McEnroe, John Patrick, Jr.
McENROE, John Patrick, Jr.
(b. 16 February 1959 in Wiesbaden, Germany), world-class tennis player who helped to make tennis a popular sport in the United States.
McEnroe, one of the greatest U.S. tennis players of all time and a quintessential New Yorker, was actually born abroad, in West Germany at a U.S. Air Force base hospital. His father, John Patrick McEnroe, Sr., served in the military and his mother, Katherine C. (Kellaghan) McEnroe, was a surgical nurse. Shortly after McEnroe's birth, the family moved back to Queens, New York, and John, Sr., became a successful lawyer at one of New York City's top law firms. McEnroe and his two younger brothers grew up in the small, close-knit community of Douglaston on New York's Long Island. One of his brothers, Patrick, later forged a successful professional tennis career.
The young McEnroe attended the Buckley Country Day School and played many sports at school and in his neighborhood. When his parents joined the nearby Douglaston Club, McEnroe began playing tennis almost every day during his summer school breaks, and the club's members soon recognized his talent. Like many gifted tennis players from the New York area, McEnroe attended the Port Washington (Long Island) Tennis Academy, one of the most successful stables for developing young talent. Port Washington was run by a pair of former professional tennis players turned teachers; the Australian Harry Hopman was world famous as the coach of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, and Tony Palafox was a former Davis Cup player. With his father's connections, McEnroe was granted an interview at Port Washington, and Palafox instantly recognized the eleven year old's raw talent and rare ability to hit all the angles on the court at such a young age.
McEnroe hated Hopman's training regime, which required intense effort and hours of repetitious drills and workouts. He did not seem to need to work as hard as his classmates and practiced only when necessary, developing a unique style at an early age. He sought out coaching only when serious problems arose with his game. McEnroe simply wanted to play—his preferred method of practice was to play matches in both singles and doubles.
As a teenager McEnroe began attending the Trinity School, a prestigious college preparatory school in Manhattan. Trinity had a rigorous academic program that kept McEnroe very busy, and he excelled in his studies. He exhibited an independent streak and was mature for his age, traveling confidently every day through the streets of New York City. In 1976 McEnroe was suspended from Port Washington after a childish prank. He followed Palafox to the Cove Racket Club and continued playing junior tournaments (under-eighteen amateur events). Although he had obvious gifts, he was not one of the dominant junior players in the United States. At age sixteen he was named to the U.S. Junior Davis Cup Team. After graduating from Trinity in the spring of 1977, he began attending Stanford University in California that autumn. He led the Stanford tennis team to the National Collegiate Athletic Association title and also won the U.S. intercollegiate singles before leaving college in 1978 to become a professional player.
Anyone who saw McEnroe in his prime recognized both his natural talent and his unorthodox look. Tennis was a straitlaced sport, with aristocratic origins. McEnroe, with his long, unruly locks held under an unsightly bandanna or sweatband, stood out. His game was also unorthodox. The left-hander had a strange serve, in which he stood sideways and bent down so his hands almost touched his sneakers. His strokes were loose, and he often did not get his feet into the classic textbook position. Yet he was able to hit all the shots. He was extremely fast on the court and unsurpassed at the net. His relentless serve and volley attack allowed him to end points quickly. At five feet, eleven inches tall and 170 pounds, McEnroe was a bit chubby and looked sloppy on the court, yet he dominated the game.
In the summer of 1977, before entering Stanford, McEnroe qualified for Wimbledon at age eighteen and went on to reach the semifinals. That year he also announced his presence at the French Open, winning the mixed doubles with his childhood friend Mary Carillo. McEnroe became known as one of the finest doubles players in the world, winning five doubles titles at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Open. With his longtime partner Peter Fleming, another Port Washington student, he eventually won a record-setting fifty-seven doubles titles. When Fleming retired, McEnroe continued to play with a series of other partners, bringing his career total to seventy-seven doubles titles.
In 1978 McEnroe began his longtime association with the Davis Cup (1978–1984, 1987–1989, 1991, 1992). Unlike other players of his generation, McEnroe made time to play for his country's national team, seeing it as a patriotic duty. He worked Davis Cup matches into his busy schedule, sometimes missing other tournaments and, as a consequence, losing money. He was a great booster for the team, pushing his fellow U.S. stars to play and thereby attracting corporate sponsors. McEnroe often was credited with saving Davis Cup tennis.
By the late 1970s McEnroe had earned the nickname "Superbrat" because of his courtside behavior. He questioned calls, shouted, and cursed. He recognized that tennis was 90 percent mental and often played with his opponents' heads. His 1979 match against fellow "bad boy" Ilie Nastase in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open remains notorious. The match was halted as both questioned calls and cursed and taunted each other. The tournament officials were mortified, but the crowd was captivated by the spectacle. This controversial match made tennis more like other U.S. spectator sports, and McEnroe went on to win his first U.S. Open singles title. McEnroe won more than seventy-seven career singles titles, including three at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Open. But he was best known for his marathon matches against Bjorn Borg. The quiet Swede, with his looping top-spin and inhumanly steady baseline game, was the perfect foil for McEnroe's aggressive net-rushing game. Their Wimbledon finals were unforgettable, so well matched were these opponents.
Perhaps the most memorable match was their meeting at the 1980 Wimbledon final. After McEnroe won the first set 6–1, Borg fought back and took the second set in a tiebreaker 7–5 and the third set 6–3. McEnroe pulled out the fourth set in another tiebreaker 7–6, throwing the match into a fifth set. Wimbledon did not allow a tiebreaker in the fifth set, so after the players carried it to 6–6, Borg took the next two games to finally win the fifth set, and the 1980 Wimbledon title. In 1981 McEnroe met Borg in the final of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At Wimbledon that year, after losing the first set, McEnroe fought back to win the next two in tiebreakers and the final set 6–4. It was only a little easier at the U.S. Open. These matches brought tennis to a new level of popularity.
Following the most dominant years of his playing career, McEnroe married the actress Tatum O'Neal in 1986; the couple had three children. They divorced in 1992, and in April 1997 he married the singer Patty Smyth, with whom he had two daughters.
Although he retired from playing professional tennis in 1992, McEnroe remained active at the major tennis events as a television sports commentator. He also formed a senior tour, traveling around the United States with Borg, Jimmy Connors, and other retired tennis stars. He was a bit older and slower, but he still retained his passion and talent. He formed a rock band named the "Johnny Smith Band," and opened an art gallery in New York's Soho district. McEnroe also actively supported several charities, especially the Arthur Ashe Foundation for AIDS research.
In 1999 McEnroe was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and was named as the captain of the Davis Cup team. More than any other U.S. player, McEnroe served as the transitional figure between the older, country-club tennis fan and the modern tennis fan. He brought excitement and fireworks to tennis and he made it a popular U.S. sport. Together with his close friend Vitas Gerulaitis, and later alone, McEnroe visited parks and clubs across America to raise the public's awareness of tennis, encouraging youth to pick up a racket and play. As a player, sportscaster, and visible advocate, McEnroe truly became the tennis ambassador of the United States.
For details about McEnroe's life and career see Richard Evans, McEnroe: A Rage for Perfection (1982); Richard Evans, McEnroe: Taming the Talent (1990); and Richard Evans and John McEnroe, The Davis Cup (1999). An early magazine profile is in Pete Axthelm, "McEnroe: The Champ You Love to Hate," Newsweek (7 Sept. 1981), while a post-career profile is in Richard Sandomir, "You're Kidding, McEnroe Is Blunt?" New York Times (6 June 1995).
Richard A. Greenwald