Lobbing John McEnroe

Looping one fluke hit over John McEnroe's head is risky, but two in quick succession, you cannot be serious! In tennis, payback's a ball-ache.
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Looping one fluke hit over John McEnroe's head is risky, but two in quick succession, you cannot be serious! In tennis, payback's a ball-ache.

Broom cupboard encounters aside, it’s not every day you get to be on the receiving end of Boris Becker’s monster weapon. But there he is on the other side of the net, bigger and broader than he looks on TV and better looking than a ginger German with white eyelashes has any right to be, about to launch a huge meaty serve in the general vicinity of my oesophagus.

Despite the impending onslaught I’m still having difficulty registering that I’m in the same postcode as Herr Becks, let alone on the same tennis court, staring down his big Germanic barrel. But this is the pro-am Honda Tennis Challenge tournament at the swanky Chelsea Harbour Club where, as a member of the press, I’ve been pitched in amongst the big guns of Becker, McEnroe, Stich and Wilander in an attempt to snaffle the pro-am doubles title away from the likes of Jonathan Ross and David Baddiel.

For the 15 minute game against Becker and another lardy member of the press pack, I’ve been paired with former Swedish champion Mikael Pernfors. Fitness wise, we could be struggling. Becker still looks like a majestic specimen while these days I’m so immobile, my teammates have taken to regularly scraping the moss off my north side during Sunday morning football matches.

To make matters worse, in an act of foolish bravado, I’ve just requested that Boris serves full pelt at me. “Okay, if you really want me to let one go,” chuckles Boris. Methodically, he bounces the ball once, twice, eyes me with what looks like, even from this distance, a worrying mixture of disdain, derision and unbridled hostility before tossing the ball upwards, arching his huge frame backwards and then...well, nothing actually. Except the dull thud of a still accelerating object burying itself deep into the curtain behind me. Perhaps a mild displacement of air somewhere in the near vicinity of my ear, but aside from that, not so much as a blur. Laughably I momentarily consider that he’s mishit the serve and volleyed it past me without it even bouncing, until Pernfors calls the serve ‘good’. Good? Fucking awesome more like.

Still dazed at the sheer venomous power of what just flew past my ear, I’m left to rely on Pernfors to brutally win points via Becker’s hapless journalist partner to see me into the semi-finals.

"A mistimed forehand pass loops over Supermac’s greying barnet, sending him hurtling back to the baseline. Two complete 1000-1 freak shots, it looks like I’m taking the piss out of an old man."

The draw for the semis sees me paired with British tennis legend John Lloyd (in so much as bagging the fragrant Chrissie Evert surely affords a man legendary status) against a certain J.P McEnroe.

It quickly becomes evident that McEnroe is still in a league of his own – hammering around the court, hitting outright winners and displaying all the raging competitiveness of his prime. His female partner is a bit tasty too and we’re immediately under the cosh. Matters aren’t helped by Lloyd loudly calling me ‘pardner’ at every available opportunity. ‘Nice shot pardner’, ‘Unlucky pardner’ and ‘You’re shit and you know you are, pardner’ (I may have imagined that one but he was definitely thinking it.)

Ten minutes of fruitless huffing and puffing follow before I make my biggest mistake. Successfully lobbing John McEnroe. Twice. In succession. Neither of which were intentional. The first is a mishit that balloons off my racket frame and sends McEnroe desperately scurrying backwards. Unbelievably it lands on the baseline with McEnroe swatting at it in vain. “Heck of a shot,” mutters the great man grudgingly.

Incredibly, the very next point I do exactly the same thing. A mistimed forehand pass loops slowly up over Supermac’s greying sparse barnet, sending him hurtling back to the baseline in pointless pursuit. Two complete 1000-1 freak shots, it nonetheless looks like I’m taking the piss out of an old man. I hold my racket up in apology but McEnroe is neither acknowledging nor laughing. His rat-like eyes narrow further. “You’re in for it now pardner,” adds Lloyd helpfully as McEnroe ominously makes his way to the service line.

Winding himself up in that all too familiar slow coiled serving action, I suddenly feel a peculiar chill, the like of which I haven’t experienced since witnessing Sue Barker, complete with ‘nan’s cleavage’, attempting to flirt with Rafa Nadal at last year’s Wimbledon.

Sure enough, the last I see of the ball is as McEnroe throws it skywards. There’s a resounding thwack followed by two hundredths of a second later, a nauseating ache in the pit of my stomach as the ball twats me square in the nadgers. “Ooh, should have moved round that one, pardner,” advises Lloyd, fresh from his coaching stint at the University of NoShitSherlock.

Fearing a bollock the size and colour of the offending luminous green Wilson projectile, I tenderly ‘repack my sports bag’ as McEnroe momentarily holds up an apologetic hand. Although he might just have been adjusting his shirt. Four points later and it’s all over as McEnroe effortlessly despatches a forehand past me. Not exactly difficult as due to the pair of veiny purple aubergines in my shorts, I’m now moving with all the grace and sinewy athleticism of John Seargant.

Back in the locker room, as I’m trying to extract said aubergines from my sports briefs, I’m consoled by a naked Jonathan Ross (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); “Good God man, looks like you managed to rile McEnroe. Those tennis pros are still so bloody competitive aren’t they?” he adds disappearing into a cubicle.

“Still, console yourself with the thought that the last time Boris was in an enclosed space like this, it cost the daft sod eight million quid.”

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