McEnroe turns on the talent again

IT WAS VINTAGE stuff from John McEnroe (right) who partnered Jonas Bjorkman to win the SAP Open doubles title.-AP IT WAS VINTAGE stuff from John McEnroe (right) who partnered Jonas Bjorkman to win the SAP Open doubles title.

John McEnroe, the Volley Virtuoso, the fellow who mixed it up with those relics called Jimmy and Bjorn, got on court with Jonas Bjorkman at the San Jose Open and won the men's doubles, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Has the world started spinning backwards and we did not notice? Did H. G. Wells show up slyly with his time machine and transport us and tennis back to an era we'd begun to forget? Has some aesthetic God decided it was time to give 20-something fans, too young to know better, a passing glimpse at an ancient master?

It's all a bit confusing. If this is 2006, then how come the best American tennis player on court last week was a fellow called McEnroe? Was it his son? Another brother we hadn't heard of? Or could it be him? Whoa, it was.

Fine, we know everyone's delaying their careers these days, limping batsmen playing from memory into their late 30s, boxing champs removing their dentures before fighting into their early 40s, Schumacher going strong even though his driver's licence probably needs renewing.

But this?

How come this semi-balding, totally greying, punk turned TV preacher, who swore he couldn't touch his toes in his prime, throws away his walker, exchanges microphone for racket, and walks home with a doubles trophy at 47?

Does doubles just suck, or is this guy the ultimate geriatric genius?

In case you're visiting from another planet, John Patrick McEnroe, yeah, him, the Manic Mouth, the Volley Virtuoso, the fellow who mixed it up with those relics called Jimmy and Bjorn, got on court with Jonas Bjorkman at the San Jose Open and won the men's doubles.

He says he played because he wants to give doubles a fillip, bring back the crowds, get oldies to play. Maybe, inadvertently, he just put it back 30 years. Can you imagine the questions that will be asked of Wayne Arthurs/Stephen Huss and Ashley Fisher/Tripp Phillips and Jaroslav S. Levinsky/Robert Lindstedt and Paul Goldstein/Jim Thomas, the fellows who fell to him in San Jose? You lost to whom? He's still alive?

Of course, it helps that McEnroe has been bunting it around on the seniors tour with Goran, Cash and gang. And that while doubles is fun, and tough, and creative, and fast, it's not exactly some Pythagorean Theorem either.

There is also the minor point of McEnroe being, no argument, no question, the greatest doubles player with human DNA in the history of a century-old sport.

It wasn't just how much he won — 77 titles, now 78, with nine men's Slams, seven straight Masters titles (now the World Doubles Championships), four-times ATP Doubles Team of the Year in 1984/83/81/79 with Peter Fleming, and winner of both the singles and doubles titles in the same tournament a record 29 times — it was as much how he played.

McEnroe, who was known on the practice court for carrying on conversations as he volleyed forward, used doubles to hone his singles play, his play a collage of angles, dinks, lobs, spins, all touchy-feely stuff which reportedly once so infuriated his coach during his youth that he told Johnny Mac, if you're going to do all that, go and play on the girls court.

Of course, it wasn't just that McEnroe could hold tutorials on the volley, and write the definitive thesis on taking the ball early, he was owner of a serve that defied every convention with his body starting parallel to the baseline, except when he swung around, on the advantage court, he could take you out so wide you'd be returning from the third row of seats in the stands.

So a downcast Peter Fleming, after being carried by McEnroe one day, said graciously, although belittling his own great doubles self, that the greatest doubles pair ever was "McEnroe and anyone", and while this wasn't totally true, it's a nice coincidence that when Mark Knowles, a modern specialist, was asked once, who in history he'd like to play, pat came the answer: "McEnroe and anyone".

Anyone, it seemed, would do. McEnroe would pick up Mark Woodforde, and they'd win the US Open (1989), he'd grab Michael Stich and they'd win Wimbledon (1992).

That year, in the Davis Cup finals against Switzerland, he did the doubles tango with a fellow called Sampras, and two sets to love down to Jacob Hlasek and Marc Rosset they won in five.

By the end of it even quiet, contained Pete, whose idea of animation was a bushy eyebrow raised, was fist-pumping and yelling. Only Johnny could do that.

It was that same year that he won the Paris Indoor doubles with brother Patrick and that was it. No more titles. The legend done, the record books bound and put on the shelf like he was.

Now 14 years later, Jimmy playing golf somewhere and living the quiet life, Ivan's elasticity gone as he travels with his golf-playing daughters, dear Vitas dead and gone, Vilas somewhere around maybe still writing poetry, the Racketman Returns.

So he and Bjorkman didn't quite play the Bryan brothers, but still, as a cake was wheeled out on court with more candles that some of his opponents might have had shaves, the old geezer was slicing serves, putting away volleys, and while the rust is too deep to fall off, and the half-volley winners with a jerk of the wrist into unreachable corners may remain only in the memory, he still brought the crowds in. "Dad", you can almost hear a kid in the stands say to his beaming pot-bellied pater, "Why are you smiling?" So how do you explain magic?

McEnroe says he is fitter, drawing on the example set by some of his peers. "When I watch (George) Foreman become heavyweight champion at 45, and see guys like (baseballer) Roger Clemens and my buddy Chris Chelios, who is the captain of the Olympic hockey team and is 44 and looks like he is cut with granite. He's unbelievable... I'm like way behind these guys. I'm trying to motivate myself to work even harder."

Doubles is in trouble, scoring systems are being fooled around with, crowd-drawing names hard to find. Once upon a time established singles players routinely partnered up, even those old hams Connors and Nastase clowning their way to a Wimbledon title, but the tour's too crowded, singles matches too draining, the money not seductive, and top men's players give it a pass.

McEnroe maybe was providing a reminder that doubles is still sexy; maybe he feels that by stepping out he might influence others to play, though you're pretty sure Boris Becker and Henri Leconte, who reportedly are tossing up a doubles return, are not what he had in mind.

Maybe McEnroe just wanted to make a point. Doubles specialist Daniel Nestor reportedly said once that "McEnroe doesn't give doubles that much respect today, so it would be nice to go out there and square off against him.

He figures he can step out of the booth and dominate like he used to. That's a little upsetting. With respect to his talent, I think he'd be a little bit surprised."

Maybe not.