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John McEnroe, Tennis' Bad Boy: The Jerk Who Made Us Watch

Icons | February 16, 2020

Left: McEnroe invites the camera to talk to the hand. Right: McEnroe yells during a match at the 1984 French Open. Sources: IMDB; Gilbert Iundt; Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In the early '80s, John McEnroe was the bad boy of tennis -- and that's putting it nicely. While many fans of the sport admired his skill, few would defend his behavior. It was a fact of sports -- John McEnroe, in the heat of battle, was a jerk, known for outbursts of complaining, arguing calls, insulting umpires and linesmen, slamming rackets, and worse. He was a winner on the court who was dubbed "McBrat" or "Mad Mac," a loud-mouthed New Yorker who lacked the decorum expected by the aristocratic fans of a gentleman's game.

"I really was pretty much of a jerk," he would later admit in his autobiography.

McEnroe's temper both fueled and hurt his game (sportscasting)

A time-traveler from the Reagan era would hardly recognize the John McEnroe of today, who is a fairly charming analyst and beloved figure in the tennis world. This is the former enfant terrible of the sports world? As McEnroe said to many a court umpire: You cannot be serious.

No professional tennis player before or since was as polarizing as “McBrat.” People either detested his childish antics or loved him for his fierce competitiveness and wild behavior that was such a departure from the stuffy country club atmosphere of tennis. Johnny Mac also partied like a rockstar, dated models, and brought in a new demographic of blue-collar fans. 

'Tennis Was A White, Upper-class Sport, And I Wanted It To Be Treated Like Other Sports Were.'

He brought passion to the game, sometimes too much (CNN)

Historically, professional tennis players emerged from a system that was more accessible to young athletes of the upper class. The cost of lessons, tennis academies or club memberships generally create a barrier to entry for people from the lower economic bracket. John McEnroe was one of the few exceptions. He grew up in Queens, New York to a military father and showed serious skills as a youngster. By age 12 he was ranked 7th in his age group.

Young And Talented

Forever linked through competition Connors and McEnroe (pinterest)

He made his first splash on the big stage at the home of cream and strawberries: Wimbledon. As the kid from Queens would say “The only thing 'championship' about Wimbledon is its prestige.” There he made it all the way to the semifinals as an amateur, the best performance by a non-professional in the Open era. In the semifinals he lost to one of his eventual long-time rivals, Jimmy Connors. 

'You Cannot Be Serious!'

Umpires received the brunt of his anger (thetimes.co.uk)

After attending Stanford University and winning the singles title, McEnroe turned pro. His talent was obvious but even more glaring were his famous tantrums. In ‘81 at Wimbledon, he absolutely lambasted an umpire, “Chalk flew up, it was clearly in, how can you possibly call that out? Everybody knows it’s in in the whole stadium and you call it out? You guys are the absolute pits of the world, you know that?”

He finished his tirade with what would become his catchphrase “You cannot be serious!” The British tabloids labeled him “Superbrat” for his unbecoming outbursts. Amazingly, despite losing points for his behavior and being fined $6,000, McEnroe won Wimbledon that year. He skipped the champions' dinner in protest. 

Famous Outbursts

Wimbledon and McEnroe had a love-hate relationship (CNN)

‘81 was far from his last flare-up. In ‘85 he was asked to resign his honorary membership at the prestigious Queen’s Club in London. Sheila Boden, wife of the club’s chairman said he was asked to resign because of his colorful language, “It was something you would not hear in the gutter. It was as offensive as it could be. I was appalled and really shattered. It was something you just don't expect." In classic McEnroe fashion, he responded in kind:

“I don't think people even know what the Queen's Club membership is, much less care about it here. It kind of makes me angry that people ask about it. People don't even know what it is. It's just another story to [reporters]. Let's put it this way: I'm glad to be in America. That's about the only thing I can say.

In ‘84, in Stockholm, he received a three-week suspension for calling an umpire a jerk and smashing a tray of drinks. How’s that for exciting?

More Angry Yelling

McEnroe's career was so out-sized they made a movie about it (forward)

Thought that was the end of his tirades? You thought wrong. In ‘87 at the US Open, he lambasted an official with a stream of insults that must be quoted to do them justice. He started with “Didn't you see anything? Couldn't you see a damn thing? That cost me the set. The set was over, the ball was out." That led to this exchange:

“Are you trying to set a Guinness Book of World Records to screw me? You can't see a thing, that was set point. I should have won the set, 6-3. What match are you watching?'”

Umpire Ings: 'If I see a space between the ball and the line, I'll call it.'

McEnroe: 'Congratulations on this excellent officiating.'

Ings: 'I've had enough of this conversation. It has nothing to do with me.'

McEnroe: 'Do me a favor and stick that mic up your ass." 

Was John McEnroe What Tennis Needed?

Source: sportingnews.com

The tantrums and bluster of McEnroe on the court made tennis fans wince -- but nobody was turning off their sets or leaving their seats when Johnny Mac was playing. McEnroe felt that the tennis establishment was reaping the benefits of his notoriety, and tacitly encouraging it. He wrote in his autobiography

"Why didn't they [default me]? The answer is simple but not so pure. They had a show to put on and my presence put behinds in the seats.... If I went home they lost money. The tournament directors knew it, and the linesmen knew it. I knew it. The system let me get away with more and more."

Celebrity Wives And Winning

McEnroe with his first wife Tatum O’Neal (goldcoastbulletin)

Obviously, McEnroe’s temper partially overshadowed his career, but there’s no denying he was one of the greatest tennis players ever. He won 7 single majors and another 10 doubles majors, back when that meant a lot. He was ranked number 1 for three straight years, culminating in his historic ‘84 season. He went 82-3 that year, the single greatest win rate in history!

It’s even more impressive when you consider how much he partied. He was married twice, once to actress Tatum O’Neal and his current wife, Patty Smyth, singer for the rock band Scandal. In his book, he details many nights out enjoying the fruits of his labor and the fame he garnered not only from his fantastic play but also his outlandish behavior. 

McEnroe far more lighthearted in his old age (ftw.usatoday)

Today, McEnroe is a commentator, and while he's opinionated, he's more charismatic than caustic. “I’ve definitely mellowed," he has said. "When I was 25, if you'd have said I was going to be a commentator, that would seem like, 'Oh, my God. That's a huge step down.'" He still tells it like it is, even if that means calling out a player for not giving full effort. It’s that honest, blunt New Yorker truth that people enjoy about McEnroe as a commentator. Occasionally, he puts his foot in his mouth and says something inappropriate. But much like Charles Barkley, people enjoy ex-athletes with a sense of humor who aren’t afraid to say anything they feel. 

Tags: John McEnroe | Sports | Tennis | Tennis In The 1970s

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!