Commentary

Age trumps beauty in MSG undercard

Updated: February 28, 2011, 10:09 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It could have been the mid-'80s, with Ivan Lendl glaring at the fist-pumping John McEnroe on the baseline and a sold-out arena screaming its encouragement …

… except this was a quarter-century later and McEnroe spent much of his changeover time being administered to by a trainer and Lendl, almost gaunt through the hips and legs that were once so powerful, showed several sparks of humor:

Lendl was trailing 4-0 on Monday night at the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden when a successful overhead gave him his first game. Lendl raised his arms as if he had won the U.S. Open -- which he did for three straight years -- and even cracked a small smile.

[+] EnlargeJohn McEnroe
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJohn McEnroe was in full control of the match before a dodgy ankle forced him to retire.

On a bill that featured Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi, Lendl-McEnroe -- at least on paper going in -- was a curiously refreshing undercard event. But age trumped beauty when the 52-year-old McEnroe retired with a sprained ankle, leading the first-to-eight match 6-3.

Four months earlier, in their first meeting in 18 years, Lendl retired to McEnroe in Paris with a pulled calf muscle.

"I was playing so well," McEnroe explained later in an on-court interview. "I was so psyched, I was about to jump out of my pants. I sprained my ankle in practice two hours ago. I feel like I'm moving pretty good for a 52-year-old."

Not Monday night. Still, in truth, McEnroe probably could have played out the match if it had meant something.

At one point in his interview, McEnroe dropped his baggy white shorts and revealed a pair of perilously short shorts (think Larry Bird).

"I wanted to show the fans I was prepared to play Ivan, circa 1980," McEnroe said. "It's hard to play somebody when they're hurt. We're not getting any younger. Maybe we can come out here on more even terms.

"I never thought we'd get the chance to play here again."

Lendl interjected, "I have a solution. We come back next year in short shorts and wooden rackets. I would like to see that."

The crowd roared.

Chances are, Lendl can make it happen; he's one of the promoters of the event.

"Santos, Brazil, 1978 ," Lendl remembered, "that was the first time John and I ever played. I knew all along, he was going to work for me one day."

Lendl, as a player on the ATP World Tour, was uncompromising and, quite often, difficult to like. The native of Czechoslovakia never enjoyed the popularity of Americans Agassi, McEnroe or even Sampras, but he was more consistent. Of the four tennis greats on hand, Lendl fashioned the best winning percentage -- .818, based on an extraordinary 1,071--239 record. He was followed closely by McEnroe (.816, 875-198), Sampras (.774, 762-222) and Agassi (.761, 870-274).

Unlike the three U.S. players, Lendl did not matriculate directly into senior tennis, choosing instead to play a ton of golf and teach his five talented daughters the game with 18 holes; Marika and Isabelle both wound up with scholarships at Florida State.

Lendl didn't pick up a racket with a sense of seriousness for 16 years.

But then last season, he got back into the game. He lost some weight and announced plans for a comeback against Mats Wilander last spring. And then in October, Lendl finally caught up with his archnemesis. Like Sampras and Agassi, Lendl and McEnroe were the best two players of their generation. They met 36 times, with Lendl winning 21. In the four major finals in which they collided, Lendl won three -- ultimately, the difference in the Czech's eight Grand Slam singles titles, compared with McEnroe's seven.

In Paris, McEnroe won the Jean Luc Lagardere Trophy when Lendl retired, trailing 6-4, 3-2.

"He was throwing everything at me and he was saying a lot of things to me," McEnroe said afterward. "Usually the things we were saying to each other weren't always pleasant, but this was pleasant. I think we always brought out the best in each other and if we can do that to some degree now on this [senior] tour, then that'll be awesome."

Judging by Monday night, it's going to take some more time in the gym and on the court before they can actually finish a match. Lendl wasn't moving particularly well, perhaps the residue of the chronic back pain that ended his career in 1994.

McEnroe has always had marvelous hands, and even as he was moving gingerly along the baseline, this was enough to keep Lendl in check -- until he retired after the ninth game.

"I live here, Ivan, I've noticed the buses inundated with pictures of us," McEnroe said. "So why was I 45 in the picture -- and you're 25?"

Far from grumpy old men, this was a standup routine -- and a pretty good one.

"Because, John," Lendl said, "you get better-looking with age."

"John and Ivan were pretty funny," observed Billie Jean King. "Maybe they should have their own show."

Twenty-five years ago, they did.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.