McENROE and a perfection Federer is yet to find

Nothing could prepare you for McEnroe, this pale-faced New Yorker, short shorts on these twitching legs, hair that cried for a comb, pulling at his shirt, twisting his racquet, fidgeting like a debutant before a concert, and this fits because McEnroe did not play, he performed, he composed, he played jazz with a Dunlop.


ALWAYS we look for perfection in sport for that is the idea isn't it, the ideal, to play a golf shot, a tennis stroke, where for once, for this dazzling transitory moment, everything, skill, technique, desire is at its zenith, a flawless fusion of virtues, a symphony of racquet and eye and mind. Athletic nirvana if you like.

Such genius brings a sigh, a sort of articulated disbelief at such improbable beauty. It is an incredulity that has stalked Roger Federer this year as he finished with 81 wins-4 losses. Years can never be perfect, not even close you think, it is unthinkable for a man or woman to keep climbing summits through 365 days, something must give, a body part must complain, form must flee, opponents must have their say.

But if Federer came close, then what do we make of another man, who 21 years ago produced a year even less bruised by imperfection.

82-3. John Patrick McEnroe, 1984.

In a way it had to be McEnroe, it couldn't have been Becker, or Sampras, or Wilander, or Lendl, because while some were powerful, athletic warlords intent on battering a man till the entire edifice of his being came crumbling down, or the others were human beings posing as mechanical beasts, going on and on like some ruthless, mirthlessly grinning wound-up toy, then he, this diffident American, was the artist. Perfection, you believed at least, he actively sought.

Nothing could prepare you for McEnroe, this pale-faced New Yorker, short shorts on these twitching legs, hair that cried for a comb, pulling at his shirt, twisting his racquet, fidgeting like a debutant before a concert, and this fits because McEnroe did not play, he performed, he composed, he played jazz with a Dunlop.

Everything was wrong with his game. You didn't stand parallel to the service line to serve. You didn't hit backhands from in front of your chest. You didn't hit forehands with a stiff arm. You couldn't find such angles or own such control. You could not receive a Lendl serve by taking two insolent steps in, and this was beyond the simple idea of taking the ball early, this was tennis of an unknown dimension. Players were not beaten, they were, as Arthur Ashe said, sliced up, left to bleed to death.

The first Wimbledon I covered, three years later in 1987, his hands less nimble, his brain less fertile, still you feasted on his game. The first two points I saw live of McEnroe, he served, came in, and then constructed drop volleys of delicate blown glass, tennis played with a feather, the ball hitting the ground and then dying with a sigh.

If Federer won 11 titles this year, then McEnroe won 13 in 1984. Both played 15 tournaments. This tells an insufficient story. Federer played one Davis Cup match all year, McEnroe played 8. Federer played eight doubles matches and won one title, McEnroe played 40 and won eight titles.

By 1984, we knew more or less everything we would know about McEnroe, fast hands, quicker mouth, a man of infinite creativity and constant self-destruction, always teetering on that edge of making a fool of men or just himself. In 1984 much of the first would be seen and cruelly some of the second.

Through Philadelphia (carpet), Richmond (carpet), Madrid (carpet), Brussels (carpet), Dallas (carpet), Forest Hills (clay), World Team Cup (clay) and till the finals of the French Open he did not lose a match of 39. At one point in Brussels, he was kissing perfection, every day, in five matches losing 17 games. At the World Team Cup, on clay, he played Ivan Lendl, Jose Higueras, Jose Luis Clerc, masters of the surface, and was not even taken to 6-4 in a single set.

Later in the year, exhausted, he would lose to Vijay Amritraj in Cincinnati, and then to Henrik Sundstrom in the Davis Cup final on Swedish clay in a fractious tie, but the French final was his true blemish, oddly enough in this majestic year a moment so telling that it would affect his legacy as tennis player forever.

Already he had won three US Opens and two Wimbledons (the Australian he had played only once in his career so far, it scarcely mattered) and winning Roland Garros would have cemented his place in the list of the five greatest players ever, would have been ultimate proof of craft and versatility. After all, till today, only five men (Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Fred Perry, Andre Agassi) have won all four Slams. McEnroe belonged there, but did not get there.

He led Lendl two sets to love in the final in Paris. He led 2-0 in the third set. He led 4-2 in the fourth set and was serving 40.30. Peter Fleming, his doubles partner, had organised a victory party even before the match had begun. McEnroe was untouchable. He was also easily unhinged.

Only he could start a final, he said, to cheers and end it to boos. So he started thinking of a phone call from a girlfriend, was distracted by a cameraman's squeaking handset, suddenly found himself infested with doubt, and here in this final he released Lendl, he gave competitive life to the great choker, who till then had lost all four of his six Grand Slam finals.

What happened next, at 4-2, 40.30 McEnroe can't really tell. Not even now in his book. Because, haunted by the loss, he won't watch the match. As he wrote: "I can't bear to".

So this sorry figure came to Wimbledon and chastised perhaps provided a masterclass, possibly the most outrageous advertisement of his skills in a final. Jimmy Connors was not allowed to play but only watch as McEnroe won 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. Through the match his first serve percentage was 74. Through the match he made three unforced errors. This was a poetry married to precision.

Soon he would meet Tatum O'Neal and embark on a tempestuous, destructive relationship. Soon his body would lose its natural elasticity and his reluctance to train would hurt. Soon this demand for excellence from within year after year, the headlines exaggerated in praise and condemnation that he had earned since reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1977, would wear him down.

But one last drive to greatness remained, holding off Connors in five sets in the US Open semis then forcing his way past Lendl in the finals, then again in the Masters final. It was the end, a summit not just reached but an era done, one last, wild, outrageous, mesmerising dance with perfection before the flame flickered.

Power tennis was pounding at the door. Lendl was worshipping his body. Pat Cash the athlete was nudging his way through. Boris Becker was six months away from announcing his muscular self. Kevin Curren would wreak havoc at Wimbledon with his unreturnable serve. The speed and sound of tennis was to be altered forever.

McEnroe had constructed a memory of almost perfection and a record to confirm it. And then he was done. The warriors had come, the artist had to leave, unaware 21 years later another would emerge. John McEnroe would never win another Grand Slam title.