Snow poured down on the city, but John McEnroe wasn’t to be upstaged Friday night, raining down a flurry of southpaw aces and sharply angled volleys to keep his competitors at bay in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. In doing so, he showed off some of his timeless antics before roughly 4,000 onlookers and champions-tour rivals Ivan Lendl (the Czech-born iceman), Jim Courier (a flame-haired, decorated compatriot), and Mark Philippoussis (the Aussie-born former TV heartthrob). Yea, away from his sweetheart, rocker Patty Smyth, on Valentine’s Day, McEnroe opted to take his trademark angst out on these foes at the PowerShares QQQ Challenger event—and, as it was 28 hours before he turned 55 years young, he had all the more incentive.
The Indiana Pacers’ hardwood was replaced by a hard, gray tennis court for the evening’s events, emceed by Tennis Channel’s Brett Haber. To open the show, McEnroe proved a pillar of consistency—a veritable wall—in taking down Lendl, his nemesis from the 1970s and ’80s on the professional tennis tour, by a 6-4 score. Next up, four-time Grand Slam singles champ Courier took out the hard-hitting Mark Philippoussis by a 7-5 count. The latter, a former reality-show star on NBC’s Age of Love, had previously combatted flu-like symptoms all week. McEnroe then disposed of Courier—the one-set score: 6-3—in a brilliant flourish of serve-and-volley attacks and a pristine display of blunting his younger foe’s powerful baseline game. (See a full recap of the matches at TENNIS.com)
Verbal shots were fired as well, with McEnroe telling the chair umpire at one point, “Don’t let [Lendl] intimidate you” before his perennially stoic rival, who gained American citizenship in 1992, quipped, “I’m sure there’s a big Czech mafia in Indianapolis.” After the championship’s conclusion, Habner had the crowd serenade McEnroe with “Happy Birthday,” and, prompted, the winner winkingly tweaked the crowd’s beloved Pacers, adding “That’s an ugly-looking thing up there” about Reggie Miller’s retired No. 31 jersey hanging from the Fieldhouse rafters. Catalyzing both boos and laughs, as he always has, McEnroe said over his semifinal- and final-match interviews, “My basketball team stinks, and yours is incredible. … The [New York] Knicks are 50 games under .500, so don’t rub it in.”
Before the matches, though, the non-turncoat McEnroe wasn’t above a good soak in an official Pacers tub:
McEnroe later told reporters, “There’s always been a positive, good tradition of tennis in Indiana.” Fellow Hoosiers Rajeev Ram and Ronnie Schneider faced off in the U.S. Open first-round doubles competition in New York City last fall, and Brooke Austin has been touted as another promising upstart in the pro ranks. The Indianapolis Tennis Championships, formerly known as the RCA Championships and housed on the IUPUI campus, dissolved on the pro tour schedule after its 2009 event.
The star, known as Johnny Mac in his younger, swaggering days, enjoyed his night’s good fortune by taking in the sounds of two bands playing at downtown’s historic Slippery Noodle establishment, Indy’s oldest and perhaps most famous bar. McEnroe dined on chicken wings, swilled a few beers, and gamely posed for photos with bar patrons and general manager Marty Bacon (below). He relished a generally low-key night in the Noodle’s front and back rooms both, says bartender David Martin.
That’s John McEnroe in a nutshell: tireless.