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Bosco’s Corner: Johnny Mac

It was refreshing to hear TimesLedger freelance writer Joshua Centor’s unbridled enthusiasm after having made the trek to Flushing Meadows Corona Park to both participate in and and write a story about the U.S. Open ballboy/ballgirl tryouts July 11.

Refreshing, not because I am an old curmudgeon who doesn’t get excited by such events anymore, but because it seems like it has been eons since anyone I know has shown the slightest bit of interest in anything resembling or associated with professional tennis.

The U.S. Open is fast approaching. It is the biggest sporting event to be held in Queens every year, attracts the best athletes in the sport from all corners of the globe and draws a worldwide audience to boot. But I don’t know if there are more than a handful of people I know who care in the slightest — besides of course, Josh, who, as of this writing, still is waiting to hear whether or not he made the cut.

It wasn’t always this way. Now the only tennis star in the world, the most universal, the most sought-after, is a petite Russian beauty who can’t seem to win a singles match. There actually was a time when tennis was competing with the four major sports, baseball, football, basketball and, to a lesser extent, hockey. But nowadays finding a compelling tennis match is more difficult than just about anything.

Watching Serena Williams play Venus Williams was a nice novelty for a while, but really, who cares at this point? The two have clearly established themselves as the best in the world, with only a handful of others, such as Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, to offer even the hint of competition.

It is worse on the men’s side. There is no charisma at all. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras seem on the downside of their long and successful careers, finally, leaving a void no one has yet filled.

There was a time I could name no less than eight of the top 10 male players in the world. Now, honestly, I’d be lucky to get three of them right.

What the tennis world needs, in my opinion, is for someone to clone John McEnroe. Forget Ted Williams, Johnny Mac is the man.

Not only is he a Queens native — which always is good for this newspaper — but he was the most exciting and charismatic player ever to lace up a pair of tennis sneakers. He was volatile and downright enthralling. You loved him or hated him, but he was great for the game either way.

McEnroe is the reason I have any interest in tennis at all. When I was just a young lad, McEnroe was coming into his own as a player, which didn’t take long. When barely 20 years old he faced off against Bjorn Borg in what many experts consider the greatest tennis match ever played in the finals at Wimbledon and even though he lost that match, his legacy was just beginning.

He eventually went on to unseat Borg as Wimbledon champion in 1981, ending the Swede’s five-year winning streak at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. McEnroe went on to take the No. 1 ranking in the world from Borg that year, a defeat from which Borg would never recover.

But while McEnroe may have been introduced to the international tennis scene in Europe — he won mixed doubles and junior singles titles at the French Open when he was 18 — it is the U.S. Open that made him the Hall of Famer he is today.

McEnroe won three straight U.S. Open crowns, including three straight, from 1979-1981, as well as four doubles titles, with Peter Fleming in 1979, 1981 and 1983 and with Mark Woodforde in 1989, all just a few miles from the Douglaston neighborhood where he grew up.

He first achieved No. 1 status in 1980, becoming the youngest player since the inception of the ATP computer rankings in 1973 to do so. And for the next five years, McEnroe would be No. 1 on 14 different occasions, finishing his career spending 170 weeks as the world’s top-rated player.

But let’s be honest here, McEnroe was more than just a great player, he was great theater. What made people want to get up early and tune in to “Breakfast at Wimbledon” was not just the anticipation of seeing some really great tennis. It was also the prospect of watching the curly-haired wunderkind go ballistic when a close call didn’t go his way.

Thinking back on his career, it is hard not to visualize a young string-bean McEnroe sporting a red head band, arms extended outward from his body and a look of anguish on his face as he pleads — no, demands — a reversal from the referee.

“Chalk flew up!” is perhaps the most famous of all of McEnroe’s printable tirade quotes, of course accompanied by flailing arms and an exaggerated grimace.

Try finding anyone nearly as engrossing on the tennis circuit these days. You won’t, I promise you. The players are bigger, stronger, faster and make more money than McEnroe today, but they never will match his star power.

I’d bet more people would pay to see McEnroe go at it with his old foe, Jimmy Connors, in a celebrity boxing match than they ever would to see two guys currently ranked in the top 10 play a match.

Such is the state of tennis these days. Maybe Anna Kournikova will win a match or two this year in Flushing to at least keep me interested for a little while.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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