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HE'S NOT WIMBLEDONE Great tennis, good luck put McEnroe, 33, in quarters

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — He has gone from being a long-haired, headbanded teen-ager with a wonderful touch and a terrible temper to a short-haired, head-scratching 33-year-old whose shots are still magical and whose behavior still borders on maniacal.

Superbrat has turned into Superman at the All England Club.

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Going into today's quarterfinals in the 106th Wimbledon, John McEnroe suddenly has become the focal point of the fortnight. He has gone from being an 80-1 long shot to an 8-1 contender, from a three-time past champion with little chance to a serious threat.

Not long ago a memory in men's tennis -- pleasant for some, who remember him as the greatest shot-maker in the game's modern history, unpleasant for those who recall his often boorish behavior -- he seems to have some memorable tennis left in him yet.

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"Just because of the experience I've had, you can't totally discount me," McEnroe said when the tournament began. "If you get two or three guys to break their legs and, you know, if someone gets struck by lightning. . . . I've got a lot better chance than most of the guys in the draw, but I don't think there's very many guys that have a chance."

Nobody has broken a leg. Nobody has been struck by lightning. But McEnroe has advanced through his side of the draw with a combination of great tennis and even better luck, with victories over players who aren't as experienced or as fit as he.

Start with his second-round win over former champion Pat Cash, who tired in the fifth set. Then came the upset of top seed Jim Courier by Russian qualifier Andrei Olhovskiy, who, in turn, fell victim to McEnroe's mind games Monday in the Round of 16.

And now comes Guy Forget, certainly the best player McEnroe has faced at this year's tournament, seeded ninth and ranked the same. But Forget, a 26-year-old Frenchman with a wicked serve, has a history of getting nervous in big matches, as he did when he double-faulted with a chance to extend Boris Becker to a fifth set in the quarters here last year.

"You know, since I was a kid, my dream was to play someone like John," Forget said after beating Jeremy Bates of Great Britain. "That's always what we dream about."

Crowd favorite

McEnroe certainly will try to turn Forget's victory over Bates to his advantage, knowing that he now will be the crowd favorite as well as the underdog.

"It's just a mental thing," McEnroe said. "You feel like if you go out there and miss a shot or things aren't going the way you want, for example, that you don't start getting down on yourself just because you're supposed to win. When the pressure is on the other person expecting to win, it's always a different approach."

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There had been little hint of this performance from McEnroe. With the exception of his run to the quarterfinals in this year's Australian Open, during which he beat defending champion Becker in the third round, there have been no significant victories. He is ranked 30th in the world.

It was in Australia that he began working with Larry Stefanki, a former men's tour journeyman who had bumped into McEnroe earlier and persuaded him to go back to the game that made him the dominant player in the world from 1981 through 1984.

Stefanki's advice was simple, similar to the words Tony Palafox, McEnroe's first coach, told him when McEnroe returned from the second seven-month hiatus he took between 1986 and 1988: Don't try to hit with the power of the young Americans -- Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- or players such as Becker and Michael Stich, this year's defending Wimbledon champion.

A blast from the past

The only blast McEnroe should give is one from the past, #F Stefanki told him. It was like telling a magician that he should give up the glitz and smoke and go back to pulling rabbits from a hat.

"A lot of them had said he can't do it at 33," Stefanki said Monday. "But he's surprising them. Fatigue can be the biggest factor, but he has spring."

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Said McEnroe: "I mean, for me to be angry because guys hit the ball harder and my time is past is absurd. I'm fighting to be a legitimate player based on what's happening now. This is the present, and I've got to deal with the fact that players have gotten a lot bigger and more powerful."

The one thing that has been noticeable during the past nine days has been McEnroe's fitness, especially his legs. He has dropped between 6 or 8 pounds by eating smarter -- this from a man who once said he was on a "Haagen-Dazs diet" -- and training harder.

It has allowed him to reach drop shots that seemed beyond him a couple of years ago and to chase down lobs that were irretrievable. It has enabled him to wear down Cash in the second round and shake off Olhovskiy in Monday's 93-degree oven.

"His leg speed is a lot better. He's very, very fit," said Stefanki, who has become the first coach to travel with McEnroe. "His attention and energy levels are so high. His concentration is the thing. There's only one player who's been doing that on tour this year, and that's Courier."

A new intensity

Stefanki said that he and McEnroe have spent time this year watching Courier. Not the way he takes balls early and smashes them to oblivion, but the way Courier keeps his intensity going from the first point to match point.

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It is something that McEnroe lacked at times even when he was on top, and something that became even more obvious as his priorities changed at home, as he and actress wife Tatum O'Neal were having a family that now includes three young children.

Asked what part of his game he is most pleased with, McEnroe said: "Just overall the concentration, working hard and playing each part as hard as I can. I've always felt capable of playing the shots. I felt like I've been serving pretty well, but I think that has something to do with concentration. That's been a key for me, playing hard every point."

Said Stefanki: "I tell him, 'Don't go out expecting a warm-up period.' Play the first point like it's match point. I think he's catching people thinking he's going to be sloppy going out there. He's still relaxed, but when he goes out, he's still ready to play."

More motivation

If the Australian Open served as a starting point to a more serious comeback by McEnroe, the French Open only helped to increase his motivation. It might not have been too bad had McEnroe just lost quietly in the first round to Nicklas Kulti of Sweden and went home to Malibu, Calif. But McEnroe was fined for cursing -- he said that he didn't know he was on camera -- and then had to stay in Paris in his job as a commentator for NBC.

"I think it was good for him to sit and watch a lot of matches," Stefanki said. "It got his competitive juices flowing."

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Competitors aren't convinced

McEnroe's play here has yet to stir all of his competitors' juices. They treat him with the respect deserving of a former champion, but more believe he will be gone once he gets into another long match. They say that Forget, with the tournament's fastest serve, 131 mph, will wear him down today.

Even his doubles partner, Stich, doesn't seem to give McEnroe much of a chance.

"He's played really well every round he's had . . . but I think it's going to be tough for John going four or five sets against a guy a bit younger and a bit stronger than he is," Stich said. "He did that once against Cash. But it's going to be tough against Forget."

But Agassi, who could meet McEnroe in the semifinals if he gets by Becker today, said: "It's really exciting for me to see John do this well. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, both professionally and personally, so to see him out there, beating the best of the guys, is quite exciting. It's great for tennis. When he's playing his game, nobody does it better."

Though he has not had any of the hysterics that have marked his years here -- who can forget his "pits of the world" comment to a chair umpire in 1981? -- McEnroe still appears unable to keep his emotions completely in check. He has become a master of the racket toss, making sure that he doesn't take a divot out of the hallowed grass.

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A foreign thought

The thought of McEnroe's standing on Centre Court on Sunday, holding the silver cup over his head for the fourth time, still seems a bit foreign. He and Stich have reached the quarterfinals in doubles, and that could take something out of his game, as it did in the semifinals two years ago against Stefan Edberg. It has been eight years since McEnroe won here, which would equal Jimmy Connors' record between championships.

But it's not as crazy as you might think.

"I'm going to try to work it for me and say: 'Look, I've got nothing to lose. Just go out and play your tennis and don't build up this pressure,' " McEnroe said. "Hey, I still have a chance. I know that, in the deep corners of my mind, somewhere back there, there's a little person telling me that I still have a chance. If I happen to be standing there in the final, there's a chance that the guy could fall over."


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