By Raffaello Esposito
Damn it, how did that happen? Or at least, when? To many of us, events from forty-one years ago are almost ancient history. That’s when white tennis balls, tight shorts and wooden racquets were still the norm, and touch, talent and finesse made the difference instead of power. The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan used to sing. In 1977, things were changing for good. Jimmy Connors was taking the game to levels of power and aggressiveness that were previously unknown, while Borg was hitting the forehand with top spin and adding a new dynamic to the two-handed backhand. The battle for the tennis throne was a duopoly between the Brash Basher of Belleville and the Swedish Iceman. But a third contender was about to rock the boat.
A few months before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wimbledon Championships, Brooklyn native John Patrick McEnroe Junior had just turned 18 and was getting ready to start his first semester at Stanford University. He had ginger hair, a great deal of tennis talent and a very controversial Irish temperament. In the spring of 1977, the United States Tennis Association allowed him to play a few tournaments in Europe. Before making the trip overseas, John turned to the coolest guy at the Port Washington Academy, where McEnroe was training with Harry Hopman and Tony Palafox as head coaches.
John’s confidant was also from New York and had a thick blond mane to go with his Lithuanian origin. A few months later, the world would start calling “Broadway Vitas.” These were his words: “Here’s what’s going to happen on your first trip to the French—you’re going to play some guy from Europe that you’ve never heard of, and you’re going to get your ass kicked.”
John spent the evening before his departure with his long-term friend Doug Saputo. The two were unusually quiet, as if they felt that something was about to change and nothing would have ever been the same. It was a strange evening in limbo between the present and the future.
John landed at De Gaulle airport in Paris with a sports bag, five hundred dollars in his pocket and a bundle of racquets. He suddenly felt lost, like any teenage boy that finds himself in a foreign country. “I felt as if I was in a National Lampoon Vacation movie—Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo are eating their lunch in a restaurant; he’s saying, “God, honey, aren’t they nice?” and the waiter is saying (in French, with English subtitles), “You stupid American asshole.”
At Roland Garros, he won his last qualifying round after a sleepless night. The match was scheduled for 8:45 AM and he was afraid that he would not have woken up on time. “Could I be awakened?” I asked the man at the front desk. He answered me in French – “Screw you”, probably.
While competing in the main draw, John won his first round match with ease before falling to Phil Dent of Australia in the second round. During the five set clash with the Australian, McEnroe – who at that point was used to competing in smaller tournaments where players were in charge of the calls on their side of the court – learnt that the umpire and line judges could make tons of mistakes. “From the moment our match began, the line calls were abysmal. Dent would hit a shot that was in by six inches, and the linesman would call it out.”
McEnroe also tried to speak to his opponent during the match while questioning line calls. The Australian didn’t blink, avoided any sort of confrontation and won the match. As the two were shaking hands, Phil told John: “Sonny, this is the pros now. You play the calls, and if you have something to say, you tell the umpires.”
Dent wasn’t aware that his words would have been followed to the letter in a very painful way a few weeks later.
In Paris, McEnroe won the boys’ singles event in front of three spectators and also captured the mixed doubles trophy with his friend Mary Carillo. He spent the rest of his time discovering Paris, before crossing the English Channel and arriving in Church Road where “…at least the language seemed roughly similar to mine.”
London was more expensive than Paris and John shared a room with four other young players for three pounds a night. It was almost like an indoor camping site where the players’ diet consisted of pizza and ice-cream.
In the first round of the qualifying tournament at Queen’s Club, McEnroe’s match against his countryman Pat DuPré was moved to an indoor wooden facility due to the persistent rain. McEnroe used his great talent to dominate the first set, but at the beginning of the second a lady in the stands started to heavily insult him. The incident confused the young American, who ended up losing the match 7-6 in the third. John later found out that the lady was none other than his opponent’s wife. Everything happens for a reason. “What the hell. My loss to DuPre had actually turned out to be a great thing—had I made it in, I don’t think I would have had enough time both to play the tournament and to try to qualify for Wimbledon. So thank you, Mrs. DuPre!”
The qualies for the Wimbledon Championships were contested at Roehampton Club and it didn’t matter if the weather was sunny, windy or rainy. Mac was in big trouble during his final qualifying match against Gilles Moretton of France, but he emerged unscathed despite the rain and muggy conditions. Mary Carillo vividly remembers those days: “He was so great at improv, he had that amazing first step. As soon as I saw him on grass, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This could go very well.’ I just didn’t know how well.”
