In the Netflix series Never have I Ever, which revolves around an Indian-origin teenager in the US, the narrator is a pleasant surprise – American tennis player and commentator John McEnroe. In what seems an incongruity, the 61-year-old provides the voiceover for the 16-year-old protagonist (the reason is explained in due course).
For tennis fans, some of the funniest moments in the show are when the protagonist’s temper issues are described by McEnroe – once ‘the angry young man of tennis’ – by comparing it to his own outbursts on court.
For anyone who has seen McEnroe or his videos when he was at his furious best, this strange turn of events makes the dramedy even funnier. Hearing the American talk so casually about teen problems and throwing racquets, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when nothing McEnroe said was remotely funny.
The American’s anger issues have been unlike any other player in the sport. He racked up fines and suspensions routinely for his frighteningly volatile behavior against lines judges, umpires, opponents and even spectators. He constantly argued about calls, intimidated opponents and was shot off his mouth at the slightest provocation. All this while winning Grand Slams and enjoying one of the most successful careers in tennis. The left-hander’s serve and volley style and swift shot-making was artistry. But his tennis shots have often been overshadowed by the verbal potshots he aimed at those around him.
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Nicknamed ‘Superbrat’, if you search for on the internet, there are actual lists and video compilations of all the bad things McEnroe has said and done in his career. One of his outbursts was made into a documentary called ‘John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection’. Set at the final of the 1984 French Open between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, it showed his blowout in a match that should have won.
When he was only 20 in 1979, much before his famous tantrums, The Sun wrote this about him: “He is the most vain, ill-tempered, petulant loudmouth that the game of tennis has ever know.”
He has been fined for mundane things like audible obscenity and really insensitive things like calling Czechoslovakian player Tomas Smid a “communist b**tard”. He was first player to be disqualified from a Grand Slam event since 1963 for his behavior at the Australian Open and had to actually resign his membership from the prestigious Queen’s for uttering a ‘stream of unprintable invectives aimed at various members.’
For the uninitiated, think Nick Kyrgios, but more mouthy on court, a lot more successful and without social media and the benefit of Hawkeye call. (Most of his outbursts were due to what he believed were bad calls by the linespeople)
In hindsight, it seems unacceptable that a player was able to get away with the behavior like Mcenroe. But three decades later, McEnroe is now seen as the smiling, jovial presenter who makes players laugh at post-match interviews.
But here’s the thing, the American was also very, very successful as both a singles and doubles player. He had seven singles, nine doubles and a mixed double Grand Slam title and was ranked No. 1 in the world for 170 weeks.
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In fact, one of his most famous tantrums – where his unfortunate catchphrase “You CANNOT be serious” was born – came in the first round of the 1981 Wimbledon, which he went on to win beating rival Bjorn Borg in the final and ending his streak of five straight titles.
The All England Club, usually the bastion of tradition and propriety where even the score calling is in its politest form, provided the setting for one of McEnroe’s iconic outbursts. Up against Tom Gullickson, one of McEnroe’s shots was called out by umpire Edward James, and he obviously argued the call. “Chalk came up all over the place. You can’t be serious, man. You CANNOT be serious.” The mood continued through the match and he yelled “You guys are the absolute pits of the world” for which the umpire deducted him a point for an obscenity. McEnroe then told Fred Hoyles, the referee, that “This guy is an incompetent fool.”
He later told ESPN that he knew he was right. “I know I can see the ball better than the official. 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.”
The words and violence were altogether unimaginable at Wimbledon, but this was from a player who went on to become a future champion with a total of three Majors on the grass. It was just the kind of unusual character and career McEnroe had.
In 1984, he went on to notch an unbelievable singles match record of 82–3, one of the best years in the Open Era, with Wimbledon and US Open titles and a loss from a two-set lead to Lendl in the French Open final. It was the same year he had his craziest meltdown at Stockholm when he was suspended for three weeks. He yelled what could well be his second catchphrase, screaming “Answer the question, jerk” at the umpire, hit a ball into the crowd, smashed a tray of drinks with his racquet. This incident is better watched than described.
In 1990, he was disqualified from the Australian Open for unsportsmanlike conduct… but mixing the rules because he didn’t know three offenses led to disqualification now.
He was playing Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round when he glared at an official who he thought had given him a bad call. Intimidating a linesperson was just his first warning, but it was followed by a point penalty for smashing his racquet after a poor point, and then defaulted for arguing with the umpire, supervisor as well as the tournament referee. He later admitted that unaware that the previous year’s four-step process to default had been changed to a new three-step rule. Nonetheless, he was out of a Grand Slam for his terrible behaviour.
Even today, McEnroe has his share of controversial statements, the most notorious being his declaration that Serena Williams would be the world No 700 if she played on the men’s tour. But with his anger against match officials gone with his playing days, the American has a more benevolent presence on court during interviews and as a captain at the Laver Cup. He has even offered to coach Kyrgios, who is seen the heir apparent when it comes to bad on-court behaviour.
However, it cannot be forgotten that John McEnroe was one of the worst behaved player on the tennis court, along with being a highly talented and successful one, and is now a highly regarded analyst. So which version do you associate with him?