Worcester, Mass. — For tennis player Lori McNeil, 1986 was her leap year. In the course of just 12 months, she went from 93rd in the world rankings to 14th. Not surprisingly, her peers voted her the Most Improved Player on the women's pro circuit. So what has she done for an encore? Obviously another quantum leap wasn't possible, but she has moved up a few more notches (No. 11 going into last weekend's tour event here). And earlier in the year she did manage one brief stretch of play that rates among the most inspiring in recent memory.
It came where nobody could miss it, in the final rounds of the US Open in New York, and served to introduce McNeil to a world at large that probably wasn't previously aware of her abilities.
In the quarterfinals, she accomplished what no other player had ever done at the US championship - she prevented Chris Evert from advancing to the semis with a stunning 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. Then in practically a repeat performance, she took top-seeded Steffi Graf to three sets to indirectly prompt a controversy at CBS. When the network's evening newscast was delayed to show the end of the match, anchorman Dan Rather bolted from the set in a fit of pique.
Looking back on her landmark victory over Evert, McNeil graciously observes, ``I had nothing to lose and she seemed a little flat that day. Then, too, she was the winningest woman at the US Open at the time, and a six-time champion. I thought she might feel more pressure in the quarterfinals than if she'd reached the final. All these things had an effect.''
The outcome stirred mixed emotions among tennis followers, sadness over the end of Evert's streak, but gladness to see a fresh face emerge.
Part of what made this effort and her subsequent valiant loss so inspirational was the conviction and poise they embodied. Instead of retreating into a conservative shell, McNeil put everything on the line with a bold attacking style. She relentlessly rushed the net against both superstars, coming in 90 times against Evert and 93 times against Graf.
``I was playing well and felt if I made up my mind to do something on the court, that would give me confidence,'' she recalls. Her determination to keep pressing Graf was an eye-opener to other players. It helped exposed a chink in the young West German's armor, and showed that Steffi's fierce forehand could be partly neutralized by decreasing her setup time.
Serve-and-volley is McNeil's game. She has stuck with it through thick and the occasional, but inevitable thin.
A classic example of the latter occurred at the Australian Open last January. ``Hana Mandlikova beat me love and love [6-0, 6-0], which was pretty amazing,'' she says. ``She played well, but that kind of blows your mind. She was on and I was a little indecisive. What I learned is that if you're in a situation like that, you have to change things, create things.''
The accumulated lessons of several seasons on the tour have begun to pay off for this 23-year-old Texan, who delayed her pro debut while attending Oklahoma State University for two years. She won the Big Eight Conference singles crown in 1983 as a sophomore.
College ``helped me as a person,'' she says, but did little to hone a tennis game crying for more competition. Since turning pro was a long-held dream, she had no qualms about leaving school, figuring she could complete her marketing and communications studies later.
McNeil, whose father, Charlie, once played defensive back for pro football's San Diego Chargers, was introduced to tennis 14 years ago when her mother, Dorothy, took up the game in Houston.
Lori tagged along and soon found herself one of the star pupils of the MacGregor Park youth program, which was a prime example of what can happen when city kids are given good organization and good coaching.
PBS television gave us ``The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,'' MacGregor Park something that might be called the McNeil-Garrison rapport. Lori's best friend and main doubles partner is Zina Garrison, another MacGregor product who has been the more prominent of the two, at least until the last year or so. They travel together and share the same coaches, John Wilkerson, their long-time Houston mentor, and Willis Thomas of Washington, D.C.
``To play constantly against someone of Zina's caliber is great,'' says McNeil. ``Other people don't have that opportunity. They usually practice with their coach. We mix it up.''
Garrison, also 23, has been a Top 20 player since 1982. The later-blooming McNeil, however, has come on to press her friend, and now they are running 8th and 11th in the latest computer rankings (McNeil is No. 11).
Lori won her first pro tournaments last year in successive weeks, at Tampa and Tulsa, the initial one over Zina in the first tour final to match black players.
They've met again twice since, most recently in the semis of the New Orleans Open. They went to dinner together the night before, and, according to McNeil, ``ate everything in sight at a seafood buffet, but we didn't talk much about the match. We're not always thinking about tennis.'' Lori won, but lost to Evert in a US Open rematch before teaming with Zina to win the doubles crown.
``I think we were as intense as ever,'' McNeil said of their singles confrontation, ``it's just when we play each other we don't show as much emotion after a good shot as we might at other times.''
Their other meeting this year occurred at the US Open, where Lori won a third-set tiebreaker 8 points to 6 to set up her date with Evert and tournament history.
The Garrison-McNeil match was a natural for center court (two seeded Americans with public-park backgrounds), but in a questionable decision it was scheduled on an outside field court.
This blown opportunity focused attention on another slight - the absence of endorsement offers for either player. Some advertisers woke up at the Open, offering to pay McNeil to wear commercial patches in the televised match with Evert. She refused these last-minute bids, but has since begun listening to a new wave of corporate suitors who recognize her marketability.
She plays a highly entertaining style of tennis, moves as gracefully as Evonne Goolagong once did, and is a model citizen on the court. A handful of tournaments present sportsmanship awards, and McNeil has won two of them this year, one at the Dallas tour stop and the other at the Lipton International in Florida.
Asked why she claimed to be ``very surprised'' by her selection, she said it was ``because there are so many people out there playing. There were 128 in the Lipton draw, and a lot of them show good sportsmanship.''
McNeil is not beyond questioning a missed line call, an acceptable practice in any player's repertoire. What she won't do is yell at or otherwise belittle the erring party. ``People make mistakes,'' she says. ``I just try to treat people the way I would want to be treated if the situation were reversed.''
A week from now, Lori will be competing as a singles player for the first time in the Virginia Slims Championship, the wrapup tournament in New York limited to the tour's top 16 players. Qualifying indicates a measure of success, but overall she says this has been a good, but not great year. As in the Worcester tournament, where she lost in the quarterfinals, she has played well enough to maintain or improve her ranking, but hasn't been able to put it all together in any one event.
She's been most consistent in doubles, winning a handful of tournaments, some with Garrison and others with Gigi Fernandez. ``I haven't accomplished everything I set out to do, though,'' she adds. ``I haven't won a singles title this year. I'd love to win a Grand Slam event, which is probably everyone's goal in tennis.''
To raise her game another notch, she has gone to work on mixing up the placement of her volleys. She'd like to copy John McEnroe in this regard, since he is a master at using the entire court.
``A lot of serve-and-volleyers don't really use the service box on the other side of the net,'' she observes. ``They usually make their volleys deep, and are pretty basic, hitting from one side to the other. In a close match, you can try to make the volley too good when you see your opponent running to the corner. But you don't have to make it that good if you can use all the court.''
In her own low-key way, Lori McNeil seems ready to explore new playing frontiers and move into what she is confident will be the prime of her career.