Fibak's midsection with such force that surgery nearly was needed to retrieve the ball.