By DAN IMHOFF
Put that old-school leather-grip racket in John McEnroe’s left hand.
Or throw a Scrabble board in front of him.
Either way, there is one factor that remains constant for the former American great.
If there is competition involved, this is one man still hell-bent on winning.
The stakes are not what they once were for the player who dominated a season as no other has done since.
His finest was 1984; the most statistically dominant year a man has compiled in the Open era.
He won 13 titles, including two of the three Grand Slam finals contested that season. He finished the year with an 82-3 record for a winning percentage of 96.5 per cent.
Now the subject of a film, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection focuses not on his many triumphs that year, but instead on his greatest on-court heartbreak.
Released earlier this month, the documentary is based on the 1984 French Open final, the lone match the American lost in the majors that year, to his great rival Ivan Lendl.
“It's a little bit tough for me to watch that film because that was one of the matches I lost, was the worst loss of my career,” McEnroe said from New Haven this week, where he was taking part in the Invesco Series QQQ legend’s matches.
“From what I've read, I mean, I read the New York Times every day, it was on the reviewed Thursday in the front page of the Arts section. I was like, ‘Wow. These people have come a long way from where it started. That was my greatest year’.
“There's a tremendous amount of great moments, a couple of heartbreakers. The fact that they put something to music, sort of made this dramatic movie about in essence my movements and my attitude and my, I guess, personality I'm going to take as a sign of respect.”
Few former greats his age – he’s six months shy of his 60th birthday – remain as spritely or as competitive on a tennis court, even if it is hit-and-giggle tennis, for the most part.
“He thinks, I think, that he can still be on tour,” Tommy Haas jibed.
“It is incredible how good he is,” James Blake added. “That's a testament to his hands. The hands are kind of the last thing to go… The hands for him were his biggest weapon, those are still there. It's pretty cool to see, playing with a different generation, different type of player.”
Truth is, McEnroe probably would still be out there on the men’s tour competing for Grand Slam spoils if his body allowed.
“I've been actually trying to wean myself in a way because I've had a great run,” he said. “I mean, who would have thought when I stopped playing when I was about to turn 34 I'd be playing on this champions or seniors tour the past 25 years? It's like an addiction probably.”
McEnroe beat another former American great Todd Martin, a player 11 years his junior, 6-3 to reach the final of the legend’s event in New Haven.
He would fall to former world No.4 Blake 6-4 in the final. It still hurt even it was a stretch to think he could take down a player only a year older than Roger Federer, a player who only hung up the racket five years ago.
Was it hard for a man as competitive as McEnroe to partake in hit-and-giggle exhibition tennis?
“This I can answer in one word: yes,” he said. “For me, when I get out on a tennis court, it's sort of like I turn into sort of a different person in a way. It's hard to sort of hit and giggle your way, me, through anything. I can't even do that in a practice session.”
Who’s to tell McEnroe the stakes aren’t what they used to be?