McEnroe, John (1959—)

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McEnroe, John (1959—)

Famously dubbed "Superbrat" by the British tabloid press, John McEnroe is doomed to have his remarkable athletic accomplishments overshadowed by the media perception of him as a whining, petulant crybaby. But the achievements of one of the most talented male players to ever step on a tennis court cannot be separated from the renewed buzz about the sport generated by his infuriating on-court antics. Simply put, if John McEnroe had not come along, tennis in the 1970s would have had to invent him.

The son of a U.S. Air Force officer, McEnroe grew up in Long Island's Gold Coast. But McEnroe was no ordinary suburban tennis brat. He impressed his instructors with his ability to make difficult shots at a young age. Schooled at an elite tennis academy (he was eventually thrown out for bad behavior), McEnroe later attended Stanford University, and made his initial splash at Wimbledon in 1977, becoming the youngest man ever to reach the semifinals. He turned pro the following year.

Men's tennis at that time was in a period of transition, as the popular favorite Jimmy Connors saw his run at the top coming to an end. Bjorn Borg was the king of Wimbledon, having won four titles in a row from 1976 through 1979. But the icy Swede failed to capture the imagination of the public with his mechanical, groundstroking game. When McEnroe defeated fellow American Vitas Gerulaitis in the U.S. Open Final in 1979—becoming the youngest winner since Pancho Gonzalez—a page in tennis history seemed to have been turned. The following year, McEnroe surged into the finals at Wimbledon, where he met Borg in an epic match many consider the greatest of all time. The upstart American fought off five match points in a grueling fourth-set tiebreaker but was defeated in the fifth. The next year, McEnroe finally broke through, ending the Swede's five-year reign at the All-England Club.

In the six-year span from 1979 through 1984, McEnroe captured the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles a total of seven times. He became the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920s to win three straight U.S. Open crowns, from 1979 through 1981. Ranked number one in the world in 1981, 1983, and 1984, McEnroe also was a mainstay of the United States Davis Cup team, leading the squad to victory in international competition on five separate occasions. As a doubles player, he usually paired up with fellow American Peter Fleming.

A left-hander, McEnroe possessed unparalleled shotmaking ability. He used the skills to his advantage by playing a ferocious, attacking, serve-and-volley style. On fast surfaces, such as the grass at Wimbledon or the hard courts of the U.S. Open, he could often overwhelm plodding baseline opponents like Ivan Lendl. The McEnroe approach put him at a disadvantage on clay, however, or when faced with an opponent who could match him in tenacity, like Connors or Borg.

McEnroe's volatile temperament did him in on more than one occasion as well. Berating chair umpires, arguing line calls, and bickering with spectators were all part of the McEnroe repertoire. Often, he claimed, he used his anger as a way to fire himself up to win points or get back into a match emotionally. But there is no denying that his histrionics cost him at times as well, as when a meltdown at the 1984 French Open Finals allowed Lendl to storm back from a twoset deficit to win the championship.

"Johnny Mac" was not the first tennis player to act in an irregular fashion, of course. Before him, there had been Evonne Goolagong's bizarre "walkabouts" and Ilie Nastase's eternally up-thrust middle finger. But something about McEnroe's unique mix of bad sportsmanship and spoiled rich boy arrogance made him the special darling of the tennis press. Newspapers, especially in Britain, invariably caricatured him as a sobbing child braying for attention. The cartoonists and reporters were the ones left crying, however, when McEnroe retired from the professional circuit in 1992, leaving no dynamic successor to take up his crowd-rousing mantle.

In his dotage, McEnroe has occupied himself with tennis broadcasting and a panoply of artistic and civic pursuits. He paints—in the abstract expressionist style—and fronts a rock band. He was married for a time to actress Tatum O'Neal and fathered three children. McEnroe has used his forum on national tennis telecasts to criticize American players for not taking part in Davis Cup competition. Such outspoken commentary shows that time has not mellowed "Superbrat."

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Burchard, S. H., John McEnroe. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

Evans, Richard. McEnroe, a Rage for Perfection: A Biography. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.

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McEnroe, John (1959—)

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