Why John McEnroe Epitomises The Best In Tennis And How It Can Strive To Be Better

The tennis ace has successfully made the move from superbrat to statesman
16:00, 09 Sep 2020

It’s nearing the end of the long, hot summer. The year is 1984. You’ve got your Member’s Only jacket on your back, and Now That’s What I Call Music! 3 on your Sony Walkman. One man dominates the world of tennis, he rules with a headband and a hell of a temper. His name is John Patrick McEnroe Junior. You watch in awe as he wins his fourth US Open title, in yet another straight sets victory, defeating Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, to bookmark a brilliant burst of supreme talent.

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The exact date is September 9, exactly five years to the day since he won his first US Open, beating Vitas Gerulaitis, his fellow American. Gerulaitis, the guy the young McEnroe had repeatedly pestered to try and sneak him into New York’s hottest nightclub of the day, Studio 54, in pursuit of women.  

Five years on and J.P. McEnroe didn’t need anybody’s help getting in anywhere, least of all a nightclub. The mid-eighties supreme figures of the Grand Prix tennis circuit were an eclectic bunch. Alongside the brash and bratty McEnroe, there was Borg, Connors, Ashe, Vilas, and Lendl, amongst those standing tallest. Fine men all. But which one would become the wise statesman-like figure, guiding both a generation of players and devotees, to and through the great game, for the next four decades?

Back then you’d have put your crisp, green, one pound notes on it being Connors or Borg. Certainly not McEnroe. The military superbrat, with the glorious bouffanted hair, all tighty-whities and Dunlop-damaging deadliness.

But that is exactly what has happened. 

Forty-one years on from his first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows, Macca has become Methuselah: 156 tournament titles and seven Grand Slam singles titles, nine Grand Slam doubles titles, a failed talk show, failed marriage, six kids, infinite endurance of hearing that tired ‘...serious?!’ line hollered in his direction, and now the voice of tennis.

So how did we get here? 

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McEnroe came from a self-confessed ‘family of yellers’, where success and shouting was required and demanded. “My parents gave 110%,” he said in an interview with the BBC in 2019. “If you got to the finals of Wimbledon, it was: 'Why didn’t you win it?'  If you are number two, you have got to be one. That propelled me for a long time but it is also difficult that you feel no matter what you do, it is not enough.”

Away from his actual participation in tennis, there are few as identifiable characters associated with it. 

He has parodied his notoriety and explosive outbursts in campaigns for car-rental companies and PETA (“Not Spayed! You cannot be serious. Neutering is good for my dog’s temper!”), and cameos in both (appropriately) Anger Management and Mr Deeds with Adam Sandler, the latter playing up to his ‘first bad boy of tennis’ persona, in which he and the titular character smoked cigars and threw eggs at cars. 

Married to his wife of 23 years, singer/songwriter Patty Smyth (note: that’s the Patty with a y, not an i), he once got interrupted by rocking out privately in his hotel room to David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’…. by David Bowie, who, upon hearing his jam asked him to come and hang out. But politely asked him to leave the guitar behind. He also owns an appointment-only art gallery, once saying in recognising the symbiosis of an artist and a sportstar, “I love art and I relate to artists a lot.”

The turning point came not just with the hanging up of his racquet on the singles’ circuit, nor with the requirement to provide a mature, authoritative voice when first offered the Wimbledon gig, though the latter responsibility certainly helped.

“The BBC years ago decided they wanted a change of direction in their commentary and they wanted to bring me on board,” he would tell Radio 4s Desert Island Discs, “They let me do my thing. They let me be myself.

“That’s turned out to be to my benefit as well because people see me in a different light to when they would see me ranting and raving on the tennis court.”

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‘Been there, done that’ means his voice is respected, and he has realised the respect that comes with it. He is still recognised as an almost peerless player, who spent four consecutive years as world number one, and was the leading male face of the sport in the 1980s (and truly a typical ‘bratty’ product of the decade), to become the now reassuring, wise Lebowski-like figure.  

“If you don't mature and mellow and have a better overview and perspective of things at 58, you are going to be a kid your entire life." was how he put it in 2017.

But being more mellow, has not made the great man mute. Rather, he has readily waded into the mire. He courted controversy when he steadfastly stated that he believed Serena Williams, though he thought was the greatest female tennis player of all time, would struggle to be in the world's top 700 if she was on the men's circuit. He willingly stood side-by-side with Martina Navratilova in Melbourne, to demand the renaming of Margaret Court Arena in the wake of Court’s anti-LGBT stance. 

His subsequent success has been both acknowledging the person that he was perceived to be and simply ‘being himself’. He remains the man who enjoyed testing his tennis-watching audience to cause a reaction, but the ‘superbrat’ was more or less exclusively saved for the court.

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Over time, the steady revelation of a more layered character and various nuances, combined with the memory unabashed devotion to and unequivocal knowledge of tennis, has led John McEnroe’s respected status of 2020: the acharya with a (literal) ace up his sleeve. He now moves easily between Tinaretto and tennis, the base-line and bass. He is a colourful character that represents both a throw-back and progression. John McEnroe should be seen today to not only epitomise everything good about tennis, but how it can strive to be better.