Tennis great John McEnroe’s outbursts grated on the nerves of many a harried umpire back in the day. He talks about that and more this morning with Susan Spencer:
Four decades ago, John McEnroe stormed onto tennis’ genteel courts, smashing conventions, and occasionally rackets.
“I think I created some people that wouldn’t normally watch tennis — which was one of my goals,” he said.
He battled the other greats of the time: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl … and he battled any umpire he thought was wrong. He thought a LOT of umpires were wrong.
“You seemed to push it right up to the line,” Spencer said.
“I’m not the only one. I mean, you gotta sort of be aware of what you can and can’t do. They do that all the time in other sports. ‘Oh my God, you took it to the line! Wow!’ Of course I took it to the line!”
After all, he figured they’d never actually throw him out.
“They don’t want to get rid of one of the best guys, if he’s bringing in ratings and interest,” McEnroe said. “So, I mean, that’s part of the incentive of getting good, because you get away with more.”
The line “You cannot be serious,” famously uttered to an umpire at Wimbledon in 1981, became McEnroe’s catch-phrase, and the title of his first autobiography — followed now by a second, “”But Seriously” (Little, Brown). If there’s a common theme, it’s intensity, that spark lit long ago by his father back in Queens.
“My late father, he managed me, so he was great early on. He said, ‘Listen, you don’t need to do this, you’re better than them!’ You know, I mean, it was a loud dinner table at my house!”
He started playing tennis at eight, and quickly climbed through the junior ranks.
At 18, as an amateur, he stunned even himself by making the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
The critics could…