JOHN McENROE comes to town
Aussies go missing
The moment John McEnroe opened his mouth in the Channel Seven
commentary box at the Australian Tennis Open, Australians were
treated to a tantalising glimpse of the Big Apple and the spirit
that made him one of the greatest players in tennis history.
At Seven his impending arrival was treated with the breathless
expectation that usually accompanies a visit from Hollywood
royalty or the Pope. And true to form the man didn't disappoint
Bruce McAvaney, who admitted he could have sat with Mac all
day were it not for the need to cross to a commercial.
Emboldened by an unrivalled status in the tennis world, McEnroe
is a man at the top of his game. Rather than feign sympathy
for Australian Todd Larkham's round two disaster against Lleyton
Hewitt, McEnroe told it as it was. Larkham was neither fit enough
nor sufficiently talented to be drawn against the world's number
While fellow commentator Sandy Roberts played the concerned
host and batted for the TV station, the New Yorker lambasted
the hapless Larkham as if he was a despised umpire of old. The
next day, Larkham's brother and coach, Brent, challenged McEnroe
to a stoush in the car park.
Bored by the Larkham match, McEnroe had opted for repartee
in preference to the earnest, polite assessment usually provided
by our own John Fitzgerald. But it was when he took to centre
court to interview Hewitt that our celebrity visitor delighted
the audience. Gone were the dreary media questions so often
dismissed by these petulant kids with racquets.
After a perfunctory opening question that bore the tone of
a supercilious teacher, McEnroe, with a twinkle in his eye,
transformed Hewitt into a likeable young bloke and swept away
the pre-conceptions that have dogged the boy from Adelaide.
By the time Hewitt had dispensed with Radek Stepanek, McEnroe
had him cheerfully explaining the origins of his back-to front
baseball cap and eating out of his hand. From publicly wishing
his 'old man' a happy fiftieth, to discussing the possibility
of playing mixed doubles with his girlfriend, Hewitt had embraced
McEnroe and become the darling of the circuit.
So yes, I was happy to see John McEnroe plying his skills down
under. But is that all there is to the story? Notwithstanding
McEnroe's class with the microphone, is it imperative that he
be given the pre-eminent special comments role?
And although I don't know what he thinks about American foreign
policy, it's hard not to see our relationship with him as a
metaphor for US - Australian relations. With George Bush gearing
up for a terrible and unsanctioned attack on Iraq, and our own
Prime Minister beating the US war drums, there was more to tennis
than Seven's love affair with McEnroe.
Although Cricket is an international game with a TV audience
in the subcontinent and the United Kingdom that dwarfs the Australian
component, Kerry Packer doesn't feel the need to relegate our
own champions, Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry, to
a secondary role in order to serve an overseas market. Tony
Greig had to take up residence here to cement a major hosting
Australians love Chappell because, like McEnroe, he gave no
quarter and didn't doff his cap to the establishment. Importantly,
neither Chappell's nor Benaud's legitimacy is dependant on the
appearance behind the microphone of an international cricket
celebrity. But even when Channel Nine hosts Wimbledon, it is
Australians John Newcombe and Fred Stolle who get the gig. That's
how it should be.
Maybe the explanation for McEnroe's dominance in the commentary
box was due to a dearth of available past players to rival the
status and intellectual qualities of McEnroe. Maybe! Although
Pat Cash may not have McEnroe's New York appeal, he offered
much of the same candour and larrikinism, and John Alexander
is hardly a model of soporific decorum and politeness.
Unfortunately, like Prime Minister John Howard, Channel Seven
seemed wedded to the maxim that if it's American it's better.
As irony would have it, McEnroe's appearance coincided with
the Australia Day Council exhorting Australians to recite a
jingoistic, American style oath of allegiance on Australia Day.
So 'brave, strong and equal' are we, an overseas celebrity has
to be flown in to interview those Aussie heroes who 'make the
cut' on the tennis court.
To accentuate the hypocrisy of the Australia Day breast beating,
Pat Cash was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame but never
allowed to offer a local boy's understanding of the Open or
put some of McEnroe's opinions to the test.
As a player, McEnroe belittled and abused anyone who stood
between him and success. Yet his modus operandi, like that of
America as it sets about 'regime change' in Iraq, is forgotten.
Todd Larkham's brother was wrong in challenging McEnroe to a
fight and resorting to crude sexist analogies about him being
a girl. But at least he was Aussie enough to tell McEnroe that
everyone, even a lowly player, deserves respect.
Maybe there was a message in Brent Larkham's defence of his
little brother. Being an enlightened global Australian doesn't
mean doffing your cap to international celebrities and mouthing
jingoistic platitudes anymore than it means tagging behind the
US war machine in the Middle East. Maybe that was the moral
of the story.