`HEY, can I borrow your tape recorder?'' the young tennis player asked me, neatly turning the tables on my mission to interview him during a small tournament in Bournemouth, England. ``Someone just lent me a great heavy-metal record, and I need to dub it over right now.'' Pat Cash was only 18 on that day four years ago, but already they were talking in awed tones of his being the greatest tennis prospect to come out of Australia since John Newcombe, who won his third and last Wimbledon championship in 1971.
Now that Cash has begun to fulfill those expectations by winning this year's Wimbledon title, defeating Ivan Lendl in the final and Jimmy Connors before him - each time without conceding a set - it would appear his march to tennis supremacy was smooth and inevitable. Yet in truth the issue had been very much in doubt as to whether his wilder excesses could be tamed in the pursuit of real excellence.
Perhaps in those early days, Cash would have benefited from some of the iron discipline the famous Harry Hopman used to impose on his prot'eg'es during Australian tennis's golden years. When players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, and Newcombe toured as young men, they had strict curfews, and no time for ``distractions'' like music or late-night dancing.
On Cash's first tour of Europe with a squad of Australian juniors that year of 1983, their national coach, Neale Fraser, another great Australian tennis figure, was taking an altogether more relaxed approach to these matters. ``I leave it to them, so long as their tennis is not being affected. They must learn to realize by themselves how far they can go,'' he said.
In retrospect, Fraser may have proved to be right. Yet just over two years ago it seemed that Cash was set to become another of those young hopefuls who flounder by the wayside, their hopes of greatness replaced by acceptance of their mediocrity. In essence, it seemed, Pat was finding it hard to grow up.
Fame, and the adulation of Australian youth, had come early, perhaps too early, after he reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the US Open. Things after that had begun sliding downhill.
``I'm just a regulation kid, and I like doing what regulation kids like doing,'' he told me, with his disarming grin, during the World Young Masters tournament at Birmingham in the English Midlands at the start of 1985.
The day before, he had crashed ignominiously out of the event in the first round, losing to a virtual unknown. Though he had been flown in by the sponsors at considerable expense and been guaranteed a large, five-figure purse, his performance was plodding, his appearance bleary-eyed, and his attitude one of flippant unconcern.
``I lost. So what? It was only an exhibition event,'' he said after a night of revelry. An exhibition of what? Of his own immaturity, it appeared to many.
``Regulation kids'' seldom win major titles. A steely, determined 17-year-old won that Young Masters event, his first big success. Within six months, Boris Becker was Wimbledon champion and headline news all around the world.
To reach that pinnacle, Becker had sacrificed the wildness of youth. Cash indulged it.
His apparent devil-may-care approach had already earned him a tough public lecture by a man he hoped to emulate, Newcombe. Newk's newspaper article said Cash did not display the qualities of a true champion. The feud has gone on and, since Sunday, Cash has set his sights on winning the title three more times - once more than the man who wrote him off.
That's quite a turnaround from the outlook a year or so ago, when a back injury led to a long layoff and fears he might never play top tennis again. Even before that, though, his father, Patrick Sr., was convinced the problem lay more in his son's mind than in his body. ``You can't tell the kid anything these days,'' he lamented.
Yet the injury was to prove a blessing in disguise. ``I vowed if ever I recovered, I would become the fittest man ever to hold a racket,'' Cash said later. In that pursuit he has even given up training with his local Australian-rules football team, which he once dreamed of joining as a professional. ``I was told these sessions would develop the wrong muscles for tennis,'' he said.
The real key to Cash's transformation from a downwardly mobile kid into a champion, however, was the arrival of two people in his life - Anne-Britt Kristiansen, a slim, blond Scandinavian he met in the United States, where she was on an exchange program, and their baby boy, Daniel. His arrival was a shock to Cash's Irish Roman Catholic parents, but his devotion to his new family, even without the commitment so far of marriage, sobered him.
``It's a different thing visiting Pat these days at his London apartment,'' remarks Paul McNamee, his extroverted Davis Cup colleague and former Wimbledon doubles champion. ``In the old days, if he wasn't at home, I could usually find him out at the nearby nightclub or the bar. Today he's more than likely nipped out to do some late-night shopping with Anne-Britt - for the baby's nappies [diapers].''
On the court, Cash's volleying, always crisp, has become razor-sharp, as Connors and Lendl discovered last weekend. He has become less moody and temperamental, and more determined. Though he may still occasionally blow up on court, `a la John McEnroe, they are much rarer explosions, far more controlled, and channeled to produce better play.
In truth, Cash and McEnroe have much in common, including extroverted fathers - both lawyers of Irish Catholic descent; skill with a guitar; and rebellion against the establishment.
It would be wrong to think that Cash has a purely selfish nature. He has had a burning desire to help those less fortunate than himself. Not only has he, like McEnroe, given charity concerts for needy children, but he has a Pied Piper effect on youth in general.
``He will spend hours helping and chatting to youngsters about the game,'' recalls Ian Barclay, an Australian tennis coach who first discovered Pat when he saw an 11-year-old at his clinic pick up a racket for the first time and hit natural topspin drives. Ian has served as a father figure for Pat in his formative years, and he was there on Sunday to receive the tearful hugs of his prot'eg'e.