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John McEnroe - Tennis Legend

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Take a lot of deep breaths - and remember anything can happen. That's what sport is all about.
- John McEnroe, Wimbledon 2000

No other tennis player in either singles or doubles has probably matched the natural brilliance or the fierce competitiveness of John McEnroe. One of the most talented - and controversial - tennis players in the history of tennis, McEnroe has probably done more to inspire tennis players in the current game than any other.

In the Beginning...

John Patrick McEnroe Jr was born on 12 February, 1959, in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was stationed with the US Air Force. Before John was a year old, the family returned to the US, eventually settling in Douglas Manor, on the shores of Long Island Sound, New York.

His game started to take off only after he graduated from Manhattan's Trinity School. Even by today's standards, he entered into the arena of professional tennis fairly early. At 18, he played as an amateur in Paris, and won the first of his many titles; the mixed doubles at the French Open Roland Garros (1977) and the junior singles. In the same year, he became the first qualifier to get to the semi finals in Wimbledon, and was only sent out by future rival, Jimmy Connors. He only turned professional after he won the US Intercollegiate Singles in 1978 as a fresher at Stanford University, USA.

Standing at 5' 11", with a hard-to-read left-handed serve, he became known for his lightning quick reactions and superb hand-eye co-ordination which enabled him to neuter even the most powerful of groundstrokes. His natural talent and the ultimate drop volley control made him the most delicate and exciting player of the wooden-racquet era.

The Tennis Player

The Davis Cup

My mother made me promise her I'd always play for my country if I was asked.
- John McEnroe

As a 19-year-old rookie, McEnroe joined the US Davis Cup team, and it could be said that he gave them the lift that was so desperately needed. Other top US players such as Jimmy Connors had turned down the opportunity to play in the team, preferring instead to concentrate on their professional careers.

The USA had not won the cup since 1973, so, predictably, the pressure was on. However, admirably, none of that came to the young McEnroe. This was evident in the Championship Round tie versus Great Britain, played out in Rancho Mirage, California. He soundly defeated John Lloyd: 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, and Buster Mottram: 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. Unsurprisingly, and undoubtedly inspiring the rest of the team, the US won the Davis Cup.

This was only the beginning. Subsequent Cup ties were witness to the endurance of the sport. One such epic performance was his six-hour, 32-minute win versus Mats Wilander in St Louis in 1982: 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-61, which ensured the US Team's qualification into the semis. Another was his versatility on all surfaces. A good example of this was the 1981 Davis Cup final versus France, in Grenoble.

To ensure home player advantage, the site had purpose-built indoor clay courts. This was to maximise the chances of clay-courter Yannick Noah. However, regardless of the court surface, it is due to McEnroe's undoubted talent and superb groundstrokes that he won the rubber2 against Noah: 12-10, 1-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. The tie and the Cup was eventually won 4-1 to the US Team.

McEnroe was the key to the US winning four more Davis Cups through to 1992, and in that year, just over a decade after the win at Grenoble, he paired up with Pete Sampras to defeat Switzerland at Fort Worth, Texas.

On 8 September, 1999, McEnroe had been named as the Davis Cup Captain, and signed for a three-year contract. This was even after he had openly criticised top players such as Sampras and Agassi for refusing the opportunity to play for their country at the peak of their careers, and, as Jimmy Connors had done before them, chosen to concentrate on their professional game. This time, it was different. When Agassi heard that McEnroe was going to be captain, he immediately contacted him to be included. Sampras agreed to included too, but only after much pleading from McEnroe. By the time they got to the semi final round against Spain, they were the favourites. That was, until both Sampras; by this time, Wimbledon Champion, and Agassi, pulled out. The US Team then lost the tie 5-0; the first time that any US team had done so for 101 years without the title on the line. 'I'm totally spent; I'm deflated', was McEnroe's comment at the time.

Before anyone draws the conclusion that this was a lack of patriotism, commitment or just plain rudeness on the part of them, there were genuine reasons. Sampras had tendonitis - inflammation of the tendons - in his left shin, and was advised not to play. Agassi had been involved in a car crash, and was, predictably, told not to play.

On 20 November, 2000, nearly four months after the team were completely pasted by Spain, and just over a year after he was appointed, he resigned from the captaincy, partly blaming the Davis Cup schedule for being 'problematic for the world's top players' and that he was 'extremely frustrated with the difficulties of the scheduling and format of the competition'. There was no overt mention of the reluctance of Sampras and Agassi to get involved, but he did hint at it after they pulled out of the semis:

Either it's bad luck, or I haven't made a difference. I'm not sure what it is at this point. Obviously, one of the reasons I was hired was so that I would make a difference in getting the players to play. Well, I clearly haven't succeeded. I'd like to think it's bad luck.

