McEnroe Quietly Breezes Past Vilas

Times Staff Writer

If you crinkle up that hot-dog wrapper, you do so at your own risk. Change the film in your camera if you must, but be careful when and where you do it. And don't even think about meandering in the aisles. Hey, security guard, that means you.

John McEnroe is out there, watching and listening. Do not disturb. Every time he steps onto the tennis court, McEnroe should hang up a shingle: Quiet please, artiste at work.

It may be the impossible mission to completely understand John Patrick McEnroe, but his objective is clear.

And that, in a word, is perfection.

McEnroe wants the perfect atmosphere, the perfect conditions. Lord knows, he wants the perfect officiating.

It's all a part of his grand master plan: In search of . . . the perfect tennis match.

Sometimes, he comes close. As in Saturday's final of the AT&T; Challenge of Champions exhibition event, before about 5,000 fans at Thomas and Mack Center.

For one set, the second, against longtime rival Guillermo Vilas, McEnroe was virtually flawless. En route to a 7-5, 6-0 victory, McEnroe nearly shut out Vilas completely in the second set, yielding a total of just five points in the six games.

Two of them came on service winners. So, with three slight exceptions, when McEnroe was able to put the ball in play, the result was always the same: Point, McEnroe.

"I did some things to push him in the first set," Vilas said, "but in the second set, he just played too well. He went for the big shots and he got the big shots. They were impossible to get.

"I started forcing it a little and I made a few errors."

In that set, there was no room for error. Whatever indiscretion Vilas might commit, McEnroe pounced upon it like a defensive tackle on a loose football.

It helped add up to one of the quickest paydays in McEnroe's career: $200,000 in 68 minutes.

And that's including a 7-5 first set, which featured an 11th game that was at deuce five times.

That bothered McEnroe.

"He surprised me with that first set," McEnroe said of Vilas. "That's one of the best sets he's ever played against me. He was hitting cleanly on my first serve, which not too many people can do, and he was coming to the net. He caught me off guard with his aggressiveness." Vilas also broke McEnroe's serve three times in the first. McEnroe was astounded.

"I lost my serve three times in the first set. That just doesn't happen," McEnroe said. "Especially in a set you win."

Once he escaped the first set with a victory, McEnroe huffed a sigh of relief and decided to get down to business.

"I started concentrating on my serve," McEnroe said. "I got into a good rhythm and when I went up, 2-0, he started to get tired."

That's understandable. In order to reach Saturday's final, Vilas had to defeat Ivan Lendl in a match that ended after 11 Friday night. Less than 12 hours later, he was back on the court again--facing the world's No. 1-ranked player in an 11 a.m. match.

"Yesterday, the match finished too late," Vilas said. "This morning, it was impossible for me to practice. Normally, I practice an hour-and-a-half before a match, but I had to sleep.

"That's not a very healthy way to play tennis--especially with Mac. You can't give him any opportunities . . . and no player is in the position to do that after playing a late match."

What usually transpires are 6-0, five-point sets.

McEnroe was pleased enough with his play--and his pay--but he saw room for work. He didn't care for the distractions. You know, things like ushers and photographers and fans.

He held up play while he waited for a security guard in the upper deck to take a seat. He scolded a courtside photographer who was changing film during a baseline rally--"Can you think of a better time to do that?" And he sparred with a few fans audacious enough to cheer for Vilas between points.

"I miss an easy ball and people start cheering, and that gets me angry," McEnroe said. "Inevitably, people are going to be against me, because they want the underdog to win, because of a variety of reasons. But, I wouldn't want people rooting for me when he (Vilas) double-faults."

McEnroe also took out after the television coverage. Saturday's match was televised nationally by NBC.

"It is unbelievable to me that a final is played at 11 in the morning," McEnroe said. "He (Vilas) didn't finish playing last night until midnight. It doesn't make sense to come back and play in the morning, but that's TV. TV tells you when to play, and that's it. Everything's contingent on TV."

Of course, TV was one reason the five-day exhibition event was able to offer a total purse of $1.29 million. Along with his $200,000 first prize, McEnroe also took home $40,000 in bonuses ($10,000 for each match won) plus a gold-and-silver racket worth $25,000 plus a championship ring worth $20,000 plus the untold riches that fall under the category of appearance money.

McEnroe considered his booty and finally had to smile.

"I'll come back and play at 11 anytime if these are the results," he said.

A final note: McEnroe was on relatively good behavior against Vilas. He didn't break a chair or put a foot through a courtside advertisement sign or smash his opponent in the face with a ball--as he did Wednesday against Jimmy Arias.

This time, there were just the few requests for silence. And, the one incident with the pro-Vilas contingent.

"A loss of discipline, totally at the spur of the moment," McEnroe said, reprimanding himself.

But then, nobody's perfect.

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