Once granted access to the Wimbledon main draw, players were allowed a reimbursement of sixty pounds a day. As soon as he qualified, John moved to the Cunard Hotel with Eliot Teltscher and Robert Van’t Hof. “We chose that hotel because it had two ice distributors”. At the time, you didn’t need a nutritionist or a masseuse to be a champion.
McEnroe absolutely shocked the Wimbledon main draw. Pictures from that magical fortnight show him a little chubby in his Fila outfit while he’s screaming “Are you sure?” to the umpire. His service stance was still frontal in 1977; he would have developed his trademark lateral stance a year later to safeguard a bad back. His impeccable timing and pure creativity were already in full display though.
El Shafei, Dowdeswell, Meiler and Sandy Mayer were swept aside by McEnroe, who advanced to the quarter-finals to face Phil Dent, in a rematch of their previous encounter in Paris. The two squared off on Court 1 in the afternoon of June 28, 1977. McEnroe didn’t seem to be intimidated by the occasion and captured the first set 6-4. Dent was the kind of player that never gave up and the Australian ended up winning the second set in an enthralling tie-breaker. As McEnroe walked towards his bench for the changeover, he literally broke his Wilson racquet in two and kicked it all the way to his chair. It was not something that could be tolerated at Wimbledon and the spectators started booing the young American. Dent almost couldn’t believe his eyes as he started to realize that he had probably created a monster.
The Australian took advantage of the situation and won the third set. “It was definitely a tight spot, but then I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts.” At this point, McEnroe showed his true champion quality and was able to capture the last two sets of the match, unexpectedly advancing to the semifinals.
No other player was able to reach the semis after advancing to the main draw through the qualifying tournament. McEnroe’s semifinal opponent was none other than James Scott Connors. In the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel – the home of the champions – McEnroe spotted the bookmakers’ odds for the tournament champion:
McEnroe probably lost half of his semifinal match in that very moment. The other half was lost in the locker room before the match. Connors was famous for approaching his tennis matches with a boxer’s mentality, as he felt that he needed to hate his opponent to play at this best. When John approached him before the match to greet him and shake hands, Connors pretended that McEnroe didn’t exist, picked up his bag and took off.
A few decades later, Supermac still recalls the thoughts that went through his mind: “Do I even belong here with this guy?” And so, at that moment, I pretty much decided I did not want to win this match. Don’t want to win”
While his Dad and Tony Palafox were watching him from the stands, McEnroe easily lost the first two sets and even if he captured the third, it was too late to prevent Connors from advancing to the final. Game, set and match Connors.
McEnroe avenged that defeat against Connors many times in the following years, while the fire brigades often had to intervene and extinguish the flames between the two.
Since that semifinal day in June 1977, McEnroe never had to be asked again if he was a tennis player. He went home and reconnected with his old friend Doug, while realizing that nothing would have ever been the same.
(Article translation provided by T&L Global – www.t-lglobal.com )
Australian Open Day 5 Preview: Five Must-See Matches
Friday will be highlighted by two of the sport’s brightest young stars meeting for the second consecutive Major.
At the US Open last summer, Naomi Osaka easily dispatched of 15-year-old Coco Gauff. But it’s what happened after the match that warmed the hearts of the tennis world. Seeing her younger opponent was upset after the loss, Osaka encouraged Gauff to join her for the post-match interview, in a touching display of kindness. Five months later, Is Coco ready to compete with Naomi? That’s only one of many appetizing third round matches today. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Ash Barty, and the retiring Caroline Wozniacki will also be in action.
