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World Cheering McEnroe in Paris never gets old

He held his old-school, leather-grip racket with a familiar lightness. He turned his hips and uncoiled.

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Cheering McEnroe in Paris never gets old

(NY Times)
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PARIS — It looked like an easy shot for John McEnroe: a forehand sitter, lined up just right.

He held his old-school, leather-grip racket with a familiar lightness. He turned his hips and uncoiled.

When he struck the ball, the packed crowd on a stadium court here at Roland Garros expected a glimpse of the old magic.

Instead the ball dribbled into the middle of the net, and the crowd groaned.

So did McEnroe, who stamped a foot and cursed. He wore the grimace of a man forever aware of what he once was. Aware, too, of what is expected from those who still pay to see him play: a touch of tennis genius, and the old fire.

These days, McEnroe, 59, is as well known for his commentating on tennis events as for his Hall of Fame playing career. At this French Open, he has manned the booth for NBC and worked for Eurosport. But he continues to play in senior events like the one held this past week at Roland Garros. And he does it with a vigor for the game held by few from his era.

“I think I love the game more now than I did when I was the best in the world,” he told me.

On Saturday morning, there he was, out on the red clay on Court No. 3, playing in the semifinals of the men’s legends tournament for players 45 and older.

He looked as if he’d lost few steps, but he is still trim, still sharp-eyed — and judging by his reaction after that misfired forehand, still clearly bent on winning. His partner was retired French star Cédric Pioline, 48. Across the net: French great Henri Leconte, 54, and Michael Chang, 46, who won at Roland Garros in 1989.

There were no open seats. Three games into the match, the line to get into the steep-sloped stadium was 300 strong. “We are here for McEnroe,” said one fan. “The others are great. But he is McEnroe.

“Allez McEnroe!”

Let’s go, McEnroe.

The French fans cannot let go of him. And he cannot let go of Roland Garros.

This was the site of his most bitter defeat: the French of 1984, when he dominated Ivan Lendl early, only to see the methodical Czech climb back to win a grueling fifth set.

Since then, whenever he comes to this tournament — where he has broadcast and played in the legends’ tournament since the mid-1990s — he has felt again the deep and abiding sting. “There will always be a day or two when I have nightmares” about 1984, he said in our interview. His face tensed. It causes “quite a lack of sleep. Every time I have been here. Every time.”

There are other legends’ events at other Grand Slams. All of them stir memories and are played with a mix of fun and the competitiveness of days gone by. But for him, there is nothing quite like the red clay of Paris.

It’s the fans, he said, sitting up in his chair, as if energized by the thought. “They wear their emotions on their sleeves like I do. They feel things more like I do. It’s like a roller coaster in some way. I always say the greatest ovation I ever got was when I walked out on the court in the finals of the ’84 French — and by the end of the match, I had everyone booing me.”

Saturday — in a match played hours before Simona Halep beat Sloane Stephens in the women’s singles final on nearby Court Philippe Chatrier — there were only cheers, only awe.

The motion on McEnroe’s serve is still the same — the slow windup, the left-handed delivery. His volleys remain crisp and deft. He still stalks the court, bitter at every mistake, and still plays with the same loose grace.

He and Pioline won the first set easily. Then Leconte, who had been hamming it up for the crowd, began to crank up his game.

It ended with a tiebreaker, with McEnroe reaching back for a little of the old greatness. His serves spun in at sharp angles. His returns jolted across the net with a variety rarely seen from the powerful players of today.

When a reply from their opponent’s side fell wide, McEnroe and Pioline had made it into Sunday’s final.

The crowd rose and delivered a long, standing ovation.

“Allez McEnroe!” it chanted. “Allez!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

KURT STREETER © 2018 The New York Times

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