The faces cause all the trouble. The faces annoy officials. They irritate opponents. They turn off the crowd faster than a bomb scare. A compendium of emotionalism, the faces portray anger and pity, pain and distrust, shock and vengeance. They depict the eternal naughty child who never got enough of the back of a hairbrush. For months Europeans asked him, "Why your face never smile?" Even the boy's father blames it on the faces. John P. McEnroe Sr. says, "The faces and the stomping were always there. We told him. But nobody should try and change him. The faces are—part of him."
John P. McEnroe Jr. says, "Let's put it this way. I don't care if I don't smile on court. I make faces. The faces are—me."
So we shall have to get used to the faces. The reason is that this week John P. McEnroe Jr.—brown curls and red neck framing his Idaho-potato head and one or another of those marvelous Irish pug faces—will shake off the bonds of latent delinquency and become an authentic American hero. This week in the arid fantasy world of the Palm Springs desert, McEnroe will win two singles matches against the patsies from Great Britain and help recover the Davis Cup for the United States for the first time in six years.
Surely this will be another bright moment in the tender life of the youngster from New York City's borough of Queens.
December 11, 1978
In 1977, just about the time his high school class was graduating from Trinity School in New York, McEnroe turned into a star. At 18 at Wimbledon he beat nearly everybody there was to beat and became the first semifinalist to emerge from the qualifying rounds in 25 years, not to mention the youngest semifinalist in 100 years. Which is to say, ever. Then a month ago, at the time his college classmates at Stanford University were preparing for the big football game against Cal, McEnroe became a player. After breezing to the NCAA championship last spring as a freshman, he had dropped out of Stanford to try the pro tour, and in Stockholm he beat the great Bjorn Borg 6-3, 6-4 on Borg's home court. "Routined him," as the players say. "Three and four." It was the first time in his life the 22-year-old world champion had been defeated by a younger player. When he won a mere seven points against McEnroe's serve, the Swede appeared bemused, as if thinking, "Finally it's happening to me. For sure." McEnroe says, "People probably think Bjorn tanked it. Let's put it this way. Bjorn doesn't tank in Sweden."
Now comes the Davis Cup. From star to player is a distinct and important trip. But from star to hero, well now. From star to hero is a long, long ride.
One remembers what McEnroe said in September at the U.S. Open before he reached another big semifinal. Before he lost to Jimmy Connors for the fourth time. The kid—McEnroe is known as "Junior" on the circuit—was asked if he wasn't awfully proud of his record with the pros so far, having won a lot of matches and having lost only to the top players in the world.
"Listen," McEnroe snapped, "I've been beaten plenty enough. Dibbs beat me, Orantes twice, Nastase three times. I've been broken in. I'm used to the tour. I've had it with being beaten. I'm ready to do well now."
Since losing to Connors in straight sets in Flushing Meadow, here is what McEnroe has done: Hartford—won singles, won doubles with Bill Maze. San Francisco—won singles, won doubles with Peter Fleming. Hawaii—lost in singles semifinals, lost in doubles finals with Fleming. Then to Europe. Basel—lost in singles finals, won doubles with Wojtek Fibak. Cologne—lost in singles semifinals, won doubles with Fleming. Stockholm—won singles, lost in doubles semifinals with Fleming. London—won singles, won doubles with Fleming. Bologna—lost in singles semifinals, won doubles with Fleming.
In eight tournaments the lefthanded McEnroe won four singles and six doubles titles and more than $120,000 in checks, which he sent home to be deposited by his father, who—thank the Lord—is an attorney on Wall Street.
Followers of the game who equate success only with how a player does in London in July and New York in September, or only with how many big names he has disposed of on the way, will be happy to know that McEnroe qualifies on both counts. "John's most important ability is as a quick learner," says his coach, Tony Palafox, the old Mexican Davis Cupper. "He knows fast how to dissect the games and beat most of the best players."
At the '77 U.S. Open—the last played on Forest Hills clay—McEnroe was embarrassed by the dirt master, Manolo Orantes. Two weeks later in San Francisco he beat Orantes indoors. A couple of months after losing to John Newcombe in their first meeting, McEnroe turned the tables again. Since he arrived on the scene at that first Wimbledon, McEnroe has defeated Eddie Dibbs, Dick Stockton, Adriano Panatta, Corrado Barazzutti, Roscoe Tanner and Borg, all the first time they met. He is already ranked fifth on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer. Arthur Ashe says, "Right now, McEnroe is the best player in the world."
Last week McEnroe paused during his busy tournament schedule to play some exhibitions in Italy. He sat in a drafty locker room underneath the Palazzetto dello Sport in Milan and shook his head at the wonder of it all.
"That's such a pressure statement by Artie," he said.
"I mean, he's putting the pressure on me. But I can handle it. People always ask if I'm surprised when I win a tournament. Was Borg surprised to win Wimbledon the first time? Was he surprised to win three times? As it comes, I can feel myself getting hot, getting better. But I want to get better and better." Thinking back to Stockholm, where he did not lose a set while beating Jan Kodes, Tom Okker and Tim Gullickson, in addition to Borg, he said, "I felt comfortable, in command. I don't think I was zoning. I don't think I was playing out of my mind. I wasn't letting anything slip away. I was so confident. Then, toward the end in Stockholm with Borg, I looked over at him and saw he was confused. You really had to be there and see the match for this to make any sense. But let's put it this way. Bjorn simply didn't know what to do.
