The Pacesetter: McEnroe celebrates last hours as 54 with win in Indy

Saturday, February 15, 2014 /by
PowerShares Series/Rob Loud
PowerShares Series/Rob Loud

INDIANAPOLIS—A mere 28 hours before his 55th birthday, John McEnroe put on a marvelous display of finesse tennis in Indianapolis to take down Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier and claim the PowerShares QQQ Challenger title. Playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, New York Knicks fanatic McEnroe saw the Indiana Pacers' hardwood floor replaced by a gritty hardcourt for tennis.

In the first semifinal, McEnroe squared off against old nemesis Lendl, who is actually his junior at age 53. Lendl aced McEnroe to start the one-set contest, but Mac answered by rattling off three aces of his own, each up the T, to go up 3-1. After the third, he barked, "Why didn't I get that call 30 years ago?" After Lendl chirped at the chair umpire over another call, McEnroe added, "Don't let him intimidate you," to which the crowd of about 4,000 erupted with glee.

McEnroe went on to post a 6-4 victory over Lendl, his third over the Czech-born rival in four tries this season in the PowerShares Series. Not before Lendl got in a lick of his own, however, saying at one point, "I'm sure there's a big Czech mafia in Indianapolis."

In the second semi, Courier faced off against Mark Philippoussis, who had been battling flu-like symptoms all week and received medical attention earlier in the day. "How fast is this serve going to be?" Courier said to start the match. "Ninety-five? Is that miles or kilometers?"

Philippoussis, previously nicknamed "Scud" for his missile-like serves but now called "Phlip" by his competitors, held to start, and sported his own Phlip label of clothes to boot. He also wore a preventative knee brace that gave him the added look of something resembling a bionic leg.

Philippoussis' compromised movement was soon exposed, along with his second serve. On one, Courier moved outside the doubles alley and rifled a forehand winner down the line. Even so, Philippoussis smacked two consecutive aces at 3-all and then turned the tables by uncorking his own down-the-line forehand return winner. But at 4-all, Philippoussis telegraphed a volley that Courier slapped cross-court for a perfectly timed pass. Interestingly enough, the Australian's forehand would be his best weapon on the night, as he wound winners cross-court nearly at will, sometimes leaving Courier flat-footed and gazing. 

But Courier held at love for 5-all, and consistency won out in the end. He earned a break point with a sizzling one-handed backhand passing shot (yes, one-handed) and took a 6-5 advantage when Philippoussis dumped a rather rudimentary volley in the net. Courier held in an anticlimactic final game for a 7-5 victory. "This [Indianapolis] is such a big part of my history," the 43-year-old said afterward, a nod to playing in the U.S. Clay Court Championships' qualifying event in 1986 before returning to play the RCA Championships, an event that dissolved in Indy after 2009. "I started coming here at age 16, and now I'm 22."

Electing to serve in the one-set championship round, as he did 45 minutes earlier, Courier stared down McEnroe as best he could. Coming into the match, the pair had evenly split 16 previous encounters on the PowerShares Series. McEnroe essentially balked on his opening serve, watching the ball drop to the gray hardcourt and wheezing, "That's not a great start." Even so, he held.

The rest of the title bout was a constant game of cat and mouse, with McEnroe as the endearingly preening feline. He effectively blunted Courier's baseline power, alternately mixing it up from the backcourt and serve-and-volleying as desired. 

After one lengthy changeover, Courier spat McEnroe's way, "Come on, Rafa, let's play." Slipping into Rafael Nadal mode, Mac took to adjusting his water bottles, delicately laying out his towel, hopping superstitiously over the court's lines, and popping low with his baggy-shorted posterior extended behind him to return serve. Courier struggled to maintain composure for a bit as the crowd howled.

Putting his game where his acting was, McEnroe proceeded to carve out a gorgeous drop shot that Courier gawked at, following it with a slice backhand winner down the line on a return to go up 3-1. So incisive on his cross-court backhand volleys, McEnroe then took a 4-1 lead on the strength of his exquisite shot placement and net play. Courier started to go for broke, seizing a sharply played game but losing the next at love as McEnroe, forsaking precision for power for even just one point, cracked a forehand winner for 5-2.

Next, McEnroe's consistency took hold, as he sent a flurry of curvaceous cross-court forehands at Courier, who finally dumped a slice backhand in the net. Courier responded with an ace, and at that, McEnroe mock-mooned him, pulling down his bright blue shorts and turning his back to his opponent. Courier complied in the farce, smacking a ball at Mac that hit him on the calf. This was Men Behaving Badly, in the best way. By all means, give the people what they want. 

Fairly straightforward final games found McEnroe a 6-3 victor. He raised his arms in triumph, pulled off his shirt, and threw it into the crowd behind his bench. He then donned a zip-up jacket, one last Rafa impression for the night, if a subtle one.

Tennis Channel's Brett Haber, the night's emcee, beckoned the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to Mac, who sheepishly thanked them, then winkingly tweaked the Pacers for their great NBA play, and quipped, "The Knicks are 50 games under .500 so don't rub it in." 

McEnroe told me after the match that his strategy against Courier is to "hit some spots on serve. His forehand is a lot better than his backhand. I mean, his company [which runs the PowerShares Series] is called Inside Out." He saluted his physiotherapist and noted that, in surmounting his younger foes, "The way I was taught was sort of easy on the body, to use the racquet as a slingshot. ... That's not my game to take huge swings. I'm one of those guys who's still using natural gut [strings]. The way I was taught involved moving around the court, being aggressive and alert, not pounding the ground."

To that end, McEnroe is surely the antithesis to Courier's self-described "grinder style," which the younger American alluded to when we spoke just before the event. It did not, however, sound like any form of grinding would be in the cards for McEnroe's 55th birthday on Sunday. Asked about his plans, he noted, "My wife [rock star Patty Smyth] has all kinds of surprises. She's thrown me some great parties. My 50th was a fantastic party."

Even so, he noted, she had a Saturday-night show to play on the eve of his day. The lovebirds, married in 1997 and apart from each other on Valentine's Day, looked forward to a fairly quiet dinner together. On this night, however, he was bound to celebrate his second PowerShares Series title with a few drinks late into the evening.

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