Incidentally, at the time of writing, the US Davis Cup Team Captain is, in fact, John's younger brother, Patrick3. The current US Team line up, at the time of writing is: Chris Woodruff, Todd Martin, Jan-Michael Gambill and Andy Roddick. Sampras and Agassi are noticeable by their absence.

The US Open, Flushing Meadows

At the age of 20, he became the youngest player for 31 years, since Pancho Gonzalez4, to win the Open at Flushing Meadows. In 1980 came his triumph over Björn Borg: 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 5-7, 6-4, and 1981: 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, the latter being possibly one of the reasons why the remarkable Swede bowed out of professional tennis altogether. However, the US Open was only the start of the monumental battles that the two would play out.

He won again in 1984, quite convincingly against Ivan Lendl: 6-3, 6-4, 6-1. However, the rematch the year after at Flushing Meadows saw McEnroe unable to hold onto the title, and finally relinquishing the world No.1 ranking to Lendl, after holding it for four years.

All England Club Championships, Wimbledon

The Wimbledon 1980 Men's Singles final is now regarded to be the best tennis match ever. Again, John 'Supermac' McEnroe and Björn 'Ice' Borg were to meet. It certainly was a battle of styles; the fierce topspin on the groundstrokes of clay-courter Borg being tamed by the most delicate of drop shots by grasscourt specialist McEnroe. Not only that, it was a battle of temperament; the unbelievable coolness of the Swede widely contrasted by the feisty temper of the American. 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-65, was the eventual score, with the nail-biting, and now famous Fourth Set.

Down two sets to one, and down 5-4 in the fourth on Borg's serve, he broke back to square all. Then came that tie-break - McEnroe seeing off Borg's five match points (four of them on Borg's own serve) before finally yielding to him in the fifth set. Borg then earned his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. Ironically, such was the nature of that fourth set tie-break that not very many people remember that Borg won the match.

In 1981, however, McEnroe's unrelenting determination and the volleying that proves so profitable on grass, one could say, produced results. 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 was the score, with which he ended the Swede's run of consecutive Wimbledon titles. From then on, Supermac was to dominate singles tennis at Wimbledon. He was a runner-up in 1982, won in 1983, and retained the title in 1984. In the latter Championship, he defeated rival Jimmy Connors in straight sets: 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, the scoreline which had commentators wondering whether they had indeed seen the most perfect display of tennis ever. As true to the nature of the rivalry between them, when Connors was asked whether now he should think that McEnroe was the better player, he replied, 'Never'.

It was also here that he excelled in doubles. A successful partnership with Peter Fleming, such as in the Davis Cup, certainly showed through; they won in 1979, '81, '83, and '84. In 1992, he played with the winner of the Men's Singles title in the same tournament, Michael Stich, to win. He bowed out gracefully in the same year, where unseeded and ranked 30th, the 33-year-old McEnroe ended his singles career as he began. It started with a momentous clash versus 9th seed Guy Forget, McEnroe's winning 6-2, 7-6 (11-9), 6-3 sent the 16th seed packing and a further exercise in endurance, a tumultuous four-hour, nine-minute 'Battle of the Champions' versus Pat Cash. However, it took the eventual champion, Andre Agassi, to finally take him out of Wimbledon and professional tennis altogether in the semis; the final score 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 to Agassi.

The Rivalries

Throughout his career, it became evident that three intense rivalries stand out:

  • Connors - It could be said that when Jimmy Connors bested him when he was just a qualifier, back in 1977, that a vicious rivalry was borne. When walking out for the 1980 final against Borg, McEnroe was booed, simply because of his volatility showing through in the semis versus Connors. However, in totalling up matches won in all their meetings, McEnroe has the edge; 31 wins against Connors' 20.

  • Lendl - However, the clay-courter who took away his chance to win the French Open in 1984 fares better, with 21 wins to McEnroe's 15.

  • Borg - What about the other player in probably the greatest match of all time? Well, both are drawn at seven wins each.

The Tennis Tantrums

I would question every line call, just for the tiniest chance that they [the umpires] would give me an overrule.
- John McEnroe from When Tennis Ruled the World, BBC documentary
He is the most vain, ill-tempered, petulant loudmouth that the game of tennis has ever known.
- The Sun, a British tabloid, 1979
What you might say about John is that he shoots from the hip through his mouth.
- John McEnroe Sr

No entry on John McEnroe would be even partially complete without mentioning his disagreements with the umpires, court officials, and pretty much everyone else on the court. He was the one of the first players to recognise that tennis was not just about beating the guy on the other side of the net, but also providing the other 10,000 or so spectators watching with something they can really be entertained with. His competitiveness which led to the characteristic outbursts is probably still unmatched, even in the Senior Tour, where in 2000, almost 20 years after the 'best match ever', he battled it out with Björn Borg on Buckingham Palace's green and pleasant courts6. For the record, it was taken to the full three sets (in the Senior Tour, men and women play the best of three sets), but McEnroe won.

