I'm not much of an athlete. Never have been. My friends at Stanford, from which I graduated last year, had a saying concerning my athletic ability (with apologies to George Bernard Shaw): "Those who can't play, write, and those who can't write, write sports." Thus it seemed inevitable that I would eventually become a sportswriter.
However, I can make one claim to sporting fame that lately has become more and more elusive for guys named Borg and Connors. As recently as four years ago, the same year he won the NCAA singles championship, I beat John McEnroe in tennis.
O.K., so the game was table tennis. A win is a win is a win.
You might wonder why I've waited so long to go public with this newsbreaker. There are some people so eager to cadge headlines for themselves that they can't keep a secret, especially when it comes to rubbing elbows with the famous. Until recently I felt satisfied keeping this triumph to myself. Basking in my private glory was reward enough. I've decided to tell the world now only because I thought it might give Borg and Connors a little encouragement.
As a Ping-Pong player, McEnroe was no McEnroe. Oh, he was good, employing the same types of strokes he uses in his main sport: slices, spins and an occasional slam at which I could only wave. But there were better players among the 700 students in our dormitory complex.
I knew McEnroe could be beaten, because I had watched a beanpole named Joel take him apart. Joel was from Otero dorm next door, and the two of them set up a much-ballyhooed challenge match. Joel hit everything hard and won easily. The only thing McEnroe did faster than Joel was storm out of the room after the match.
But no matter what I tried in the dozens of times I played McEnroe, I couldn't beat him. I had my chances. I always jumped out to a quick lead. But when I got to 10 or 12 points, McEnroe would turn on whatever it is that makes him a champion, and I would turn on whatever it is that makes me an observer. I never won.
It got to the point where I was intimidated by him. It wasn't his behavior; unlike his match with Joel, our games were always friendly. Besides, I had spent too many afternoons ducking my older brother's thrown paddles to become alarmed by poor behavior. Rather, it usually came down to my asking myself, "Can I really beat him?" The more I pondered, the more I missed the other end of the table.
Thus it was with the usual trepidation that I approached the dorm table late one Thursday night. We warmed up, hitting back and forth. Both of us were feeling pretty good, though it had nothing to do with how we were hitting. I don't think we were up late because we'd been at our desks burning the midnight oil.
Play began. I jumped out to an early lead. Nonetheless, I refused to get my hopes up. I had seen too many defeats to get excited by a 10-7 margin.
Sure enough, McEnroe began his mid-game charge. Sure enough, my lead soon dissolved. Watching shot after shot go awry, I began to accept my fate. I soon found myself on the short end of a 20-17 score, McEnroe serving.
What followed defies understanding. If I could explain it, I suppose I would have made my high school baseball team, instead of barely lasting the first practice. McEnroe and I switched personalities. I became the aggressor, and he began flailing. I won the next five points—and the game, 22-20.
There were no explosions of emotion, from either side of the net. I did not exult, and McEnroe did not sulk. We were friends. He simply grinned his sheepish, hand-patting-his-hair-down grin and I grinned my damn-was-I-lucky grin, and we went to his room to listen to some music.
Let not my display of good sportsmanship diminish the import of the victory to me. Next to my two Little League no-hitters and getting an autographed picture of Bear Bryant, it stands as my greatest athletic accomplishment.
But I am not one to rub in such victories. I don't want to hurt or embarrass John. Then again, the time has come to let the world know. His reputation can withstand the shock. If he can recover from losing to a Vince Van Patten, I imagine he will be able to handle my revealing this.