Scott Fowler

March 11, 2014

Would John McEnroe be OK with losing Thursday’s tennis exhibition? You cannot be serious!

When John McEnroe takes part in a one-night tennis tournament in Charlotte on Thursday with the likes of Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, fans will wait for the fiery McEnroe to blow up. And McEnroe finds that ironic.

You cannot be serious!

That four-word phrase is screamed from the stands at every senior men’s tennis event John McEnroe is a part of, and it undoubtedly will be yelled many times again Thursday night in Charlotte when McEnroe plays in the Champions Cup at Time Warner Cable Arena.

McEnroe originally yelled those four words at a chair umpire during a Wimbledon tennis match. Many years later, the phrase became the title of his bestselling autobiography.

Once, he was ridiculed in public for his on-court arguments and fiery persona. Now, at age 55 and quite possibly the best 50-and-over player in the world, McEnroe’s fits are both expected and applauded.

“There have been times when I felt like I was playing pretty good tennis, but it felt like people were just waiting for me to get angry,” McEnroe said during a phone interview. “Which is sort of ironic. That’s why I kid about it. The same thing they wanted to throw me out for and fine me for – now they want me to do it. It’s almost like it pays my check. So it’s sort of bizarre.”

McEnroe will headline the one-night Charlotte tournament. He will play Jimmy Connors in a one-set semifinal. Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl will face off in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting immediately in a one-set final.

Since McEnroe still plays tennis three or four times a week – often at his tennis academy in New York with some of America’s best junior players – he remains in good enough shape to beat the likes of Pete Sampras and Jim Courier on this senior tour. He also has come within a couple of points of beating Andy Roddick and James Blake, both of whom are more than 20 years younger.

“This is a favorable format for old guys,” McEnroe said.

In his second tennis career as the sport’s top TV analyst, McEnroe has become a tennis ambassador. He is not afraid to criticize – much like he used to when a line call went wrong – but also has become an advocate for the sport and its growth.

Much like David Letterman, McEnroe is most amusing when he is angry. It still doesn’t take much to set him off. A crying baby at a recent senior men’s event got McEnroe cranky, as he yelled “Quiet, please!” and later told the mother loudly that milk might work.

“It shouldn’t be that hard for me to conjure up some type of anger,” McEnroe said. “Something goes wrong even in the best of scenarios, whether it’s with bad play or bad officiating or a combination. Usually, it’s not that difficult to figure something out.”

But while McEnroe will joke around at the senior tournaments with the “You cannot be serious” line and others, he becomes quite serious when the ball is put in play.

“Ultimately, I think if the people came to see tennis and saw a circus I don’t think they would enjoy that,” he said. “So I hope that people walk out of the stadium saying, ‘Hey this guy’s still got something’ – that they are still seeing some real shotmaking.”

The four players in Charlotte on Thursday won’t hit the ball with nearly the same speed that Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal do. But McEnroe’s hands are as deft as ever. He uses them to create the same volley angles that helped him win seven Grand Slam championships in singles and become known as likely the greatest men’s doubles player of all time.

As for his longtime rivalry with Connors, 61, the player McEnroe will first face on Thursday: “Obviously there were months where we weren’t even talking to each other (as players in the 1970s and ’80s). But ultimately I know that we made each other better players. I measured myself against Jimmy as far as my effort level and my competitiveness. No matter how hard I tried, it seemed like he was trying harder. ... Now we can talk. We don’t see each other much, but the past is sort of the past. It’s been a long time since I’ve played Jimmy – maybe 12-14 years? I’m actually looking forward to it. I know the juices will get flowing for both of us. It will be nice to see what he’s got.”

But does McEnroe think he will lose to Connors? You cannot be serious.

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