Did McEnroe Example Inspire Serena’s Competitive Rage?

By Scoop Malinowski

In boxing and tennis, I have learned, the champions often pick bits and pieces of former champions and use those attributes and qualities to create their own unique persona.

Mike Tyson famously, and admittedly, emulated the fierce passion and fury of Roberto Duran and Jack Dempsey. Iron Mike also admired the way Dempsey would help to raise up his fallen conquests after beating them, an ultimate show of sportsmanship and class, and he added that unlikely gesture to his persona.

Serena Williams has said she respected the fighting spirit and baseline power of Monica Seles. But another one of her early career playing influences was – believe it or not – John McEnroe.

Researching for my book “Facing Steffi Graf/Serena Williams” I discovered that at the 1998 Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Serena, still just a teenager was asked about her favorite players…

Q. The other day I asked Venus who her favorite all-time player was and why. She said she couldn’t tell us because you didn’t agree. I think it was Magnus Larsson. She wanted to know who yours was and why.

SERENA WILLIAMS: Favorite player now? My favorite player in the past was John McEnroe. I had a very bad John-McEnroe attitude in the doubles match the other day.

Q. Is that why you liked him, his on-court feistiness?

SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah. I like to start trouble (laughter). I like John McEnroe a lot. I just always liked him. He was pretty cool. But now things are different.

Q. How about now? Who is it now?

SERENA WILLIAMS: Everyone’s out there doing their best. I really respect people who are fast. It makes me want to be just like fast and lightning-like. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

Q. Chang? Rios?

SERENA WILLIAMS: They’re both very fast. Whoever, yeah.

So there you have the revelation. Serena Williams was inspired to become a troublemaker with a hot temper by…John McEnroe’s notorious on court verbal battles with chair umpires. The tennis powers that be, media and fans will probably not find this an acceptable excuse for Serena’s controversial behavior but you have to wonder if McEnroe adopted a Borg or Laver like on court persona, maybe Serena would have followed suit. So maybe John McEnroe deserves some blame for Serena’s ugly, heat of the moment behavior.

Of course, each player is responsible for their own actions but the super champions of the sport have a massive influence on young athletes. And maybe, just maybe, Serena’s admiration and appreciation for the McEnroe temper is the root of her extreme anger when losing.

In my “Facing McEnroe” book, Gary Plock, an NCAA opponent of Johnny Mac, speculated that McEnroe’s argumentative competitive personality was possibly influenced and incubated by hot tempered high profile coaches of the 1970s – Billy Martin of the New York Yankees, Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles, Bobby Knight of Indiana University and Woody Hayes, the Ohio State football coach who once punched an opposing player on the field.

McEnroe’s competitive fury resulted in his winning seven major titles, Serena has won 23. It can be argued their greatness was fueled to some degree by what they saw as young impressionable teenagers.

Was Serena’s extended verbal abuse of Carlos Ramos any worse, any more disgraceful than Hayes punching an opposing player? Or Bobby Knight throwing chairs all over the basketball court? Or George Brett’s volcanic eruption after having a playoff homerun erased because of pine tar on his bat? Or Billy Martin screaming in the face of an umpire after a disputed call? Or Earl Weaver kicking dirt at an umpires feet? Or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear after being repeatedly head-butted? No.

John McEnroe, Serena Williams just are simply high strung, extremely fierce and competitive ultimate champions who on occasion lose their cool and snap. Mere mortals can’t understand it but as emotional explosions are a pattern in professional sports for centuries, we must accept it, forgive and move on.

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  • Doug Day · September 26, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Unless youve actually seem MacEnroe lose it in person you cant imagine. I was/am embarassed as a human being to this day. Knowing youth were present considering him any example is appaling. Good observation, Scoop. Young Serena never should have witnessed that tennis defecation.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 26, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    Doug, there is no doubt McEnroe’s character on court influenced many players and it also influenced many players to be the opposite. It goes both ways.

  • catherine · September 27, 2018 at 4:52 am

    Serena has shut down her season and is no doubt getting refuelled for her assault on 2019.

    I’m in two minds about S – part of me just wants her to retire and leave us all in peace. I also want the rest to step up a bit and show they aren’t cowed by her temper tantrums. Unfortunately those will live on long after she’s left the stage.

    Re McEnroe – I just used to feel he’d have been so much better without all that rubbish.

    BTW – the way Serena’s been talking publicly about Patrick – will they still be a team ?

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2018 at 7:40 am

    Catherine, Mac would know himself more than you, he felt he needed to vent and halt matches and create those sideshow smokescreen to break the rhythm of his opponents which worked exceedingly well. If he played tennis with Gasquet’s passion he would have won no majors. Also know a man who says his father was a hair trigger temper in his face constantly pressuring son to do better. Heavy pressure from Poppa McEnroe.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Catherine, I would not be surprised if Patrick was just a clever opportunist and just a yes man masquerading as a top flight coach. She obviously does not really respect his coaching – never used him once for OCC and she rejects his claims he was coaching her vs Osaka. I think it’s looking very plausible he is a poser coach with a less than stellar track record, more of an academy operator like Nick than a top flight tactician like a Brad Gilbert or Darren Cahill or Ivan Ljubicic. Yes I think the Osaka match was the straw that broke the camel’s back and she will part ways with Patrick.

  • catherine · September 27, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Well, I must say I found Serena’s criticism surprising. She’s never done that before. It’s almost as though they aren’t speaking at the moment.

    Re Mac – I’d never claim to know Mac better than he did – only on some occasions the blow up would result in a loss and you’d be left feeling frustrated and angry with him.

    I heard that about Mac Snr. Could be a background story there a bit like Gladys Heldman.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Catherine, Patrick is probably begging Serena’s forgiveness and to keep his high profile job as her caddy. But I think it’s over for Patrick, he slandered Uncle Toni and Sascha Bajin and just about all coaches as cheaters. Serena has a right to be enraged because the whole damned controversy at US Open was caused by Patrick’s unwanted and unnecessary hand signals. I think it’s high time for Serena to hire Spadea as her new coach.



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