Naomi Osaka (3) vs. Coco Gauff
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Gauff only managed to take three games from Osaka in New York. And she struggled at times against Sorana Cirstea two days ago, squeaking out a victory 7-5 in the third. But I think she’ll be much more ready for the challenge of playing Osaka today. Since their US Open match, Gauff won her first title in Linz, and spent time training in the offseason with Serena Williams. However, no one has played better since the US Open than Osaka. She’s won 16 of her last 17 matches, claiming titles in both Osaka and Beijing. While I expect a more competitive match between these two today, Naomi remains the favorite.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (6) vs. Milos Raonic (32)
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Both men should be fully fresh for their first career meeting. Neither has dropped a set through two rounds, and Tsitsipas received a walkover on Wednesday as Philipp Kohlschreiber retired with a back injury. The 29-year-old Canadian has battled a plethora of injuries throughout his career, and again missed significant time in 2019. But he’s managed to perform very well at this event despite the injuries, reaching the quarterfinals or better in four of the last five years. While Tsitsipas is coming off the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals, he went just 1-2 at the ATP Cup, and is only 1-3 in his last four matches at Majors. In what could easily become an extended affair, I’m tipping Raonic to continue serving well and pull off the slight upset.
Roberto Bautista Agut (9) vs. Marin Cilic
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This is a rematch from last year’s Australian Open, which Bautista Agut won in four hours and five sets. That was the third of three five-set wins for the Spaniard here a year ago, as he also outlasted Andy Murray and John Millman. That was the start of Roberto’s best season to date, reaching the quarterfinals here and the semifinals at Wimbledon. By contrast, 2019 was Cilic’s worst season since his drug suspension in 2013. Marin has crumbled in pressure situations all too often, though he showed some great grit by taking out Benoit Paire in a fifth set tiebreak on Wednesday. But that had to take a lot out of Cilic, and he’s now faced with one of the ATP’s strongest competitors. Bautista Agut has won his last 10 matches, dating back to the Davis Cup in November. He should be favored to extend his winning streak to 11.
Petra Kvitova (7) vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova
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It’s the 2019 finalist against one of the hottest players on tour. The 25-year-old Alexandrova is on a 12-match winning streak, including her ITF title run last month at Limoges and her first WTA-level title two weeks ago in Shenzhen. She’s now the Russian No.1, and looking to reach the fourth round of a Major for the first time. Kvitova survived a tight match two days ago against another up-and-coming player, Paula Badosa of Spain. Petra fought through hot and windy conditions in that match, and she’ll be pleased to find the weather cooler and calmer today. In their first career meeting, Kvitova should be able to control play and advance to the Australian Open round of 16 for the fourth time.
Roger Federer (3) vs. John Millman
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At the 2018 US Open, Millman took advantage of Federer’s suffering in extremely hot and muggy conditions, defeating Roger in four sets. That victory propelled the 30-year-old Millman to his first Major quarterfinal. John would struggle mightily over the next 12 months under the weight of new expectations, but finally rediscovered some confidence after last year’s US Open. He won a challenger event in Taiwan, and was a finalist at the ATP event in Tokyo. And Millman already has six match wins in 2020, with notable victories over Felix Auger Aliassime and Karen Khachanov. All that being said, he’ll still be a considerable underdog against the 20-time Major singles champion. Federer took both of their other previous meetings, and looked extremely sharp in his first two matches here. As Chris Fowler of ESPN highlighted, Roger has broken his opponent’s serve at the beginning of all six sets he’s played this week. Despite the lack of a warmup event, Federer is in fine form, and should advance comfortably against an opponent like Millman who does not possess any big weapons.
Other notable matches on Day 5:
- Serena Williams (8), who displayed intense anger with her form on Wednesday, vs. Qiang Wang (27), who lasted only 44 minutes against Serena at last year’s US Open in a 6-1, 6-0 pummeling.
- Novak Djokovic (2), who lead Serbia to the ATP Cup two weeks ago, vs. Yoshihito Nishioka, who has reached the third round of a Major for the first time.
- Australian Ash Barty (1) vs. Russian teenager Elena Rybakina (29), who won a total of 57 matches at all levels last season.
- Diego Schwartzman (14) vs. Dusan Lajovic (24). When they played in Melbourne two years ago, Schwartzman survived 11-9 in the fifth.
- Caroline Wozniacki, who pulled off impressive comebacks in both sets against Dayana Yastremska in the second round, vs. Ons Jabeur, who loves utilizing the slice against her opponents.
