Thomas Myler profiles the career of one of Wimbledon’s most memorable characters, ‘Super Brat’ John McEnroe.
It’s Wimbledon time again, and that means lots of tennis, a sport said to have had its origins during the reign of Louis X of France in the 14th century, with some historians tracing it back to 500 AD in Egypt and Persia.
What is not in dispute is that no player attracted so much universal attention or provoked such contrasting emotions, from admiration to hatred, as John McEnroe.
King of the court in the 1980s, he won seven Grand Slams and took the sport to new heights with his dexterity and swashbuckling style.
Today, McEnroe, much mellowed at 58, is busy as a sports commentator and tennis coach in the US but nearly 40 years ago he was the scourge of officials on the courts and picked up the nickname ‘Super Brat’.
As a player he was certainly an enigma, there being no easy explanation for the switchback moods this brilliantly gifted New Yorker so frequently demonstrated in both his game and his disposition.
Certainly it is difficult to recall any other tennis player of any era who at one minute in a match could be boiling with fury over a decision or some issue of principle, then in the next, play a point overflowing with exquisite skill, control and concentrated perfection.
This Jekyll and Hyde quality was a trait which merely added to the attraction of a sporting genius who contributed to so many of the best and worse things which happened to the sport during the years spanning his playing career.
On one hand there is an honours list which records, among other facts, no fewer than 77 titles in singles and an equal number in doubles, including three singles and five doubles at Wimbledon, four singles titles at the US Open and four more in doubles.
On the other, there is a long list of disciplinary actions which put McEnroe in the Hall of Shame long before he began to build a record worthy of the Hall of Fame.
McEnroe’s dreams were always centred on Wimbledon, which he regarded as No 1. He had heard so much about the famous championships growing up that he said no other title would ever satisfy him.
At the French Open in 1977, while most people were concentrating on the Swedish star Bjorn Borg and company, hardly anyone noticed the intruder who defeated Australia’s Alvin Gardiner in the first round before losing to another Aussie, Phil Dent in the second.
At the same time, a few did begin to be interested when, from an admittedly modest field, McEnroe and Mary Carillo, now a successful US sports commentator, won the mixed doubles. Next stop for McEnroe was Wimbledon in 1977.
His plan was to try and qualify for the tournament he had set his heart and mind on, and attempt to win the junior title.
That idea went out the window when he not only won his way into the seniors’ main draw but became the first qualifier to reach the semi-finals before losing to another American, Jimmy Connors.
Continue reading in this year’s Ireland’s Own Summer Special (issue 5607)