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String Music

Frustrated McEnroe steps down as Davis Cup captain

Game of the Week: McEnroe-Borg 20th Anniversary

McEnroe was McNasty on and off the court
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"I wanted to spend [the night] with my family and friends and the people who had supported me, not a bunch of stiffs who were 70-80 years old, telling you that you're acting like a jerk," says John McEnroe on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series about why he didn't attend the traditional Wimbledon winners dinner in 1981.

John McEnroe
John McEnroe won three Wimbledon titles -- 1981, 1983 and 1984.
John McEnroe was a winner and a whiner, a super talent nicknamed Superbrat. A lefthander with all the strokes, he never felt a need to stroke anybody.

A serve-and-volleyer, his shotmaking artistry enabled him to dominate tennis from 1981-84. He dethroned Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, winning three championships on the prestigious grass courts just outside London. On this side of the Atlantic, he won four U.S. Open titles.

McEnroe finished with $12,539,622 in official earnings and 77 singles titles, third most behind Jimmy Connors' 109 and Ivan Lendl's 94. He won 17 Grand Slam championships, including nine in men's doubles (seven with Peter Fleming) and one in mixed doubles with Mary Carillo at the French Open. His Davis Cup record was 41-8 in singles and 18-2 in doubles as he helped the U.S. win five Cups.

"John can change his tactics and style to adjust to his opponent's strategy and to the court surface," said Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champ who also was one of McEnroe's Davis Cup captains. "He has tremendous hand-eye coordination, and he's quick, with tremendous footwork. Playing soccer probably helped him a lot. What puts it all together is his timing. That's something you're born with, but McEnroe has sharpened his through practice.

"His serve is not the hardest, but he can change speed and angle. He also has the advantage of being lefthanded, which causes his spin serves to break in the opposite direction from righthanders and confuse them."

McEnroe could have been more popular. He played with a competitive fire and a fierce determination, traits that the public adores. But he also constantly argued and put down umpires and linesmen for what he perceived as bad calls.

"I know I can see the ball better than the officials," he said. "I can 'feel' when a ball is out or not. What's so frustrating is to know you're right and not be able to do anything about it."

When he was just 20, he was nicknamed "Superbrat" by the outrageous British tabloids in 1979. "He is the most vain, ill-tempered, petulant loudmouth that the game of tennis has ever know," The Sun wrote.

American journalists were not much kinder to the young McEnroe.

"McEnroe does most of his pouting on the courts," wrote Newsweek's Pete Axthelm. "In private, this devastating athlete can be a nice enough kid . . . but when he steps to the service line, with his perpetually put-upon expression and his insistence that every line call and crowd reaction go his way, his public posture is all too easy to understand. Call it spoiled."

The Washington Post's Barry Lorge: "He came across as a precocious brat -- immensely talented, spoiled and rather obnoxious. On the court, he pouted, cursed, threw his racket. . . . He was a crybaby. Off court, he demonstrated little savoir faire.

"Scoffed one appalled gentleman after encountering a sticky-fingered McEnroe in the players' tearoom: 'The boy wonder is upstairs, eating the traditional strawberries and cream without benefit of the traditional spoon.' "

Even the player's father, John Sr., said, "John sets high standards for himself and doesn't suffer fools gladly. What you might say about John is that he shoots from the hip through his mouth." Through the years, McEnroe never changed. At the 1990 Australian Open, McEnroe was disqualified for using abusive language at court officials. His image remains of someone pouting and cursing, throwing rackets and tantrums.

He was born Feb. 16, 1959 in Wiesbaden, Germany, while his father, now an attorney, served as a U.S. Air Force officer. Before John was a year old, the family moved back to Queens, and eventually settled in Douglas Manor, by the shores of Long Island Sound.

He was shorter than most of his peers and pudgy in his early teens. His game took off after he graduated from Manhattan's Trinity School. In 1977, at the age of 18, he qualified for Wimbledon and became the youngest player and first qualifier to reach the semifinals, where Connors beat him. That fall, he entered Stanford and led the team to the NCAA title while he won the singles championship. Then he turned pro.

In 1979, he won his first U.S. Open, beating Vitas Gerulaitis in straight sets in the final to become the youngest winner of the U.S. championships in 31 years, since Pancho Gonzales, also 20.

His 1980 Wimbledon final against four-time champion Bjorn Borg was a classic. Down two sets to one, and trailing 5-4 in the fourth set, McEnroe broke Borg, and soon it was 6-6. In a tiebreaker for the ages, McEnroe saved five championship points before prevailing, 18-16. McEnroe, though, couldn't break Borg again and lost the fifth set, 8-6. But in 1981, the attacking McEnroe ended Borg's Wimbledon reign at five consecutive championships and 41 straight winning matches when he beat him in the finals in four sets, including two tie-breakers. The date was July 4 and McEnroe was dressed in blue and white with a red headband. "Stick a feather in his cap and call him McEnroney," said sportscaster Bud Collins.

John McEnroe
McEnroe leaps into the air after making shot at 1984 Wimbledon.
Of course, the road to the finals was full of confrontations. In his first match, there was his infamous blowup when McEnroe verbally blasted umpire Ted James, calling him "the pits of the world," and then cursed tournament referee Fred Hoyles. He was fined $1,500. The Fleet Street journalists savagely ripped him.

At the U.S. Open that year, McEnroe also beat Borg, the second consecutive year he whipped the gentlemanly Swede in the final. "I felt I could do anything," McEnroe said. Not since Bill Tilden had won six consecutive U.S. titles in the 1920s had a male player won three straight, as McEnroe had.

McEnroe also was the key to the U.S. winning the Davis Cup in 1981 - his five-set win over Argentina's Jose-Luis Clerc was the clincher. He was the first to sweep the singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. title and the Davis Cup final since Don Budge in his Grand Slam year of 1938.

Despite his success, the world's No. 1 player from 1981-84 was offered few endorsement opportunities. "When I see McEnroe, I see 'bad sport,' " said the president of a Madison Avenue ad agency. "I wouldn't want him identified with my product."

In 1982 Davis Cup play, McEnroe defeated Mats Wilander in an epic six-hour-and-22-minute match, with the five-set win giving the U.S. a 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Sweden. McEnroe successfully led the finals' defense against France.

McEnroe just blew away the competition in 1984, compiling an incredible 82-3 record and winning a career-high 13 tournaments, including his third Wimbledon and fourth U.S. Open.

One of the defeats, though, came in the French Open final, when he let a two-set lead slip away and lost in five sets to Lendl. The loss ended McEnroe's 39-match winning streak and was the closest he would ever come to a French Open championship.

Two years later, McEnroe left the ATP tour for 6 months before coming back to win three titles in the fall. While on sabbatical in 1986 he married actress Tatum O'Neal. They divorced in 1992. McEnroe married musician Patty Smyth in 1997.

In 1987, McEnroe didn't win a title for the first time since turning pro. He took a seven-month break from the game following the U.S. Open, where he was suspended for two months and fined $17,500 for misconduct and verbal abuse.

McEnroe, whose last year on tour was 1992, was named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1999. On November 20, 2000, he resigned after only 14 months as Davis Cup captain. McEnroe cited his frustration with the Davis Cup schedule and format as two of the primary reasons. He fills his time by playing on the over-35s tour and being a TV color commentator at major tournaments. He still shoots from the hip with his mouth, only now he earns money for doing it instead of dishing it out in fines.

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