Sporting Rock Stars: John McEnroe

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Tennis has had its fair share of sporting superstars. Famous names like Borg, Federer, Connors and Sampras have thrilled audiences with their skills on the court. Yet none have quite courted such a mix of controversy, skill, and entertainment value as this week’s sporting rock star, John McEnroe.

To understand the impact the young American made upon entering the Tennis scene in 1977, you have to imagine a time when sport was different than it is today. It was a time when sport was more about what was done on the field and not off of it. It was not common to see footballers intimidating and surrounding referees. In the ten- nis world, competitors like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors simultaneously wowed and charmed audiences with their combination of athleticism and their sporting conduct; both on and off the court. Back then there was less of a celebrity culture associated with sportsman, their private lives were not splashed over the front pages, and they were left alone and were respected athletes. When American John McEnroe at 18, entered the ATP tour fresh out of Stanford University, things were about to change.

If you fancy a bit of procrastination type “John McEnroe Tennis Tantrums” into You- tube. He was famed for his outbursts, arguing regularly with umpires’ decisions, something audiences had never seen at Wimbledon. The current champion at the time, Borg, was almost the opposite, cool, collected and dubbed the “ice man” by his contempories. McEnroe, however, was nicknamed “superbrat” by the British media.

In 1981 at Wimbledon, he was fined $1,500 for calling an umpire “the pits of the world” in a First Round match. This shocked the typical middle-class tennis audience to the extent that he was booed regularly at matches. His catchphrase, coined in the same tournament, “you cannot be serious” is still replayed today. At a tournament in Stockholm in 1984, he demanded another unfortunate umpire to “answer my question…jerk!” slamming his racquet into a juice cart next to the court, which led to a suspension. His on-court antics led to a fall-out with the All England Club. After refusing to give him honorary membership, an honour normally accorded to those who win their first major championship, he refused to attend the traditional champion’s dinner naming the club’s members a bunch of “70-80 year old stiffs”.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that he was an exceptionally gifted tennis player. He was an aggressive performer, but he was also wily, perfecting the style of serve and volley, and managing to serve the ball almost with his back completely turned to his opponents, hiding which direction he would place the ball. Despite the controversy, he was massively successful, ending Borg’s dominance at Wimbledon, winning seven grand slam singles titles, nine grand slam doubles, 77 ATP listed singles titles, and reaching world number one in 1983. His total career earnings to date are $12,000,000. In addition, he still plays on the ATP champion’s tour and is familiar to current television audiences as a co-commentator at Wimbledon.

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