Mumbai: Today is the birthday of the legendary tennis superstar and superbrat of yore, John McEnroe. Who can forget the sight of his brash 21-year-old self, sporting a colourful headband, yelling at match officials, “You cannot be serious!” Then there were the other memorable expostulations to umpires and line judges at Centre Court, Wimbledon: “You’re the pits of the world! Vultures! Trash!”
But as fans will recollect, though he could be temperamental and badly behaved on the court, he was a brilliant grass-court player, a seemingly magical, supremely talented genius.
In tennis history, the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final is regarded by many as the greatest match ever played. There was the veteran Bjorn Borg shooting for his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title on the one hand and on the other, there was this 21-year-old from New York, John McEnroe, who had won his first major Grand Slam title, at the US Open. But clearly, he was hungry for more. Along came the fourth set and that edge-of-the-seat 20-minute tiebreaker, which McEnroe won 18-16 on his seventh set point. Before the tiebreaker, he had saved two championship points and then proceeded to save another five in the tie-break. However, he lost the fifth set 6-8. But what nerve he showed in the almost four-hour final, capturing the imagination of millions of fans that day with his scintillating tennis.
It would be another two months before he could exact revenge at the US Open, beating the Swede in five sets, at then again at the 1981 Wimbledon championships and the 1981 US Open. After that last outing, Borg would bid adieu to the world of tennis. And over the next three-and-a-half years, McEnroe would win three more Grand Slam titles and dominate the world of men's tennis. He would be ranked No. 1 for four straight years (1981-84). His phenomenal 82-3 (96.5 per cent) record in 1984 still stands as the best-ever singles record by a man in the Open era.
1984 was also the year he suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of Ivan Lendl in the French Open final at Roland-Garros, after coming perilously close to winning.
A master of the serve-and-volley, McEnroe brought it extra charm with his lefthandedness. He would drag his opponent out of the court with his sliced, angled serve, then come to the net and dispatch the volley with aplomb on the open court. These very same attributes made him a superb doubles player also. Along with his seven Grand Slam singles titles, he also won nine Grand Slam doubles titles -- in all, 77 career singles and 78 doubles titles, a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of tennis. Peter Fleming and he made a formidable pair in men’s doubles, winning 52 titles together. Fleming once said, ‘‘The best doubles pair in the world is John McEnroe and anyone.’’
One distinguishing feature about McEnroe was that he considered playing for the Davis Cup and his country a top priority. He represented the US from 1978 to 1992.
These days, he is a commentator for various TV networks. He has a great understanding of the game and just like he was at play, is direct and forthright in his views.
Here’s wishing him a happy 62nd birthday.
(The writer is a former R&D scientist, a sports, music and travel enthusiast)