INDIANAPOLIS — Like a classic rock star expected to play his biggest hit, John McEnroe delivered just before defeating his longtime rival Friday night on the Indiana Pacers’ home court.
Up 5-4, 30-15 against Ivan Lendl in a match-up of tennis legends, McEnroe had just served into the net and was walking back to the baseline when his voice suddenly filled up Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“You cannot be serious!”
The crowd roared for McEnroe’s signature yell, which he first directed at a poor Wimbledon umpire in 1981 and used as the title for his 2002 autobiography. With that out of his system, McEnroe used the touch and temperament of yesteryear to finish Lendl 6-4 and later defeat fellow former No. 1 Jim Courier 6-3 to win the inaugural PowerShares Series QQQ Challenge.
The series may be one-set exhibitions featuring retired Grand Slam champions and other top pros, but McEnroe can’t put the brakes on his competitiveness.
“It’s getting better and better, and that’s exciting ‘cause I’ve got a birthday coming up,” said the seven-time Slam champion, who turns a spry 55 today. “So I’m trying to get myself to feel a little younger. I love to play and compete — we all do — but I keep at it. I have a tennis academy and I play with the young kids, they keep me young.”
McEnroe said his style of play, not seen so much on the ATP tour these days, helps him stay competitive on the PowerShares Series tour. He’s reached all four finals so far this month, winning the titles in Kansas City and Indianapolis.
“I was lucky that the way I was taught was sort of pretty easy on the body,” he said. “And I sort of use my racket, to some extent, like a slingshot so I would deflect someone else’s power and try and get it that way instead of using a lot of force that would have a tendency to beat up your body more.
“Also the way I was taught to move around the court, to be aggressive, to be alert for a quick short ball, that sort of feeling of not pounding the court has helped me last a little bit longer.”
The Hall of Famer and his opponents performed for the crowd in other ways as well:
u When a fan yelled out that a call was “the pits,” referring to another old McEnroe tirade about an official, McEnroe responded: “Let me say that. Give me time.”
u When Courier complained that McEnroe was taking too long on a changeover, saying, “Come on, Rafa!” McEnroe mimicked Rafael Nadal’s persnickety routine, slowly folding his towel on a bench before gingerly stepping over the court’s lines and bending forward awkwardly a la Nadal as he awaited serve.
u Lendl, after mildly complaining about two McEnroe aces, explained to his old foe: “I tried to explain it to (the official), but unlike you I didn’t threaten him.”
Courier, who beat Mark Phillippoussis 7-5 in the second semifinal Friday, said McEnroe’s outbursts may be part of the show, but it’s no less genuine for the hot-tempered star.
“He recognizes that, as an entertainer, people expect to see a little bit more from him because of his reputation,” Courier said before the matches. “But he also genuinely gets upset on the court. There’s not a lot of acting in a lot of these — most of the blowups are for real. But John knows people like it when he gets a little bit aggravated. It’s part of the schtick. I don’t have to do much to get him aggravated.”
Said Phillippoussis: “You expect it and you love to see it. It’s fun.”
McEnroe seemed to enjoy his semifinal win over Lendl, who he played 36 times on the ATP tour, the longest rivalry at the time (since surpassed by Nadal and Novak Djokovic). He broke Lendl’s serve to start the match and jumped out to a 3-1 lead after serving up three straight aces. Up 5-2, McEnroe couldn’t return a delicate drop shot from Lendl at deuce, leading him to throw the ball underhand in Lendl’s direction. McEnroe would recover two games later, however, to improve to 5-1 against Lendl in PowerShares Series events.
In what amounted to an encore, McEnroe broke Courier in the fourth game of the final with a masterful drop shot to fire up the crowd and held on for the 6-3 win as Courier’s ball on match point sailed long — with McEnroe blowing at it for good measure.
After the fan favorite was serenaded with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” — to which he pretended to cry — McEnroe addressed the crowd of about 5,000.
“Thank you so much for coming out. Everywhere we go it’s been snowing like 6 inches or more, so it’s awesome that you came out. I hope I see you one more time.”