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.


  • Dan Markowitz · July 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Excuse me, the film in reference here is called “The French” not “the Match.”

  • vinko · July 27, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Maybe that fury took too much out of John.After he hit 25 years he never won a big singles crown again.

  • Dan Markowitz · July 27, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I think you’re right to a degree. I also think that when he took his eye off of tennis, marrying Tatum O’Neal, starting to take drugs, the fury or zeal was not stoked as high anymore. Then the top players started becoming more physical and trained more, and Mac didn’t make the adjustment. He played such a herky-jerkey, but flowing game at the same time, and with the rackets changing, that feel game, serve and volley game, was not as potent anymore. But he was a unique player, more revolutionary than any player the game has ever seen, I argue. And, most importantly, because of his fury and his articulateness he transformed a tennis match into a confrontation and court theater.

  • Tom Michael · July 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    It was because of McEnroe that the rules of conduct on the tennis court had to be changed. The reason why we see fewer McEnroe-type tirades by today’s players is that rules are actually enforced by the chair umpires. Thank you Gerry Armstrong!

    It also does not pay to act like McEnroe, even if the rules did not change. Why? First, McEnroe who is not as fit as other players is only going to exhaust the limited reserves of energy he has with any tirade. A tirade is looked upon as a sign of weakness, and a tough competitor is only going to step it up. Finally, if Mcenroe did go off on a tirade particularly with trash talk to the opponent, he is going to be on the receiving end of getting hit by the ball. Go on youtube, and type in Lendl KO’s Mcenroe–this is what Johnny Mac and wannabes are looking forward to in today’s game. This will just knock the wind out of him and others.

    I also must add that Mardy Fish is so not like McEnroe. If anything he is just pure class. I remember when he played Nadal at the 2008 US Open quarters, there was some drunk heckler who disturbed Nadal on his serve. Fish refused to play the point out. Nadal replayed it and thankfully won the match. Fish just was going to take a point that is not his.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 27, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Very nice read. McEnroe was somewhat Tyson like that he had so much success so early then kind of squandered his talent and did not dominate as long as was expected. Good point about his verbal fearlessness. LeRoy Neiman once commented at how McEnroe even at age 18 was able to step right in and be comfortable in the spotlight, speak so well to the media, etc. He was such an intriguing personality. Tom, you like the Nadal, Fish, Simon classy sportsmanship, but you have to also appreciate the contrast to that, the bad guy, the troublemaker. Don’t you think it makes tennis more interesting? Tirades and controversey are sometimes ugly but they make the game go round and stir it up which is needed. Like Dan says, we see so few players want it so openly much as Mac. The players today are so contained. The characters like Mac at his unruly best and Jimbo at 39, Andrew Ilie, are needed more today. David Nalbandian in Davis Cup could be such a spectacle. I saw him crying in a DC SF during the playing of the Argentine athem. This man wants to win the Davis Cup something fierce.

  • vinko · July 28, 2010 at 3:06 am

    In John’s day they didn’t have the computer to correct bad calls and many linesmen were just club members who could not keep up with the ball. They bungled lots of calls back then and I can see why JMac lost it. Still, he could have made his point in a less offensive manner.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 28, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Tennis needs an outspoken character who stirs up controversy and ruffles people’s feathers. But then again, if that happens, tennis might boom so big again like it was in the 70s when you would go to the courts and have to wait hours to play they were so crowded, so the old timers will tell you. Tennis, if it needs anything now, needs a loud and boisterous colorful personality like McEnroe,



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