Stacking up to Johnny Mac
For someone who rarely comes up in conversations concerning the all-time greats in men's tennis, John McEnroe's name is getting a lot of play of late. McEnroe, who returns to ATP Tour doubles play Wednesday night at the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif., still enjoys several tennis records that seemingly can't be topped.
World No. 1 Roger Federer's dominating 2005 season, which included two Slam titles among 11 overall titles, came up one win short of the Open Era record win-loss of 82-3 (.965) set in 1984 by McEnroe.
For all of Federer's glory over the last few years, including his three slams in 2004 and the two Slams and four-loss effort last year, there is a slim chance the Swiss will ever attain the heights of McEnroe's 1984 season, a year that was dominant on many different levels.
"It was nice to see how hard [Federer] was trying to beat my record because perhaps now people will realize that it's not as easy as it looks to go 82-3," McEnroe said after the Swiss native came up one win short of his mark last November, losing in the final of the Masters Cup. "Roger has had a phenomenal year, he came up one short, but while it would have been nice to be tied with him, it is sort of cool that I still have one record."
Federer had a chance to tie McEnroe's record, but couldn't finalize a two-set lead over David Nalbandian in the title match in Shanghai. But even if Federer had won that last match, consider what McEnroe accomplished in 1984, and in what context.
Federer is arguably the most complete player of the Open Era, and McEnroe was a wiry serve-and-volleyer with an antiquated Continental grip and an awkward, but effective, baseline game.
McEnroe's main foes in 1984 were Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander. Or to put it in perhaps more impressive fashion, three guys who won seven or more Grand Slam titles -- each.
On top of that, McEnroe also played and dominated the doubles scene, winning seven titles that year, including Wimbledon. All told, McEnroe won 20 titles and posted a combined 128-8 record in 1984, and helped lead the U.S. to the Davis Cup final.
But as ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert says, McEnroe wasn't playing against the depth of talent that exists in today's game.
"The game back then was stronger at the top. Wilander, Lendl and Connors, those guys were ultimate warriors," says Gilbert, who lost to McEnroe in the San Francisco finals in 1984. "In those days, Mac could snooze into the quarters. But now players are monumentally better from No. 10-150 in the rankings."
Like many, Gilbert is in awe of Federer's accomplishments.
"I never thought we'd see another season like McEnroe's, there's just too much depth now," Gilbert said. "But what Federer is now doing blows me out."
McEnroe acknowledges that Federer will be hard-pressed to match his magical 1984 season, which included a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final, the one Slam Federer has yet to win.
And it's not about to get any easier, McEnroe says.
"Even if he's healthy, people are going to start digging deeper to play against him," McEnroe said. "If he is not healthy, then it's going to be really tough. People will do different things to start bridging the gap."
McEnroe's three losses during the 1984 season were to Lendl at the French, after leading two sets to love in the final; to India's Vijay Amritraj in the first round at Cincinnati; and to Swede Henrik Sundstrom in the Davis Cup final.
Like Federer last year, McEnroe in 1984 won two slams, but went further in his overall tournament record with 13 titles in his 15 tournaments. He began the year with 39 consecutive wins, and for the year was 6-0 versus Connors, 6-1 against Lendl, and 3-0 versus Wilander.
On Wednesday in San Jose, McEnroe will play on the ATP circuit for the first time since 1994 by making a doubles-only appearance, partnering with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman. The senior tour regular, who will turn 47 next Thursday, says his reemergence is to shine some light on the problems doubles is having and to encourage the powers that be to keep an important part of the game.
"Given the fact that for me, doubles was an important part of my career and something that I felt helped my singles, I'm hoping that not only will I be able to have some fun doing it obviously and play well," McEnroe said. "But more importantly in the longer term, it's to me about trying to sort of be part of some type of solution."
McEnroe hopes Bjorkman, a former No. 1-ranked doubles player, can do some of the heavy lifting that was formerly left up to him.
"Jonas, he's got a lot of experience. I'm hopeful that he plays well because I'd like to play with someone who helps me out instead of the other way around," McEnroe said.
San Jose Tournament Director Bill Rapp helped play matchmaker in partnering McEnroe with Bjorkman, and was there when McEnroe won at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1984.
"I remember watching and thinking what an amazing player he was," Rapp said. "I felt like he dominated the matches both physically and emotionally. He had such a presence about him that was intimidating to the opponents.
"I still think John has a sixth sense in doubles that I've never ever seen."
While his name may rarely come up with Rod Laver and Pete Sampras as the greats Federer has yet to eclipse, McEnroe remains content that his 82-3 year in 1984, his 13 total wins in a singles Davis Cup season, his record 27 titles in one year (1979), his 270 weeks atop the doubles rankings, his record 59 career singles and doubles Davis Cup wins, and a handful of other records remain safe from Federer -- at least for the time being.