A holdout for eight years, McEnroe agrees to play in Lipton tournament


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Butch Buchholz will be greeting John McEnroe at the door.

"This is a personal thing for me," said Buchholz, Lipton's tournament chairman. "McEnroe finally did it, he's playing Lipton."

It took eight years, but McEnroe's name is on the draw sheet, with Connors and Becker and Courier and Edberg and Agassi.

The Last Holdout has come in. Lipton is legit.

"The evolution of the tournament has made it acceptable to John," Buchholz said. "I've known John for a long time. He was on the ATP board when I was the executive director and I've fought some battles for him. I've been friends with his family.

"Now, it's great that John is going to play here before he retires. He'll get a chance to see the tournament, and I hope he's proud of it."

Buchholz created the Lipton International Players Championships for the players in 1985, but McEnroe did not like the original setup and refused to play, except for a token doubles appearance in 1987, in which he lost in the first round.

McEnroe, a man of principle, disagreed with equal prize money for men and women, and he thought two weeks was too long. Besides, McEnroe hated to play in the Florida wind.

Today, Lipton is a 10-day event, and the men receive more prize money ($1.325 million) than the women ($800,000).

McEnroe, in fact, entered the past two years, but pulled out at the last minute with injuries. He's healthy this time, and will play the winner of the Sandon Stolle-Brian Dunn match today.

It's been a decade since McEnroe played in South Florida, back at the Pepsi Grand Slam at Boca West in 1981. McEnroe was the No. 1 player in the world then; today, he is No. 34, the lowest ranking of his 15-year professional career.

From Pepsi to Lipton: McEnroe's game has lost its fizz, but he hopes he has found the fun in what may be his last year.

"It's hard to smell the roses when you're No. 1," said McEnroe, 32, at the beginning of the season. "The key for me is just to enjoy this year. If I can enjoy one out of 15 years, I'll be happy."

Happiness is playing his best tennis, and McEnroe proved that he still has something left at the Australian Open in January. McEnroe upset Boris Becker (his first victory over a Top 10 player in two years) and outlasted Emilio Sanchez in a magnificent five-setter (saving three match points), before falling unexpectedly to Wayne Ferreira in the quarterfinals.

For tennis fans, it was a great show, like Connors at the U.S. Open.

Under new coach Larry Stefanki, a former tour player, McEnroe played with his old style and a new purpose. Superb serve-and-volley tennis, with brilliant service returns.

And McEnroe kept his cool. When an apparent Sanchez fault was ruled an ace on McEnroe's match point, McEnroe circled the mark without a word and returned to the baseline for the next point.

"My father always told me if I didn't question calls and concentrated on my tennis, I'd be a better player, and I probably would have been," McEnroe said.

What can we expect from McEnroe at Lipton?

In a best-of-three sets format, there is no telling. At this stage in his career, McEnroe believes he must play well and get a little luck.

If McEnroe wins his first match, he will likely meet hard-serving Goran Ivanisevic, the fifth seed, who can blow anyone off the court.

But who knows? Lipton is never predictable.

"John will be very dangerous," Buchholz said. "He should be serious about his tennis here, because there are a lot of ranking points to be won. The crowd will love him. They forget the bad and remember the good, and John is one of the greatest who ever played."

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