Tennis great John McEnroe’s outbursts grated on the nerves of many a harried umpire back in the day. He talks about that and more this morning with Susan Spencer:
Four decades ago, John McEnroe stormed onto tennis’ genteel courts, smashing conventions, and occasionally rackets.
“I think I created some people that wouldn’t normally watch tennis — which was one of my goals,” he said.
He battled the other greats of the time: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl … and he battled any umpire he thought was wrong. He thought a LOT of umpires were wrong.
“You seemed to push it right up to the line,” Spencer said.
“I’m not the only one. I mean, you gotta sort of be aware of what you can and can’t do. They do that all the time in other sports. ‘Oh my God, you took it to the line! Wow!’ Of course I took it to the line!”
After all, he figured they’d never actually throw him out.
“They don’t want to get rid of one of the best guys, if he’s bringing in ratings and interest,” McEnroe said. “So, I mean, that’s part of the incentive of getting good, because you get away with more.”
The line “You cannot be serious,” famously uttered to an umpire at Wimbledon in 1981, became McEnroe’s catch-phrase, and the title of his first autobiography — followed now by a second, “”But Seriously” (Little, Brown). If there’s a common theme, it’s intensity, that spark lit long ago by his father back in Queens.
“My late father, he managed me, so he was great early on. He said, ‘Listen, you don’t need to do this, you’re better than them!’ You know, I mean, it was a loud dinner table at my house!”
He started playing tennis at eight, and quickly climbed through the junior ranks.
At 18, as an amateur, he stunned even himself by making the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
The critics could harrumph about “Superbrat” all they wanted, but he was ranked number one in men’s tennis from 1981 to 1984.
Spencer asked, “Do you think it helped or hurt your game?”
“I think it helped it at some times, and it hurt it at others,” he replied. “You know, it cost me some big matches.”
Because? “I hurt myself by getting involved in stuff where the crowd would turn on me, and the momentum would shift. And I wasted unnecessary energy and I screwed myself.”
By his mid-20s, McEnroe was on top of the world — travelling, hanging out with rock stars — but beginning to feel pressure from younger, fitter players.
Adding to that pressure: He met actress Tatum O’Neal, and was caught up in the whirlwind of her notorious Hollywood family.
“I never was in the National Enquirer,” McEnroe said. “And I was, like, ‘What the hell is goin’ on here?”
“You weren’t prepared for that?”
“In retrospect, I would say that the safe answer would be no.”
McEnroe and O’Neal married, had three children, and tried for a normal life. “I had a kid when I was 27,” he said. “And I took about six months off at that time. And the plan was, Okay, you’re going to sort of regroup, you’ve been going hard for eight, nine years. The game’s changing. There’s a lot more power. And you’re gonna figure out a way to come back a better player.
“That was the plan. Didn’t work out that way!”
“How did it work out?” Spencer asked.
“It worked out that I wasn’t as good a player.”
McEnroe did not win another Grand Slam singles title after the age of 25. He and O’Neal divorced after eight years. Their custody agreement required him to take anger management classes.
Then, in 1993, life took a dramatic turn. He met someone new. He was impressed; she, not so much.
“I didn’t really follow tennis. I mean, I knew who he was. I knew he yelled at people, but that’s all I knew!” said Patty Smyth, who was the lead singer of the band Scandal, and fresh off a hit duet with Don Henley of The Eagles. Even so, she found McEnroe’s brand of fame somewhat bewildering.