McEnroe and his Fury Compare to Fish and his Minnesota-ness
There’s a wonderful Youtube clip up at Tennis.com under Steve Tignor’s blog on a French documentary called, “The Match,” that was made about the French Open in 1981. The main part of the video clip shows McEnroe playing Lendl on a wet day and haranguing the French umpire over stopping the match before he hurts himself.
McEnroe’s fury, his ultra-verbosity for a 22-year-old at the time, with only one year of college to his credit, and his lack of fear about questioning the authority is simply intoxicating. At one point, he says to the chastened umpire, “Will you be reasonable. Look at the rain and how wet this court is. What are you looking at? Answer the question!”
When I was 22, I wouldn’t have had the gall to talk to an elder this way in such a public forum. Especially, if I were in a foreign country, the way Paris felt so foreign when I visited it as an exchange student in 1982 at 22. I felt guilty and ashamed that I didn’t know how to speak much French, but McEnroe doesn’t even try to speak French in the clip. He just berates in his nasal New York-ese. And McEnroe felt this entitlement and did not temper his anger. Lendl plays on in the video clip never saying a word and he went on to win the match.
But one of the main things that astounds me in the clip and just observing McEnroe over the years, as I have and continue to do, is that he didn’t and probably still doesn’t seem to have a sense of fair play. There is no fair play in McEnroe’s world, particularly on the tennis court. He believed, or at least it appears so, that he deserved to win every match he played(s). In fact, I was listening the other night to Ted Robinson and Jimmy Arias announce the Fish-Roddick match, and Arias said that Mac played Roddick close, but lost 5-4 in their recent WTT match. Robinson, who knows McEnroe well from being his partner in the broadcast booth for so many matches, said he thought John was upset by the loss. Arias, incredulous, said, “You mean McEnroe at 51 really thinks he should beat the No. 9 player in the world today?” And Robinson said, “John McEnroe thinks he should win every match.”
And the amazing thing about Mac to me was and is is that if he had(s) to completely bend the rules of fair play by lambasting an official for lengthy bouts, he doesn’t think twice about it. He takes everything on the court so deathly serious, and any bad break he gets, like Holden Caulfield, he has to tell you exactly why he’s been besmirched. He’s like Captain Queeg juggling tennis balls instead of steel balls.
I miss that verbosity and that desire/craziness/brazeness in today’s players. Maybe only Nadal seems to care as much as Mac, but Nadal rarely if ever speaks on the court. Watching Fish over the last couple of matches, he chats a bit to the umpire or his opponent, but it’s not the same as Johnny Mac. Fish looks now like Johnny Mac did back in the day, like a Rolling Stone who stepped out onto the tennis court, Tignor says, with his emaciated physique (Johnny Mac gets whistles from the French crowd during the clip when he changes his shirt and reveals his teenage idol, ribs-jutting physique) but the bad boy anger and self-loathing and isolation doesn’t brew and captivate the air the way it did with Mac and to a lesser degree, Connors. When Fish beat Isner, he runs into the stands to kiss his wife and his mother.
McEnroe never ran into the stands to kiss or hug or thank anyone. His beefy dad was usually there with his mother, and kid brother, Patrick, but Mac rarely seemed to acknowledge them. He never had a coach he ever looked up to in the stands. Even when his now-wife applauded for him and whooped it up the other night when Mac played Roddick in NYC, Mac barely looked up at her. Don’t take the spotlight off the king. It was all about Mac, no one got credit for his victories or was more the target of his venom than Mac, himself. As Joni Mitchell sang, “Nobodies harder on me than me. How could that be?” And that was Mac to the T. The agony and the ecstasy.