When most people look back on the career of John McEnroe, they recall his notoriously short fuse. McEnroe’s impetuousness led to frequent displays of temper on the court, often directed at the umpire. His frequent tantrums and explosions such as “You cannot be serious!” earned him the nickname “the Super-Brat.” Fans who remember his temper, however, must also be in awe of his achievements. By the end of his career, McEnroe had won 77 Singles titles and 77 Doubles tournaments. His impressive record will ensure that the “Superbrat” will number amongst the best players in the history of the sport for many years to come.
Origins and early career
John McEnroe was born on 16th February, 1959 on the U.S. Air Force Base at Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was stationed. He was not, however, to remain a military brat for the duration of his childhood; the family moved back to New York when McEnroe was still a toddler. It was in the suburb of Douglaston, Queens, that the young McEnroe discovered Tennis. In his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe recalls finding “another dimension” when he picked up a racket for the first time. He became fascinated with exploring the array of shots he could use to defeat an unprepared opponent, and began to devote a great deal of time to mastering the sport.
By his own admission, he was a competitive child who could not bear to lose. In his memoirs, McEnroe confesses that even into his teenage years, a defeat on the court would usually result in a full-blown tantrum complete with angry tears. It was this fierce competitiveness, perhaps, that motivated the young McEnroe to ensure that his victories would always outnumber his defeats. His steadfast determination to better his peers paid off. Before he was ten years old, McEnroe had a string of junior tournaments to his name, and by the age of eleven, was ranked eighteenth in the country in the under-12s category. He would go on to distinguish himself amongst the top juniors in the world, defeating future legends including Ivan Lendl before he had even left High School.
When deciding where to continue his education, McEnroe’s flourishing Tennis career was at the forefront of his mind. He was accepted at the prestigious University of Stanford, where he eventually began his professional career after emerging the victor in the U.S. Intercollegiate Singles tournament in 1978. In 1979, at the age of 20, McEnroe won his first Grand Slam tournament on home soil, when he defeated Vitas Gerulaitis in the Men’s Singles Final of the U.S. Open. The attention of Tennis enthusiasts around the world began to focus on John McEnroe.
‘The Superbrat’ v. ‘Ice Borg’
Never was their attention so rapt as during McEnroe’s heart-stopping encounter with Björn Borg in the 1980 Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon. In what is generally considered to have been the most thrilling Men’s Final in the history of the tournament, Tennis fans across the world were on the edge of their seats as the “Superbrat” and “Ice Borg” battled fiercely for every point. The tension of the match reached its culmination in a fourth set tie-break, which McEnroe managed to win. Many forget, however, that McEnroe eventually went on to lose the match, with a final score of 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, (16-18). McEnroe recovered somewhat from the disappointment of his defeat when he managed to pip his nemesis to the Men’s Singles U.S. Open title only two months later.
Still simmering from his 1980 defeat, McEnroe returned to Wimbledon the following year even more determined to win. His hopes were almost dashed in the early stages of the tournament when he was nearly asked to leave after one of his most outrageous tantrums yet. After disagreeing with a decision, he lost his temper and began a tirade directed at the umpire, famously calling him “the pits of the world.” He was fined for his outburst and pilloried by the British Press. Nevertheless, he went on to reach the Final, and, as fate would have it, with Björn Borg on the opposite side of the net. This time, however, McEnroe managed to vanquish his great rival in four sets. While he would lose the trophy he had fought so hard for to Jimmy Connors the following year, McEnroe won the title again in both 1983 and 1984.
The Davis Cup
Despite his success, McEnroe always took great pride in taking time out to represent the United States in the Davis Cup tournament. Perhaps as a consequence of his father’s military background, he always spoke of the honour he took in representing his country, helping the American team to victory four times in 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1992. Many of his Davis Cup victories were in Doubles events with his partner Peter Fleming. The pair did not restrict their partnership to Davis Cup games; together, they won a great number of titles, including four victories at Wimbledon, and three at the U.S. Open. In 1999, McEnroe was named as the U.S. Davis Cup Captain, although he later resigned and was replaced with his brother and fellow former professional Tennis star Patrick McEnroe.
Life after the Grand Slams
While McEnroe continued to remain active on the professional circuit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his success began to dwindle. While he often reached the latter stages of the Grand Slam tournaments, he would never again meet the standards he set for himself in the early 1980s. McEnroe’s love of the game continues unabated, and he continues to play competitively on senior tours. He even returned to the ATP Tour in 2006 to take part in a Doubles tournament with his partner Jonas Björkman. Together, they clinched the Doubles title at the SAP tournament. This achievement was particularly noteworthy for McEnroe, as it meant that he had won tournaments on the professional circuit in four separate decades.
McEnroe has also become an established commentator, often lending his perspective as a former World Number One and Grand Slam Champion to American sports shows, and to the BBC. It is for his professional Tennis career, however, that he will be best remembered. Certainly, his frequent temper tantrums will continue to factor in the memories of Tennis fans but his impressive record ought to counterbalance his most outrageous moments. Ultimately, he should be remembered for consistently ranking amongst the top ten male players in the world for ten consecutive years and for the four decades he wowed Tennis fans with his extraordinary skill.