McEnroe Gets What He Had Coming: a Loss

Times Staff Writer

For all those who have been waiting to see John McEnroe get his, this one's for you.

McEnroe did not even cover himself with the traditional glory in defeat. He went down covering his face instead--on Centre Court yet, in the hard light of day.

In three sets Wednesday, McEnroe managed to win only eight games against Kevin Curren, he of the booming serve and the occasional flash. Try to imagine John McEnroe, the best player in the world, who has played in the last five finals here and won three, losing, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4, in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Curren had never beaten McEnroe. No one , from all accounts, has ever beaten an admittedly overwhelmed McEnroe quite that way.

It was the worst defeat of his career, the tennis equivalent of pulling wings off flies.

"The only time I can remember when I felt so overwhelmed on a tennis court was against (Ivan) Lendl in Dallas, in about 1982," McEnroe said.

In 109 minutes on Wednesday, it was over. There was enough time, however, for McEnroe to complain to the umpire and even to call out the referee. But there was no amount of time that could have saved McEnroe.

Curren was too good and, for McEnroe, it was just too bad.

Afterward, he came to the interview room to face the press. And there he proved the dangers of trying to fit round people into square holes. McEnroe neither pouted nor whined. He made no excuses.

Instead, he revealed some of himself--the vulnerable, uncertain star who knows as well as anyone what it's like to be on top, and also knows the fear of falling off.

"I felt a little old out there," said McEnroe, who is 26.

"I've found it's getting to be a little overwhelming being No. 1. That's another thing I need to regroup about."

McEnroe spent the next 15 minutes questioning his entire game, beginning with his mental outlook. He thinks he needs to take better care of his body. He thinks maybe he needs a new racket, something with a little more sock in it.

Actually, right now, he doesn't know what to think.

"I think I know now how Jimmy (Connors) felt last year," McEnroe said. "The power level was just different. He (Curren) was just hitting the ball harder than I was. He just overpowered me."

A year ago, McEnroe beat Connors in the final here in 80 minutes, allowing him only four games. Some regard it as the best piece of tennis ever produced.

"The thing is," Connors said, "I was playing well that day."

McEnroe couldn't say he was playing well Wednesday. Curren, who once served 33 aces while defeating Connors here two years ago, was at his booming best.

A Wimbledon moment: Curren, serving for the second set, faces two break points. McEnroe dances, Curren fires a shot from his racket, and McEnroe puts the return into the net. McEnroe dances again, Curren serves again, and the result is the same. McEnroe looks down, not quite believing. Two more serves, neither of which McEnroe puts into play, and the set belongs to Curren.

But Curren's serve can't account for the five service breaks McEnroe suffered in three sets.

"I certainly wasn't expecting to be broken as much as I was," McEnroe said. "I was surprised at how badly I was serving. I didn't really have any pace on my serve.

"When you lose, everything seems to hurt a whole lot more. I just didn't have it. It just wasn't happening. It was a very frustrating feeling. It felt like everying was against me . . . the way I played, the way I felt."

Curren, seeded No. 8, is on a roll, playing at the top of his game. At that level, he can beat people, especially on grass. But in seven previous meetings against McEnroe, Curren had won all of one set.

"Our matches have always been close on grass," said Curren, a South African native who became an American citizen in the spring. "My downfall in the past has been to feel intimidated by the top players.

"Before I had played him close but was unable to get my nose out in front. Once I got out in front, I got more confidence, which is what I needed. . . . He's a good front-runner. Once he gets going, he hits great winners. I got him down in the third set, and even though I didn't play as well, he seemed very tentative."

He was tentative. And it might be that Wimbledon '85 will be remembered as the year McEnroe talked himself out of what could have been a third consecutive championship.

After his first match, he said he was flat. After his second, McEnroe said: "I feel I won't win if I keep playing this way."

To that point, he hadn't lost a set and wouldn't before meeting Curren.

McEnroe's problems here generally have little to do with tennis. Tougher than Curren are the British tabloids. McEnroe skipped a preliminary tournament at Queen's Club to avoid them. Tatum O'Neal, his close friend, did not come to London, also in order to avoid them.

The popular press was not put off. There was a story from Tatum's mother in one paper. In another, McEnroe was accused of cursing a tennis club member. McEnroe did curse one reporter, who was obviously baiting him; another called him "a verbal bully."

Said McEnroe: "I would look forward to coming back to Wimbledon, under different circumstances, and I hope the circumstances will improve in years to come. I've turned out in this country to be an easy target. I don't think that I'm that interesting a person, that I should have been harassed the way I have."

Earlier, he complained that he didn't get the respect here that he deserved. Later he said, "I never felt fresh," adding, "maybe I've made myself feel that way."

Obviously, some of the famous desire was missing.

McEnroe has been No. 1 for five years, chasing Bjorn Borg from the top spot and, effectively, out of the game. On Wednesday, McEnroe said he can understand what Borg might have been going through.

"I don't think 26 is an old age," McEnroe said. "I just think that I've been on the tour for eight years. I've played a lot of matches in singles and doubles, and I think at times you're not aware of it, that it catches up to you. . . . You have to look for ways to keep your intensity."

McEnroe, who has often been accused of not acting his age, was now sounding like an old, beaten man.

Curren was having none of that. He faces Connors Friday in one semifinal and is painfully aware of what champions are made of.

"I feel I can rise to the occasion, but I can't do it week after week like McEnroe and Connors, and that is the difference between them and me," Curren said. "That is the makeup of a champion."

At the close of Wednesday's match, a McEnroe passing shot landed long. McEnroe walked weakly to his chair. There he gathered his rackets, put on his jacket, zipped it up, put a cap on his orange Gatorade and put it in his bag, bowed to the Royal Box and then walked, head down, to the dressing room.

Later, he was asked when the old McEnroe would be back.

"I'll be back," he said. "I just don't know when."

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