Joel Drucker: Happy Birthday, Johnny Mac

John McEnroe turns 58 today. During his playing career – that is, his prime years playing singles and doubles on the ATP World Tour – McEnroe often made it clear that his life after tennis would extend far beyond the lines. From music to art, this was a man with other interests.

But it didn’t quite go that way. To his credit, McEnroe has called himself on his desire to remain ensconced in tennis. Broadcaster, senior player, coach – McEnroe has basked in all of it.

And why not? Tennis has embraced him a hug he never quite got as a player. If in the first half of his career McEnroe was a precocious prodigy, in the last half he was a genius in visible decline. He reached his last Grand Slam final at the age of 26, losing the 1985 US Open to Ivan Lendl. From there on, McEnroe reached a mere three Grand Slam singles semifinals. Save for a few sparks generated in Davis Cup – McEnroe played a major doubles role in the US team’s run to the title in 1992 – McEnroe never generated those last laps of public love he’d watched Jimmy Connors enjoy for years.

As far as McEnroe’s subsequent forays into music and art go, who among us would want to bother starting off at the bottom when our original area of expertise continued to offer so many goodies? By the late ‘90s, within five years of his retirement, McEnroe had organized a tremendous portfolio for himself as a TV commentator, a crusty but benign gadfly who wasn’t so great as Davis Cup captain (a one-year stint), but could still play darn well. As late as age 47, McEnroe won an ATP World Tour doubles title. There’s likely never been someone who could play so well in his 50s. In relative terms, McEnroe is now more fit than he was during his prime years.

The anger? McEnroe jokes that it’s now a necessary part of his act, that fans who pay to see him play at such events as the PowerShares Series expect to see a tantrum or two. So why not give it to them? Once upon a time, McEnroe’s emotions were fueled by the desire to win. Now, they are fueled by the desire to entertain. “History repeats itself,” said Karl Marx, “first as tragedy, second as farce.”

But none of that takes away from McEnroe’s superb tennis legacy, a record built not just on his outstanding results – 17 Grand Slam titles – but by his enchanting playing style. Much has been noted about McEnroe’s incredible feel and shot-making ability. But perhaps even more significant is the texture of McEnroe’s tennis mind. Shot selection, absorbing pace, court management – in all these areas, McEnroe ranks among the best ever. The anger, the sneer, the desire to be a pop-rock rebel – perhaps merely a mask. Blow out the candles, Johnny Mac. When it comes to tennis, you absolutely can be serious.

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