THEY only played each other once during their competitive careers but the fact it was the day John McEnroe became the first player to be disqualified during a match, giving Mikael Pernfors free passage into the quarter-finals of the 1990 Australian Open, still has a bearing on their “friendly” encounters.
The two will take part in this week’s Brodies Champions of Tennis veterans event in the capital, their round-robin match coming three days into the four-day tournament, which starts on Thursday under a temporary roof at Edinburgh Academicals’ Raeburn Place ground. While Pernfors says it is enjoyable going into games these days knowing they are not a “matter of life and death”, he reveals there is still an edge to encounters with the fiery American.
“I think that [disqualification] is at the back of his head still and he can still be as fiery. It happens less often but he can still get into it!” says the Swede. “Back then and even now to some extent, when he gets going you just try to ignore it, turn around and let him do his thing.”
The infamous encounter in 1990 saw McEnroe punished after three code of conduct violations. Previously he would only have been disqualified after four infringements and he claimed he had been unaware that the regulations had been tightened. But after losing his temper with a line judge and smashing his racket, he was ejected from the competition when he verbally abused the umpire as well.
“That was the only time I played him on the tour and he defaulted in a match he really expected to win and I think one of the things that annoys him is that he was winning at the time,” recalls Pernfors. “He was up two sets to one and that made it more frustrating.
“At this level some guys are more serious than others and you know what to expect when you go out against certain players but I would say that someone like McEnroe still really, really wants to win and we always have good matches. I think that is because our games suit each other. If I play well then we have competitive matches but if I don’t and he does then he beats be fairly happily.”
The round-robin format of the Champions of Tennis means they will both have others to overcome as well throughout the four day event including Goran Ivanisevic, Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski, Carlos Moya and Mark Philippoussis. Pernfors says the opposition hold the advantage, though. “Most of the guys in this event are much younger. I’m getting closer to 50 and it’s difficult when you play guys who are nearer 35!
“Most of the guys are difficult to beat but it’s fun to play against them to see how they play, how they hit the ball and how different it is to when we played. They physically hit the ball much harder than we used to but it’s fun to see what you can do up against that.”
That evolution has been constant and while that generation he will be up against in Edinburgh play in a way that is relatively foreign to him, the new breed battling it out at the top of the men’s game these days have taken that a step further still, he says and he’s not convinced he would relish life on the tour these days. “It’s a much different game because of the psychology and the rackets and the strings,” he says. “They all make a big difference and they are much stronger than we were back in the day. It was only towards the end of my career that we saw people beginning to think more about what they did off the court with strength and conditioning, how they ate, and all the stuff the guys do today but it hadn’t really caught on. Back then we went running and we did some other sport but mainly the training was playing on court.
“I don’t think I would like it now. I grew into my tennis mainly as a hobby and then I had the opportunity to go to college where I went from playing two hours a week to three hours a day but I could still hang with my friends, still have a beer, play golf and I was able to have a social time. If it had been more structured then I wouldn’t have been as happy as a player and wouldn’t have played as well.”
But he hasn’t lost his love for the sport. Having been forced to quit the tour due to injuries, he relishes getting back out on court as part of the Champions of Tennis roadshow.
“At the end of my career I had issues with my Achilles tendon which meant I played very little of my last two years on the tour but I felt that if I could get myself healthy again, I still had enough left in me to go out and play at a decent level and I really have a good time with it. Now I go out and play and try to entertain the crowd and I have a really good time with it.”
n Brodies Champions of Tennis, Thursday to Sunday at Edinburgh Academicals’ Raeburn Place ground. www.championsoftennis.com