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The Guardian


McEnroe steals the show as young hope struggles in Superset circus

Eleanor Preston at Wembley.
Monday October 4, 2004.
The Guardian.

Andrew Murray may have been hyped as the future of British tennis but the 17-year-old was given a galling lesson by the sport's past yesterday when he dared take on John McEnroe in the Superset exhibition event at Wembley Arena and came away with a solitary game.

McEnroe did not win the competition or even get past the semi-finals, and he was reduced to the role of TV commentator as Croatia's Mario Ancic took the total £250,000 prize-money pot with an 11-9 win over Greg Rusedski despite the latter's bizarre choice of on-court coach, the hypnotist Paul McKenna. Yet McEnroe somehow still managed to be the star of the show.

Against Murray the quick surface favoured the wily 45-year-old but the real difference was in McEnroe's love of noise, lights and clamour, all elements which the organisers of Superset are anxious to bring back into tennis.

He danced on to court like a rather ancient prize-fighter creaking into action. The entrance was pure McEnroe - all chutzpah and edgy intimidation, designed to milk the crowd for every drop of nostalgic adoration and remind Murray that one US Open junior title does not a career make.

"I feel like I smothered him before he got a chance to get into it," McEnroe said. "He looks like he's got the potential to be a good player but he needs to get used to situations like this."

It has been part of McEnroe's crowd-pleasing shtick on the senior tour for years and, of all the players taking part yesterday, Superset's shamelessly populist approach seemed to suit McEnroe best.

Murray did his best to get into the spirit of things. He grinned as he walked on court flanked by two barely dressed blonde women and had the audacity to question a line-call on a McEnroe serve in the very first point. When the big-screen replay showed it had been an ace, McEnroe looked at Murray like a father admonishing a cheeky child.

Murray could have done with a little more cheek and a little less respect, for he was overwhelmed as much by his opponent's power as by the old-fashioned serve-and-volley tennis McEnroe played. "I learned a lot and I got to play one of the greatest players of all time," said Murray. "He may not be as good as he used to be but he's still pretty good."

If his match against McEnroe was a trial of Murray's nerves, it was also a trial for the format and that at least passed with a certain amount of merit. Granted, it was a little crushed by the weight of its ambition and various technical hitches - the promised heart monitors, due to be worn by the players to illustrate the stress they were under, did not work - but the 9,000 inside the Arena lapped up even Superset's cheesier excesses. That was hardly surprising given that music, noise and lights have all long been fixtures in tennis venues in less conservative countries than this and Davis Cup has always thrived on the noisy participation of those watching.

Boris Becker, in good spirits despite losing his set to Rusedski in the heats, said: "I really hope this catches on. I think it's intriguing to see the old guys and the young guys playing together."

Boris Becker

It was all a valuable learning experience for Murray and he had the good sense to view it as that and that alone. After a three-week whirl wind in which he has won the junior US Open title and been with the Davis Cup squad Murray returns to what Tim Henman called "the bread and butter of his career", a Futures event at the Scotstoun Leisure Centre in Glasgow.

There will be no lights, no music and no fat appearance fee but success there will be worth far more to his ranking and will give a better indication of his long-term prospects than showbusiness extravaganza.

"It won't be quite as glamorous but I need to get my ranking up and that's where it starts," said Murray, content for now to leave the showboating to his elders.

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