In 1981, John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg to break the Swede’s streak of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. It also was the year the Rolling Stones embarked on a massive U.S. tour, at least according to the faded, vintage T-shirt McEnroe wore Tuesday along with his stone-washed jeans and Chuck Taylor shoes.
The seven-time Grand Slam winner performed in the District as both rock star and tennis legend, playing some classic rock covers for a small lunchtime crowd as the most famous member of the Johnny Smyth Band, then entertaining a stadium full of tennis fans when his first-place New York Sportimes took on the Washington Kastles.
But it was the Kastles who eked out a 18-17 overtime win that included victories over McEnroe in singles and doubles events. McEnroe fell to hard-serving Scott Oudsema 5-2 in singles and lost 5-4 with Brian Wilson in doubles to Oudsema and Justin Gimelstob.
“I blew it,” said McEnroe, who served a double fault on game point during the doubles match. “I feel bad for the team because we were winning so big, and then the girls had to sit, and then it was just close enough where they had hope. So you feel bad. You feel bad for them.”
Sacha Jones and Mashona Washington of the Kastles secured the victory by winning the women’s doubles 5-1 over Hana Sromova and Milagros Sequera to tie the event 17-17, then followed with a 7-5 win in a super-tiebreak. With the win, the Kastles now have a record of 5-3. The Sportimes (7-2) still lead the Eastern Conference.
Despite the Kastles’ win, there was no doubt McEnroe remains one of the most popular players 16 years after his retirement from the ATP Tour as 2,200 fans packed into Kastles Stadium for the team’s third home match. This is his eighth consecutive year playing for the Sportimes, a longtime franchise of World TeamTennis founded by his younger brother, Patrick.
“I did like playing other sports as a kid, so it sort of brings me back to that,” McEnroe said of World TeamTennis. “I just felt like it’d be good to be part of a group that takes some energy from each other. Obviously, in tennis, you’re on your own so much. I always enjoyed doubles, and I like this concept of bringing the guys and girls in together and having a set of each thing.”
And the format of World TeamTennis, with a mixture of relatively short events, allows McEnroe to stay in competitive tennis even as he approaches his 50th birthday. On Monday, the left-hander won a singles match against the Philadelphia Freedoms, prevailing 5-4 over Alex Bogomolov, a 25-year-old once ranked in the top 100.
“This has actually motivated me to keep in shape,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen with the body. Some days you put all that time in and you lay and egg, and other times it works out and it makes it feel like it’s worthwhile.”
McEnroe came to the District nine days after his two weeks at Wimbledon, where he served as an analyst for NBC and watched the men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, a match he described as the best he had ever seen. It was a remarkable statement from a man who played in a number of epic matches himself, including the 1980 Wimbledon final, in which he won a fourth-set tiebreak 18-16 over Borg before falling in the fifth set.
“I think it was incredible, and I feel it as much now as I did before,” he said Tuesday. “I hope it will create a big jump for tennis and people will realize how great a sport it is.”
McEnroe’s appearance Tuesday night helped fill Kastles Stadium, and there were many high-profile guests, including Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Kastles owner Mark Ein said he was still dealing with ticket requests hours before the match.
“I was glad we were able to bring him down to Washington,” Ein said of McEnroe. “He still plays incredibly well. He plays in a way that’s just unique but really exceptional. And obviously he has a great personality but is also really knowledgeable about the game.”
McEnroe is perhaps best known for his temper, which triggered a number of high-profile disputes with chair umpires during his career. And it was on display at times yesterday; he scolded a television cameraman for moving too close to the court and was overheard uttering profanities toward the Kastles’ bench.
Since his retirement, McEnroe has become an outspoken advocate for the game. At times, he has pushed for major changes, including the reintroduction of wooden racquets to restore more finesse and artistry to the sport.
But he does not necessarily agree with those who have pushed to allow for more crowd noise and even music during matches. Such noise is embraced at World TeamTennis matches but is generally frowned upon at tour events.
“The guy [Monday] night was playing music every two seconds - maybe I’m getting too old, I like music - but I didn’t like it after a while,” McEnroe said. “It was a joke. It takes away from the match, personally I think. You can’t hear yourself think out there.”