McEnroe takes issue with the umpire during a centre court match at Wimbledon in 1981. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
McEnroes flouting of convention extended to his play. The impeccable form and country-club training expected in top players was nowhere to be found; instead he was all deft skills and nimble feet, a left-handed serve peppered with a delicious array of chips, topspin lobs and drop volleys. That, of course, made him a natural fit for doubles, the tours shadow circuit where he rates as perhaps the finest ever with 78 titles (including eight majors, although the ATP says 72 titles) and ranked No 1 for 275 weeks in total.
But it was his notorious on-court disputes with umpires and line judges that endure most in the public consciousness. You are the pits of the world! he cried at an official during one indelible Centre Court tirade. Vultures! Trash! One often wonders how McEnroe might have been remembered if hed come along in the age of electronic line-calling.
But not even McEnroes petulance could obscure his brilliance, at least not at the start. He broke his grand slam maiden at Flushing Meadows in 1979, seeing off Vitas Gerulaitis in straight sets to become the youngest US Open winner since Pancho Gonzales more than three decades previously. A few months later he earned the No 1 ranking for the first of 170 weeks. Then came his famous 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjrn Borg, a five-set epic that is regarded among the finest matches ever played. McEnroe survived a fourth set in which he fended off seven match points, including five during the 20-minute tiebreaker, but ultimately succumbed in the fifth set an ennobling defeat that offered him little solace, but set the stage for the imperial era that followed.
The following summer McEnroe avenged his loss to Borg in the final at the All England Club, ending the Swedes 41-match winning streak in SW19. Afterward, the club refused to grant him the honorary club membership typically conferred to Wimbledon champions, prompting his famous retort: I wanted to spend the evening with my family and friends and the people who had supported me, not a bunch of stiffs who are 70, 80 years old, telling you that youre acting like a jerk.
His toppling of Borg was the second of four successive victories in finals against his great nemesis, a narrative turn that perhaps prompted the Swedes retirement at 26. Yet the New Yorker often cut the figure of the tortured genius, demons only slightly beneath the surface, an affliction only underscored by life alone at the summit. Id like to enjoy tennis, he said during the early-1980s. There are guys who play baseball who love baseball. Thats not the way I feel. Ive never loved tennis the way I should, the way people think I should.
Still, McEnroes talent always compensated for his frailties and never more than at his 1984 zenith, when he won 82 of 85 matches, the highest single-season win rate of the Open era. Hes the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis, George Plimpton wrote. Whats the incentive to behave if thats how you play your best? He captured his seventh major championship when he swept away Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, making 78% of his first serves and only three unforced errors. But soon after brushing aside Ivan Lendl in the US Open final, McEnroe delivered a profane outburst at the Stockholm Open that was disturbing even by his standards. It was a vision of a man unstrung, perhaps auguring the darkness ahead.
Within a year, he had announced a nine-month sabbatical from tennis, during which he married the actor Tatum ONeal, a meeting of volatile personalities that ended in a highly publicised divorce six years later. He never regained his top form upon his return, winning a modest three titles in 1986 and failing to win one the following year for the first time since turning pro. The laundry list of bad behaviour reads like a rap sheet: stripped of his honorary membership from the Queens Club after swearing at the wife of the club chairman on a practice court; defaulted from the Australian Open for telling the tournament supervisor to go fuck your mother; record-breaking totals of fines and suspensions for obscenity. Rumours of cocaine abuse persisted which McEnroe denied but years later acknowledged, though he insisted it did not affect his performance. He quit the game in 1992 ranked 20th in the world, though he never won another grand slam singles title after 25.
McEnroe has flourished in his post-playing days, shining in his role as commentator with the BBC and ESPN. He has settled in a happy second marriage with the singer-songwiter Patty Smyth.He has traded on his volatile image for laughs in comedic turns on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In 2010, tennis fans perhaps including those who had jeered back in 1981 voted McEnroes most notorious Centre Court rant (You cannot be serious!) their top Wimbledon moment of all time.
Still, McEnroes reinvention has never outrun his penchant for controversial remarks. He was branded a knuckle-dragging misogynist for his commentary on the WTA schedule before the 2010 US Open. They shouldnt be playing as many events as the men, he said. The women have it better in tennis than in any other sport, thanks to Billie Jean King. But you shouldnt push them to play more than theyre capable of.
You could not help but feel a note of sympathy for him over the past week, particularly upon hearing his ruminations on the gender question in full context. Clearly, he was walked into the remarks by NPRs Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
But some believe they were the work of a shrewd self-promoter whose second memoir, not coincidentally, was released on Thursday. King took it a step further, saying McEnroe had been angling for a second Battle of the Sexes showdown with Williams for years now a theory not so far-fetched in the era of Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor. McEnroe has since stated that he regretted making the remarks.
Martina Navratilova, whose prime coincided with McEnroes, said: You just dont go there. You dont go there. You just dont gooo there! Theres no need to go there. What the heck were you thinking? Its that you were not thinking. Thats the problem. John has a knack for creating controversy where there is none. He needs to do it on his own dime, not at somebody elses expense.
Yet McEnroes popularity endures, perhaps because of these maddening contradictions and not in spite of them. He says what he thinks, a candour all the more valuable in an industry of artifice. Whether it makes him a hero or villain is in the eye of the beholder.
Born John Patrick McEnroe Jr in Wiesbaden, West Germany
Career Joined mens tour in 1978, after a run to Wimbledon semi-finals as an 18-year-old qualifier. Won 77 singles titles including seven grand slams, becoming world No 1 three years after turning pro and spent 170 weeks there overall. Among greatest doubles players, with 78 titles (including eight majors) and 275 weeks in total at No 1. Became a commentator with the BBC and ESPN.
High point Avenged defeat to Bjrn Borg in 1980 Wimbledon final, a five-set classic, by toppling the Swede in 1981 for first of three titles at All England Club.
Low point Expelled from Australian Open in 1990 for swearing at officials.
He says This taught me a lesson, but Im not sure what it is.
They say Hes the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis. Whats the incentive to behave if thats how you play your best? George Plimpton