Here are two of his more celebrated tantrums:

Second Round, Court No 1, Wimbledon 1981

This is arguably the most famous one of all. This was the moment when the world was to be introduced to:

I saw chalk! CHALK FLEW UP!
- Disputing a line call
Pits of the world!
- His name for the umpire, Ted James
You cannot be serious!
- Still disputing the line call and failing to get an overrule.

He also calls the referee every name under the sun except for his actual name, Fred Hoyles. He got fined, however, pretty surprisingly, he does not get thrown out of the tournament.

The Australian Open 1990

This one at the Australian Open is probably the most extraordinary. Whilst playing against Mikael Pernfors, throughout the match he treats the court officials to a masterclass in the application of abusive language to tennis. This, unsurprisingly, gets him disqualified. What is surprising is that he did it when he was winning.

The fiery temperament was probably what lost him the French Open in 1984 to Ivan Lendl (although the clay surface may have played a part) and also earned him heavy fines, suspensions and many other disqualifications. Not for nothing is he called 'The Brat'. He was also the subject of many other players' tantrums. Jimmy Connors, in a disagreement with one let call on his serve, then said to that court official:

I'm not going to f*****g run away from you like that f**kface McEnroe!

Despite the fire and the entertainment that this provided for the crowd and column inches it provided the media, this sort of 'spoilt' behaviour lost McEnroe millions in sponsorship deals. One advertising agency president said of him:

When I see McEnroe, I see 'bad sport'. I wouldn't want him identified with my product.

The Brat Returns

So you might think here it ended. In his short, yet impressive career he had notched up several records in professional tennis, many Grand Slam titles, and The Masters Series three times. But by 1985, and after a six-month break from the game, he could not take the pace anymore, and never won a Grand Slam again.

However, McEnroe's tennis career was reborn in John: BBC Commentator, in Wimbledon 2000. One might have thought that all the fines and disqualifications, and even age, experience and children might have taught him to mellow the fiery tongue. Instead, he brought to Wimbledon and the rest of the commentary team7 a spice and fire, and just like his controversial tennis career, arrogance, obnoxious verbal posturing and vicious put-downs. As Dave Gordon, BBC Sport's executive editor and the man behind the Wimbledon coverage, remarked, 'You could almost say that John has dragged our coverage, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.' The harsh-but-true comments and the wit as quick as the drop shots he made characterised his commentary style and brought him favour among the fans, but was also to get him into trouble in 2001, with none other than that other temperamental and incomprehensible left-handed player; Goran Ivanisevic.

McEnroe versus Ivanisevic, Wimbledon 2001

It was prior to the semis that McEnroe had allegedly said the damning words 'one-shot wonder'. This was a harsh description of how everyone had thought Ivanisevic played. What was unfortunate was that the rest of his game; including the passing shots and his volleys, are actually world class too, but are overshadowed by what has been described as 'the most unreturnable serve on grass'. McEnroe's comment hurt Ivanisevic deeply, and led him to say in response to him before the final:

John McEnroe was my idol, you know, all my life. He was lefty; he was the player I always like to watch, you know. Great emotions on the court.
But as a person, I don't think much, too much about him as a person. Not only to say, okay, I have one shot. That makes me genius or that makes the other guy so bad, because to have one shot and be in the final of Wimbledon, win 21 tournament, some of them on clay, you have to be genius, you know, to win with the one shot.
The way he's commentating, giving everybody s**t, you know, 'This guy is bad. This guy is going to choke. This guy is not good.' I mean, nobody is good for him.

McEnroe denies making any comments of the kind, and apologised profusely on the BBC's tennis highlights programme, Today at Wimbledon. Prior to the 2001 tournament starting, he had written an article in a daily broadsheet in the UK which was titled to the effect of 'He may be a wild-card, but don't write Ivanisevic off'. Whether he said those words or not will probably never be ascertained. However, compared to what he has said of other players, family and his fellow commentators in the time he has spent with the BBC Sports team, it may not be the worst by far.

