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John McEnroe and the Sadness of Greatness

• September 23, 2013 • 8:00 AM

John McEnroe on October 17, 2012, competing in the 2012 Powershares QQQ Challenge at the United Center in Chicago. (PHOTO: MAXHPHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

On “the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis” and the emotional risk inherent in the athlete’s quest for perfection.

In the summer of 1984 John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. The match was, as one British journalist called it, “the most imperious victory in the history of tennis.” McEnroe made only three unforced errors. Seventy-eight percent of his first serves were in. Ten were aces. After a couple of those aces, Connors looked down in confusion, as if his shorts had dropped to his ankles. All McEnroe could say about the match was that the ball looked like “a cantaloupe.” It was as close as a tennis player had ever come to achieving actual perfection.

And that was the problem. The awful irony of McEnroe’s victory over Connors was that—in its near perfection—the performance couldn’t be sustained beyond the moment. The victory thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. The result of that realization for McEnroe was, McEnroe being McEnroe, an explosive moment of personal recognition, manifested, naturally, in an infamous tantrum.

Sports psychologists are quick to identify the emotional risk inherent in the athlete’s quest for perfection. They write with painful formality, noting such things as how “the extreme orientation that accompanies perfectionism is antithetical to attaining positive outcomes.” McEnroe, as he had a way of doing, had taken that “extreme orientation” to a new extreme and, upon realizing the temporality of his accomplishment, went ballistic on a Swedish tennis court in a way that was more terrifying than entertaining. The incident, thanks to YouTube, has amassed a sort of cult following. It deserves a re-visitation because, among other things, it offers rare insight into the raw emotion that marks the inevitable pain of being great.

John McEnroe thrives on a Euclidean understanding of angles and has a habit of placing his shots on the outer tenth of the line, often catching it with nothing more than soft yellow fuzz.

OBVIOUS POINT FIRST: MCENROE in his prime was great beyond great. This was true because, above all else, he had what seemed to be a magical understanding of space. “He is the one player in the game,” said the tennis legend Fred Perry, “who knows exactly where his racket is and what his options are.” Tennis is basically a conservative sport. With its arcane scoring system, stuffy dress code, and clubby rituals, it’s also elitist. McEnroe’s genius was to reduce pretense and pomp to trigonometry and physics. And then slice the cantaloupe with the delicacy and precision of a hand surgeon.

Watch him play. Evidence of country club training is non-existent. He’s a pick-up player, a street urchin with nimble racket skills and quick feet. He doesn’t bend his knees, loop his strokes, or deliver shots with liquid smoothness from the sanctuary of the baseline. He doesn’t volley with his arm set in an elegant V, placing the ball safely within the lines. To the contrary, he’s pure angst driven by raw ability. He thrives on a Euclidean understanding of angles and has a habit of placing his shots on the outer tenth of the line, often catching it with nothing more than soft yellow fuzz.

But his form is absolutely atrocious. He does everything you were told not to during summer tennis lessons. But that’s what allows him to flout any convention, cheapen the virtue of any shot, sully any stroke in order to win a point. He spent his professional career chipping and dicing and lobbing and drop-shotting his way into tennis history. An infuriated Arthur Ashe remembered the one time he played McEnroe (and lost) in these terms: “It’s slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you’ve got blood all over you.”

Blood was spilled all over in 1984. And not just on Connors. McEnroe won 78 of his 80 matches that year. It was an astounding accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, a player couldn’t imagine having a better year. Yet, for all his success, the tour was sustained by forces horrible and dark. McEnroe, winning match after match, spent the year getting angrier and angrier, cursing judges, mocking fans, and pacing the court as if it were the common room of an asylum. This anxiety culminated at the Swedish Open. It came in a match he eventually won against native son Anders Jarryd, and it came in the form of an upper-shelf outburst that would mark his inevitable decline in tennis greatness at the professionally precarious age of 25.

THE INCIDENT BEGINS MUCH as you’d expect: The chair umpire calls a serve out that McEnroe knows was in. He looks to the umpire, his face locked in disbelief. “That ball was right on the line, right on the line,” he says. “You’ve made no mistakes in this match yet, right?” (He’s getting angrier.) “No mistakes whatsoever?” (He’s now seething.) The umpire stays silent. “Answer the question! McEnroe delivers the first two words in a measured tone. But the last one he lets explode like cannon fire. “The question jerk!” Jeers and boos emanate from the grandstand of Swedes, tender people whose idea of tennis demeanor is the impossible coolness of Bjorn Borg. Half of McEnroe’s shirttail droops out the back of his shorts. He’s fuming.

