From hero to human: Seeing an icon in a different light

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The baffling ending to the night somehow brought everything into focus; it’s a strange thing meeting your childhood heroes. Some years ago, I saw a man break down crying as he found himself in front of Mickey Mantle, the Mick, No. 7 for the New York Yankees. The man first started trembling, then blinked away tears and finally left behind all illusion and began openly sobbing.

“You don’t know what this means to me,” he wailed as an embarrassed Mantle looked at him with something that might have been pity, might have been concern, might have been disdain. The man was right. The Mick didn’t know. He couldn’t know. Gods, as John Updike once wrote of Ted Williams, do not answer letters.

Thursday night, for my birthday, my wife treated me to a day with three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived and heroes of my own childhood -– Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. A fourth excellent player, 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, was also in Charlotte to play in the PowerShares Senior Tennis Series, and former No. 5 player in the world Jimmy Arias served as master of ceremonies. But the night centered around three legends.

McEnroe won seven Grand Slam singles titles, 10 doubles titles, anchored five winning Davis Cup teams and was perhaps the most artistic net-player in the history of the game. No one, not even Roger Federer, ever made the game look easier.

Connors won eight Grand Slam titles, 109 professional tournaments (still a record) and was renowned for his breathtaking return of serve and sometimes over-the-line competitiveness. At age 39, he went on one of the most stirring runs in tennis history at the 1991 U.S. Open.

Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles, appeared in eight consecutive U.S. Open Finals, was the No. 1 player in the world more or less every week of the second half of the 1980s and was generally disliked for being surly and sullen. “I always thought of Ivan as the Ivan Drago of tennis,” McEnroe said, referring to the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

McEnroe said that early in the day. He could not have known how right he would be.

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