Growing Up on Centre Court

Grin and Barrett

John McEnroe knew he couldn't afford to waste energy on whining and racquet throwing. He said so himself after he had beaten Bjorn Borg and carried off the Wimbledon crowns "I know I need every ounce of me to beat him," So he spared himself and the millions watching him any tantrums and played tennis as well as it can be played on a grass court. He defeated the man who had won 41 straight matches before English royalty and who just missed his sixth consecutive Wimbledon championship.

It was a conscious decision, one McEnroe should now make everytime he walks to the baseline at the start of a match: play tennis and shut up.

Serving at 4-5 in the crucial third set, McEnroe fell behind 15-30. Losing the next point would make a break more than likely, and he would be down two sets to one. He hit a volley long; the linesman missed it, but the umpire called it out. 15-40 and double set point. Once again those evil officials were out to get Little Johnnie.

But Little Johnnie did some fast growing up. He channelled his anger into two crushing serves-two quick points, and the score was suddenly deuce. Twice more in the same game Borg reached set point. Twice more McEnroe drove him to the canvas backdrop with twisting, slicing serves. He won the set in a tie-breaker and cruised confidently through the final ten games to round out his 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 triumph.

That display of steely composure and courageous tennis illustrated the greatness John McEnroe possesses, if anyone had any questions before the match. True, he didn't have a very tough time getting to the final, but McEnroe beat the world's best on a day when Borg was playing as well as he could. As the Swede said afterwards, it was a matter of a few big points, those points in the third set and several others, the ones Borg always walks away with, the ones McEnroe boldly grabbed Saturday afternoon.

And a final note on McEnroe's accomplishments at Wimbledon this year: while no one was watching, he and Peter Fleming quietly took the doubles crown on Friday, a feat that testifies to the New Yorker's all-around mastery of the sport.

No single win, even on Centre Court in the Wimbledon final, will transform McEnroe into the world's champion player. He will have to overcome Borg many times in the future before he can say that he tops the rankings. Moreover, no one example of praiseworthy self-control, even graciousness, will erase the memory of McEnroe's performance in the semi-finals, throughout the tournament, and in the past. McEnroe should be forced to pay all of the fines he has been threatened with, including the most recent suggestion of a $10,000 contribution to the All-England Club Kitty. Perhaps that three-week suspension Wimbledon officials mentioned can still be arranged.

As we applaud our countryman's excellence, we should keep in mind that he really isn't a very talented ambassador yet. Maybe he could take some lessons in protocol from elder statesmen Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, men who never had McEnroe's talents but who nonetheless dominated the game for short periods with grace and good humor.

Congratulations to John McEnroe. May he learn from his successes, since his failures are so few.