Selected Quotes

I play four or five times a week. I'd still rather win than lose. I'm more competitive than the average bear.
- When asked how life was on the Seniors Tour
I've never been there before - I never thought they'd let me in.
- On going to Buckingham Palace
I know somebody said it in the past, but chalk flew up.
- A disputed line call in Lleyton Hewitt's first round exit prompts a familiar response; Wimbledon 2000
Hey, that's how I was. My kid brother Patrick always got the ice-cream. That was OK, though. I got the title.
- After hearing Venus Williams' comment that younger siblings got everything they wanted; Wimbledon 2000
It depends on what your definition of playing is. Put it this way, you won't be seeing them at Wimbledon - unless they come to visit.
- When asked whether any of his six children would follow him into professional tennis
David Mercer: The one mistake I made was that I said it was the third set when it was the second.
McEnroe: I find it hard to believe that was the only mistake, but we'll leave it at that.
- David Mercer, the umpire at the 1984 final of McEnroe versus Connors is subject to yet more viperous verbal abuse 6 years later; Wimbledon 2000
He's playing so lazily he looks like he's about to ask for a chair and play sitting down.
- On Arnaud Clement versus Tim Henman; Wimbledon 2000
That doesn't matter because I think he likes a few of the other things she's shown him as well.
- When informed that Andre Agassi disliked the new forehand that his girlfriend, Steffi Graf, had shown him; Wimbledon 2000
(in disbelief) That is such a British comment!
- When fellow commentator John Lloyd is making excuses for Rusedski, who is getting duly pasted by Ivanisevic, Wimbledon 2001
Yeah, maybe he's phoning for a better return.
- When a player asks for the trainer to be called; Wimbledon 2001
McEnroe: Would you stop watching Pat Rafter!
Sue Barker: I'm not! (her eyes drift back to the monitor)
McEnroe: Yes you are!
Sue Barker: (slightly distracted) I'm not!
McEnroe: Yeah, yeah (!)
- Sue Barker's inability to hold conversation in any form whilst she is watching the recorded coverage of Pat Rafter's play becomes more evident, much to the irritation of McEnroe; Wimbledon 2001

However, this is not to say that any of the other people in the commentary box aren't just as witty too.

That's a nice catch. You know, an English guy would've dropped that.
- Pat Cash with his Australian cricket fan's cap on; commenting on Taylor Dent's (USA) impressive one-handed catch of a faulted serve that spun off the net; Wimbledon 2001

Don't Look Back In Anger

His spectacular, yet short career saw him make records too. Here are just a few:

  • In 1979 he had 27 overall tournament victories, 17 in doubles, winning a record total of 177 matches.

  • He is the all-time professional tennis leader with 154 tournament victories, with a 77-77 singles-doubles split.

  • He is, as of yet, the qualifier who has made it the furthest in any Grand Slam tournament; as far as the semis in Wimbledon 1977. It is also the furthest that any amateur has got in a Grand Slam.

And finally, here are a few of the highlights of his remarkable professional record:

Grand Slam Highlights
TournamentRound ReachedYears
Roland GarrosMixed Doubles Winner
Singles finalist
WimbledonSingles Winner
Singles finalist
Doubles Winner
Mixed Doubles finalist
1981, 83, 84
1980, 82
1979, 81, 83, 84, 92
US OpenSingles Winner
Singles finalist
Doubles Winner
1979, 80, 81, 84
1979, 81, 83, 89

Davis Cup Highlights
Position in TeamYears
Team Member1978-84, 87-89, 91, 92
Singles/DoublesTotal Rubbers PlayedTotal Rubbers Won

Related BBC Links

1It may look as if they had played an excessive number of games in the first and third sets, but this was before the introduction of the tie-breaker, which would ensure that matches of this punishing length would never have to be played again.2In the Davis Cup, individual matches are called rubbers, and the collective term for all the matches played against an opposing country is a tie.3He also entered professional tennis, winning the French Open doubles title in 1989, but never matched up to the success of John. A celebrated match between the brothers in Chicago, 1991, saw John win 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.4The youngest player to win the US Open currently is Pete Sampras, who took the title in 1990, aged 19 years and 28 days.5At Grand Slam tournaments, tiebreaks are played when players are square at 6 games all in Sets 1-4, but in Set 5, play continues until there is a two-game gap.6This was a fundraising event for the NSPCC (National Society for the Protection of Children), and featured such matches as the aforementioned Borg versus McEnroe rematch, the ever entertaining Leconte versus Bahrami match and the rather bizarre father/daughter-esque mixed doubles partnership of the aforementioned Henri Leconte and Anna Kournikova. Despite the courts being green, it was not grass, but acrylic.7In 2000, famous names such as Pat Cash, Martina Navratilova, Jana Novotna, Virginia Wade and John Lloyd were also commentating for the BBC's coverage, fronted by Sue Barker.

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