Order of play
Rod Laver Arena
A. Barty (1) versus E. Rybakina (29) Women’s Singles 3rd Round
Q. Wang (27) versus S. Williams (8) Women’s Singles 3rd Round
Y. Nishioka versus N. Djokovic (2) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
N. Osaka (3) versus C. Gauff Women’s Singles 3rd Round
J. Millman versus R. Federer (3) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
Margaret Court Arena
D. Schwartzman (14) versus D. Lajovic (24) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
E. Alexandrova (25) versus P. Kvitova (7) Women’s Singles 3rd Round
M. Keys (10) versus M. Sakkari (22) Women’s Singles 3rd Round
S. Tsitsipas (6) versus M. Raonic (32) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
S. Zhang versus S. Kenin (14) Women’s Singles 3rd Round
L. Hewitt (WC) J. Thompson (WC) versus J. Nam (WC) M. Song (WC) Men’s Doubles 1st Round
O. Jabeur versus C. Wozniacki Women’s Singles 3rd Round
M. Cilic versus R. Bautista Agut (9) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
G. Pella (22) versus F. Fognini (12) Men’s Singles 3rd Round
D. Jakupovic R. Olaru versus T. Babos (2) K. Mladenovic (2) Women’s Doubles 1st Round
M. Fucsovics versus T. Paul Men’s Singles 3rd Round
A. Riske (18) versus J. Goerges Women’s Singles 3rd Round
T. Sandgren versus S. Querrey Men’s Singles 3rd Round
Karolina Pliskova gets through to the third round
Karolina Pliskova beat Laura Siegemund 6-3 6-3 after 86 minutes. Siegemund went up an early break to take a 3-1 lead, but Halep came back by winning five consecutive games to win the first set 6-3.
Pliskova earned an early break at the start of the second set and won a long fifth game to come two games away from the win. Siegemund fended off a break point at 1-4 and held a break point in the sixth game. Pliskova fended it off and held on her serve to secure her spot in the third round on her third match point.
“I am not sure if it was really nice tennis today. I think she has a very ugly game for me, so I am never going to feel amazing playing her. I am just happy to be through because this was an ugly match for me. Last time we played was on clay, so I am just happy I am through and hopefully I can feel better in my next round”,said Pliskova.
Elena Rybakina reaches her second consecutive final in 2020
Elena Rybakina beat British qualifier Heather Watson 6-3 4-6 6-4 after 2 hours and 16 minutes in the Hobart International semifinal setting up a final match against China’s Zhang Shuai.
Rybakina has become the first player to reach back-to-back finals in the first two weeks of the year since Agnieszka Radwanska in 2013. The Kazakh player finished runner-up to Ekaterina Alexandrova last week in Shenzhen.
Rybakina earned the first break in the first game, but Watson broke back with two forehand winners in the fourth game to draw level to 2-2. Rybakina broke for the second time with a crosscourt forehand in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead and sealed the first set with another break on the first set point, as Watson hit her dropshot into the net.
Rybakina saved three break points with two aces and a service winner, but Watson converted her fourth chance with her forehand return winner.
Watson went up a double break with a forehand pass and held her serve to race out to a 5-1. Rybakina converted her second break point chance to claw her way back to 3-5.
Rybakina earned two break points in the 10th game, but Watson saved the first chance with a backhand winner before serving out the second set with consecutive service winners.
Watson saved a break point in the second game of the third set as Rybakina made a backhand error. Rybakina fended off a break point chance in the fifth game with a down-the-line backhand winner. Rybakina converted her second break point chance with a drop-shot winner on the match point.
“It was a really tough match. I was still missing all these balls in the second set. In the last few games I was playing really risky, and I am really happy that I won this match”, said Rybakina.
Rybakina set up a final against Zhang Shuai, who reached the third WTA final of her career after a 6-3 6-4 win over Veronika Kudemertova.
Zhang earned three break point chances at 2-1 with a backhand crosscourt winner and converted her first chance after Kudemertova sent her forehand wide. Kudemertova won two hard-fought service game at 4-2 and at 5-3. Zhang closed out the set on her second set point in the ninth game.
Both players held on their service games in the second set until 4-4. Zhang earned a break point in the ninth game, as Kudemertova made a forehand error. The Chinese player got the break, as Kudemertova made her forehand error. Kudemertova earned her first two break points of the match, as Zhang was serving for the match. Zhang held her serve at deuce, as Kudemertova missed returns on the next four points.
“The winter training went really good for me. Training with the national team, a lot of coaches helped me, so I was already ready before this tournament. I think all matches I played really well this week, and also a lot of the Chinese fans are coming to cheer for me, so I have had a lot of motivationto win”,said Zhang Shuai.
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