Ed#423 Remembering 'Johnny Mac'

11 January 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#423 Remembering 'Johnny Mac'

I first saw John McEnroe in the flesh at Wimbledon in 1980. I’d seen him on TV before then, of course – at Wimbledon three years earlier when he made an extraordinary run to the semi-finals as an amateur, and a qualifier, aged just 18 – and he’d won his first major tournament, the US Open, late in 1979. But this was my first sighting in the flesh. And he looked, well, fleshy. Pale and puffy; the least athletic-looking sportsman I’d ever seen. In a media room he looked as comfortable as most people feel in a dentist’s chair. What he had, however, was an extraordinary gift when he held a tennis racquet in his left hand. He waved it like a wand, conjuring shots that most other players could never have conceived, let alone pulled off. Wimbledon’s Centre Court in 1980 turned out to be the stage for one of his greatest performances: a five-set final against Sweden’s Björn Borg. McEnroe lost, but he won a great many fans that day, especially in a 20-minute fourth-set tiebreak in which, facing a handful of match-points, the American reeled off a succession of extraordinary shots. Anyone who argues that tennis is boring (and it can be, sometimes) should watch that tiebreak. The 1980 final still regularly tops lists of best-ever matches, though McEnroe himself doesn’t regard it as fondly…because he lost.
Some other McEnroe memories: blitzing a long-time rival, Jimmy Connors, in the 1984 Wimbledon final; getting thrown out of the 1990 Australian Open after one on-court meltdown too many; and then being courtside in 1992 when he turned the clock back to trounce the much younger Boris Becker, again at the Australian Open. Another McEnroe moment comes from the previous year in Melbourne, when his younger brother, Patrick, no slouch himself, had a good run and made it to the semis, where his opponent would be, yes, Becker. A reporter asked Patrick if he’d asked brother John for any tips. Patrick replied: “Yeah, he recommended a swinging serve out wide, then follow up with a drop-shot volley winner.” He said this with a rueful smile which, translated, meant: “That’s what he would do; I can’t.” Becker went on to win the tournament.
You often hear a complaint about modern tennis players: they all look the same. There’s some truth in it, especially in women’s tennis, where so many of the players are baseline grunters with double-handed backhands. In the men’s game, Swiss maestro Roger Federer is one of the very few who (like McEnroe) still uses one hand for all shots. McEnroe, an astute observer of the modern game, believes Federer to be the best of all time – a claim that always sparks debate, not least from fans of Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Now that we’re into another summer of tennis, highlighted by the 2013 Australian Open, McEnroe’s claim made me wonder if McEnroe and Federer ever played a professional match. Answer: no; not even close. Indeed, Federer was born in the same year McEnroe won the third of his four US Open titles; he was only 11 when McEnroe retired, at the end of 1992, after a career spanning three decades. But Federer, and Nadal, and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi before them, have all spoken with reverence about what ‘Johnny Mac’ could do with his racquet. His style was and is unique. It can be too easy to survey the contemporary sporting landscape, sigh, and bang on about the way things were. In McEnroe’s case, however, it’s justified. There will never be another like him – and by this I mean his temperament as well as his talent. Some of his on-court behaviour was inexcusable. Ah well, Beethoven apparently threw tantrums, too. And while McEnroe loves his music, there’s no evidence that Beethoven ever served an ace.

Alan Attwood, Editor

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