Doubles delight from court jester McEnroe

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 October, 1993, 12:00am

JOKING John McEnroe shed his bad boy image to win over the fans on the first day of the Marlboro Championships at Victoria Park yesterday.

The one-time ''Superbrat'' of tennis was happy to play it for laughs when he teamed up with flamboyant Frenchman Henri Leconte for a doubles match on Centre Court.

The pair delighted the crowd with their comic antics and good-natured banter in their clash with the American-Australian combination of Todd Martin and Paul Kilderry.

But between the jokes there was plenty of serious tennis - and McEnroe and Leconte showed some vintage touches as they recovered from a second-set collapse to win 6-3, 1-6, 6-1.

McEnroe, in particular, was almost unrecognisable from his last appearance at Victoria Park - when he was a bad-tempered first-round loser to compatriot Todd Witsken in the 1991 Salem Open.

This time, the three-time Wimbledon champion was completely at ease. He set the tone as early as the third game when he jokingly went up to measure the net with his racquet after the ball clipped the net cord and dropped back into his half of the court.

Leconte, 30, added to the fun by roaring in mock laughter when the linesman called his service ace a fault, a decision the umpire rightly overruled.

McEnroe, 34, showed he had not lost his magical touch since he retired from big-time tennis at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last December.

His reflexes at the net were still sharp and he treated the crowd to some delicate volleys and exquisite passing shots. Leconte, another left-hander with a full range of classical shots, provided the perfect foil for the brilliant American.

McEnroe dropped serve in the third game but he and Leconte immediately replied by breaking Kilderry's service to level the score 2-2. They took the first set 6-3 with another break in the eighth game.

Their concentration wavered in the second set as Martin and Kilderry took a commanding lead. McEnroe did question a couple of close calls, but it was always done with a smile.

The tide turned dramatically in the deciding set, however, as Martin and Kilderry went to pieces after the American dropped service in the fourth game following four deuces.

McEnroe was swamped by fans before he could even put down his racquet and he remained at courtside signing autographs.

And there was a hilarious sideshow from Leconte, who provoked wolf-whistles from the crowd as he changed his shirt. The Frenchman responded by pretending to unzip his shorts and rotating his hips in a mock striptease act.

If any of the media wanted to ask McEnroe whether he had mellowed during his time away from tennis or was simply treating the doubles as a bit of fun, they never got the chance to ask. The New Yorker failed to appear for a post-match interview.

Fans can expect to see a more serious McEnroe today when he lines up against Australia's Mark Woodforde on Centre Court in his first competitive singles match of the year.

McEnroe has been drawn in the Blue Group which also features big-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek, who posted an opening win against Woodforde yesterday.