Flashback to a big Mac attack in New Canaan
Updated 9:11 am, Friday, July 10, 2015
During the opening round of tennis at Wimbledon the other day, no less than four players were cautioned for swearing,
Who else could the British media turn to for commentary and headline inspiration than the man the Daily Express dubbed “Superbrat” 35 years ago? John McEnroe counterpunched by suggesting even more methods that could create friction.
“Have the players call their lines. That would make the game more exciting, I promise you. It would be awesome,” he said.
Yeah, let’s have pitchers call balls and strikes too.
I’ve covered a lot of tennis. One of my favorite pieces of Connecticut trivia is that Greenwich was once home to three No. 1 players. Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander drew considerable notice during their years in Greenwich, but I discovered during an interview in Stamford with Jimmy Connors that he enjoyed living in Greenwich for a few months before moving to California when he needed wrist surgery in 1990.
In interviewing these Tennis Hall of Famers, I got a sense of their personalities off the court. Wilander was down-to-earth, Lendl had a wicked sense of humor and Connors transformed into a performer as soon as there was a second person or a camera in the room.
McEnroe is McEnroe.
True to form, he gave me one of my most memorable interviews. After a career of epic meltdowns, he may have been at his worst during an exhibition match I covered at New Canaan Racquet Club 19 years ago. He yelled at fans, threw his racket the length of the court and pouted in silence until the chair umpire rewarded the victory to Jimmy Arias. Afterward, McEnroe didn’t seem to grasp my suggestion that things had not gone well.
After splitting sets, McEnroe lost a 6-4 match point in a deciding tiebreaker. He was still just one point from victory, but had been simmering throughout the two-hour match, yelling at one of the 1,200 fans at courtside to “Stand up pal. Are you some genius? Who the hell are you? Shut your mouth!” Most of the other players in the tournament enjoyed playing court jester in a casual setting. To McEnroe, the court is always a ring; the battle is always a boxing match.
After a wayward backhand cost him a chance to win the match, McEnroe flung his racket across the net, where it landed behind Arias, who was heading off the court for the changeover. Chair umpire Ray Brodeur slapped McEnroe with penalties that gave Arias a 7-6 lead. McEnroe responded by putting on his sweater, staring at the floor from his seat and stewing like, well, a Superbrat until Arias was declared the victor. It was the first time Arias had beaten McEnroe. He didn’t like winning that way, though he joked before the match that his strategy was to make McEnroe crazy.
The organizers were resistant to approach McEnroe to come to the press room for post-match interviews. Another journalist told me he was going to check with a TV reporter who stuck a microphone at McEnroe to see if he captured a comment. I headed to the locker room to give McEnroe a chance to explain himself.
I found him on a bench, surrounded by young ball boys collecting his autograph.
His fury had cooled, but McEnroe still seemed ready for a fight. I opened by lobbing a question about whether he had spent much time in Connecticut (his younger brother Mark lived in Stamford). He started describing how as a child of Queens, N.Y., he and his ilk perceived kids from Westchester and Connecticut as “nerds.”
I listened to a recording of our chat again last week. McEnroe’s tone remained flat as he responded to my queries, as though serving a racket across the net is part of the game.
“It’s the old, boring, ‘Oh, McEnroe threw his racket.’ . . . To me it was just typical.”
He didn’t understand why the crowd became “very, very serious.” He still wasn’t getting that this can happen when you hurl sporting equipment at your opponent.
“I don’t think people were aware we had to change sides at that point,” he reasoned, suggesting the racket’s flight path was simply the shortest route to the other side. He conceded that “I wouldn’t have risked throwing my racket in a tournament.”
I called the chair umpire that night at his Avon home to offer McEnroe’s explanation. He laughed. “That’s a hell of a way to get the racket to the other side,” said Brodeur, who had been in the chair for McEnroe’s first professional match.
McEnroe acted as though he was the wronged party (“The umpire should stay out of it”). When I mentioned that Arias said he didn’t feel like he had won, McEnroe complained that he should have ignored the umpire and played out the match.
Over my head throughout this exchange was a thought bubble screaming McEnroe’s most famous quote: “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”
I remember feeling McEnroe jolted himself into reality near the end of the interview, suddenly expressing regret. “Ultimately, I have to look in the mirror tomorrow at myself . . . these things have happened before.”
They would happen again. A decade later, McEnroe became the first player kicked out of an Outback Champion Series event in Newport, Rhode Island, after he verbally abused the umpire. Once more, Brodeur was in the chair.
I had several pleasant exchanges with McEnroe in subsequent years. I like that he throws a lot of opinions around to liven up his sport. There were flashes of self-awareness that day: “I like to win and I don’t like to lose and I also don’t like to cheat people who come to see me play.”
That Sunday afternoon he questioned whether he could remain committed to tennis. He seemed to understand a core part of his legacy: That enjoying victory and hating defeat are two different things.
An hour later he was back on the court winning a doubles match. That’s why McEnroe is McEnroe.
John Breunig is editorial page editor for The Advocate and Greenwich Time. He can be reached at 203-964-2281. twitter.com/johnbreunig.