McEnroe's prime not even within shouting distance


WASHINGTON -- Did you ever wonder how John McEnroe can live with himself the way he plays tennis these days?

But, of course, you know the answer. It drives him nuts.

Other things used to drive him nuts, and they probably still do. But this has got to be fingernails-on-the-blackboard stuff. This has got to be the pits of the world.

I saw him the other night at the Sovran tennis tournament. To say McEnroe, at 32, was a shadow of his old self is to slander shadows. In a routine, first-round match, he nearly choked away (his words) a second set against a player so obscure I can no longer remember his name. Neither can McEnroe.

He yelled at a few linesmen, screamed once or twice at the umpire, just trying to get himself into the match. But his heart wasn't even in that. He hasn't been No. 1 since 1984 (that's right, seven long years ago), and now he's No. 18, of all things, and he has to find a way to justify this decline.

It isn't easy, but he has stumbled onto something. Kids. He has three of them now. It seems as if the worse he plays, the more kids he gets. I'd hate to see Mia Farrow's game. Anyway, McEnroe can now say: "I find myself lying around playing with my kids, and, all of a sudden, it's like, 'I've got to play a match.' You're comfortable there, enjoying there. It's hard to focus on tennis."

He has kids. So do I. So do you. So does everyone. But he has kids and a movie-star wife who put her career on hold so McEnroe can try to salvage his. And he can't, anyway, at least not in the old style when he played the game as well as anyone ever has. This will really drive you nuts.

Imagine Tatum saying: "I gave up a shot at a 'Paper Moon' sequel so you can play a guy whose name you can't even remember?"

Is that pressure or what?

"I'm a believer that at least one of the adults should be with the children all the time," McEnroe says. "My wife is basically not working, so I can play tennis. It's disappointing not to do well."

And the disappointment doesn't stop there. In fact, when he's on the court, the disappointments never seem to end.

"Sure, you want to impress everyone," he says. "It's only natural. But I put so much pressure on myself anyway. And when you don't play your best, it's frustrating. Tennis is such a frustrating game to begin with. It's a big test of your emotions every time out. . . .

"I know the fans can be disappointed. They always look back to that absolute pinnacle of your game."

And McEnroe does, too. It's hard to see the old McEnroe. Occasionally, he'll slip in a beautifully crafted slice or a topspin lob that you can write a poem about. More often, he's doing what he did the other night, when he knocked in about a third of his first serves. Or last night, when it got even worse, McEnroe losing to Luis Herrera.

There are places you can still find the old Mac, however, if you know where to look. You saw him recently on your TV screen from Wimbledon, screaming pre-children-era invective at a female official. And for this self-styled causist, he was yelling the most politically incorrect stuff at her you can imagine.

"Obviously," he says, "that was something I regret."

That's the other time you can see the old Mac, the other, tortured McEnroe who wants so desperately to do well. To do everything well. He even told us the other night he wants to be Mr. Mom when his career ends, to take care of the kids so Tatum can go back to movie-making.

"I'd like to say yes," he says. "I hope to get to the point that I can do that."

He doesn't promise it, because he doesn't promise anything. He promises to aspire to things, though. And he tries so darn hard.

Easily the most psychoanalyzed athlete in the history of sport, he's also the most tortured man since the Inquisition.

When he came to meet the press the other night, McEnroe was late because he had needed first to undergo electronic-massage treatment. It was suggested in the press room that McEnroe -- the Randall P. McMurphy of tennis -- had finally undergone electric shock treatment. That's all that's left.

Instead, he lay bare his soul for about 20 minutes. It's therapy, I guess. He talked about the pressure of getting himself ready for a match and trying not to disappoint the world at the same time. And he talked about trying to be slightly more in control of himself.

"It wasn't that big a thing," McEnroe says of the Wimbledon blowup, for which he was fined $10,000. "Not many people saw it. There was a TV camera there, though.

"I had hoped that, with some of the goodwill I've built up, that this could have been brushed under the table."

It wasn't. And I've got at least one theory as to why. We need McEnroe. He is the person you never have to be. He's the dark side of our personality we can suppress because he's there to express it for us. You can't yell at your boss because of those little extras called groceries. When McEnroe screams profanities at the umpire, he does it for us.

He suffers for this, of course.

He suffers for us all.

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