The judge issues a code violation. Verbal abuse. One point penalty. McEnroe, now moving in circles like he’s feral, smacks a ball into the bleachers at a loudmouthed fan before stepping to the service line and preparing for his serve. He looks tortured. He is tortured. He’s down 1-6, 2-3. The crowd goes silent. McEnroe leans forward, tosses the ball skyward, arches backward limbo-like, and then uncoils—a machine.

The serve is brilliant. It hits the line and skips like cold water on a hot skillet. George Plimpton once wrote how McEnroe is “the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis.” You can see in this serve the truth of that observation. But Jarryd returns it crosscourt and McEnroe, who hadn’t quite reached the net, takes the ball on the bounce and flubs a forehand, losing the game. It is then, about 10 steps into his journey to his chair for the changeover, that John McEnroe goes nuts.

THERE’S SOMETHING ALMOST SHAKESPEAREAN in a McEnroe breakdown. Professional actors have studied it, analyzing his tormented mannerisms and intonations frame by frame. Tom Hulse did so before playing Mozart in Amadeus. Ian McKellan did the same when he played Coriolanus. There’s little doubt that McEnroe’s mercurial explosions have a calculated intensity to them. “I did have an idea in mind,” he later admitted about his youthful outbursts. “I thought tennis had had enough of manners.”

The full subversive implications of this idea became manifest in the late 1970s, when McEnroe, still a teenager, started qualifying for Wimbledon. His behavior on Old World turf—really, his mere presence in the Old World—grated against Wimbledon’s unwritten codes of decency. With corkscrewed hair and verbal aggression that made the establishment gasp (he called one judge “a disgrace to mankind”) the 18-year-old underdog, who in 1978 still drove a rusty Ford Pinto and lived with his parents, made it clear he didn’t give a dollop of clotted cream for Wimbledon’s arbitrary expectations of deference. He also knew this is what made him unique. He knew that within this bad-boy disposition was lodged his persona.

He ate in the All England clubhouse with his fingers. He jammed his hands in his pockets when it was time to press dignitary flesh. He reached the quarterfinals out of nowhere and wondered aloud why one had to bow to that old hag of a Queen when “you’re not even from that country.” His petulant cavorting on the royal lawnscape was the sporting equivalent of Johnny Rotten floating down the Thames, cursing the monarchy through a bullhorn. McEnroe’s run-of-the-mill tantrums nurtured this rebellion and wove it into his identity.

But the Swedish incident was different. It was more than a display of bad manners. As McEnroe reaches step 10 on his way back to his chair, he grips his racket like it’s a golf club and starts whacking it into his tennis bag. He’s insane with rage. The match is indoors so the impact booms throughout the cavernous arena. The Swedes go crazy. They’re appalled. They want more.

And McEnroe delivers, teeing off on a bottle of water and sending it airborne across a front row of spectators. It splatters the King of Sweden as it passes by. The judge is beside himself. He’s stuck in his little tower screaming, trying to make himself heard over the mayhem: “Code violation! Code violation!” McEnroe, who was just getting ready to sit down, leaps up at this, and, like a Tasmanian devil, starts swatting with his racket everything in sight, smacking another bucket of liquid off the table and shredding a flower arrangement with a forehand. Then he places a blue towel over his head and takes his seat, spent.

Part of me wants to laugh when I watch the scene. But I never do. I can’t.

WHEN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGISTS EVALUATE patients with anger issues they try to ascertain if an outburst was “within a normal range of magnitude.” McEnroe always berated himself a little bit when he cheated his own greatness. Under such circumstances his normal range of magnitude was modest. He’d throw his racket or yell at a fan or declare himself to be a worthless human being. But when an umpire with coke-bottle glasses was the one cheating McEnroe’s greatness, his normal range of magnitude became infinite. Given the nature of his game, given the nature of being John McEnroe, how could it have been otherwise?

His entire life was spent internalizing the dimensions of a tennis court and, in turn, fine-tuning his body to respond to those dimensions with tiny chops and hacks. His body knew tennis the way a falling ball knows gravity. The reality of McEnroe’s tantrum in Sweden was that, as he raged, he knew, by whatever intuitive calculus one knows such things, that it would never again be so perfectly awesome to be John McEnroe. The essence of his rebellion—in a match he eventually won 1-6, 7-6, 6-1—was evaporating. The judge, the stadium, and, because of the Internet, the entire world, would hear about it.

It’s a terrifying prospect to contemplate—that a great athlete can be witness to, and feel the full weight of, the precise moment of his fall from greatness. But when that judge in Sweden called McEnroe’s serve out, I suspect he changed the lines for John McEnroe, and McEnroe, much like George Washington checking his pulse at the moment of his death, knew it as well as he knew every inch of the court.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications.

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