"So, no, I'm not surprised at all. I don't want to be surprised. And I don't want to be satisfied. I mean, it's great to be 19, ranked No. 5 in the world and playing Davis Cup. But this isn't luck. I've worked for this. Let's put it this way. I deserve this."
It is not very often that a tennis player comes along who can beat Bjorn Borg three and four and call Arthur Ashe 'Artie" in the same month. Among other refreshing habits McEnroe has brought with him to the major leagues is an enigmatic appetite—chicken, cheesecake and ravioli in varying combinations, ice in his milk and beer ("John is a total barbarian," says his childhood friend, Mary Carillo)—and an avowed determination to be honest about his losses. The word "choke"—anathema to most athletes—is in his vocabulary. For example, McEnroe says that when he had Connors 3-0 in the third set at Boston two summers ago and lost, he choked. When he led Orantes 4-2, advantage server, in the third at Washington last summer, and lost, he choked again.
"Why kid myself?" he says. "People say, 'Oh, the other guy played well.' That's bull. I should not lose matches from that point—to anybody. Hey, I don't acknowledge the other guy's game. When he hits a great return winner, I think I didn't hit a good enough serve. I don't acknowledge anything."
Unfortunately, McEnroe's splendid talent likewise has not been acknowledged enough. The beauty of his technique seems to have been obscured somewhere along the way. Probably it was between the uproars caused by his constant bickering over line judgments and the controversy engendered when he delves into the outrageous, such as the time he spit at a woman spectator at the Longwood Cricket Club. "I spit in front of her. I never got her," McEnroe corrects.
Recently McEnroe went backstage in a San Francisco theater to be introduced to a pop singer named Harry Chapin. "Oh, yeah," said Chapin. "You're the Wimbledon bad guy."
So far, Junior's absolutely horrid on-court nature has managed to obscure his wonderful talent. A soccer and basketball player in high school, McEnroe picked up tennis very quickly. Early on he was a natural, and his game mirrors that of his teacher, Palafox—all spins and angles and changes of pace.
A rarity in today's double-fisted tennis world, McEnroe hits one-handed from both sides with the racket head held extremely low. The preparation for each stroke is so casual that often the racket appears to be falling from his hand as he drills winner after winner. McEnroe has such a gift for touch, such a delicate feel, that the ball is seldom out of control. Because of his active, quick wrists, he also gets away with many late hits, the racket suddenly flashing out from his shoulder socket as if no arm were needed as middleman.
"Watch this," McEnroe says as he pretends to fire off another rifle from the backhand wing. "Who was that?" Of course, it was Rod Laver.
"John has so much touch it is ridiculous," says Vitas Gerulaitis, his New York neighbor. "I think he already does more things with the ball than anybody."
Ashe says, "I've never played McEnroe, but you can watch and see he never overpowers anyone. Against Connors and Borg you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer. But this guy is a stiletto. Junior has great balance and hands and he just slices people up. He's got a ton of shots. It's slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you've got blood all over you even though the wounds aren't deep. Soon after that, you've bled to death."
After his ambush in Sweden, Borg said he had tried to attack McEnroe's weakness, but he couldn't find one. The kid was fast enough to run everything down, he kept filling Borg's side with no-pace "nothing" balls, and, on serve, he smartly bounced spinners as wide as possible into the deuce court, sending the Swede galloping out of bounds for bad-position backhand returns. (Of Borg's five conquerors this year, four have been lefties who preyed on this flaw.)
As McEnroe has progressed, his consistency on service and sophistication of deliveries have steadily improved. His rigorous weekly doubles competition in which varied placements are demanded has contributed greatly toward this end. Now his world rank in doubles is higher than in singles—No. 3.
It is no coincidence that the players who have troubled McEnroe the most are those notably quick, crafty tour veterans who have not been befuddled by his off-speed stuff and his all-court game: Connors and Nastase—and Harold Solomon on clay. A Gerulaitis-McEnroe match, which a lot of tennis fans are clamoring to see, has not yet taken place except in meaningless exhibitions.
When Connors first heard of McEnroe at the centennial Wimbledon two years ago, he said he would "hate to watch anybody who reminds me of myself." On account of the comparisons made between the two, however—precocious lefthanders, both NCAA champions, shy, mannerly types—it is obvious that Connors has pushed himself sky-high for their four encounters, in two of which he had to come from behind in order to survive.
But even in the face of Connors' savage run to the Open title in September, when he thrashed McEnroe and Borg in equal measure, Junior refused to give an inch. "The guy threw incredible winners at me," McEnroe says. "But if I don't blow the 5-1 lead in the third, I'm right back in it. Let's put it this way. I just didn't rise to the occasion."
"The thing Connors has over McEnroe is experience," says Palafox. "Next time they play, the match may be up to John. He knows now it is all in his hands."
Because the game looks so easy for him—and, more, because it is—McEnroe's orneriness between the white lines sticks in the craws of players, linespersons and spectators alike.
It all began at Wimbledon in '77 when in his first match McEnroe yelled at a spectator to "get the hell out." Violent sneers and snickers continued to emanate from his matches until McEnroe met Phil Dent in the quarters, when he kicked his racket around the hallowed turf, railed at officials and cussed up a storm with such beauties as "No way I'm losing to this——guy," and "Jesus, how much longer before I get a——call in this——. place." His reputation for facial expressions has preceded him ever since.
"I've never seen a tennis crowd turn against a player so fast as they did against McEnroe when he played Tanner out in Hawaii," says Barry Lorge, the tennis correspondent for The Washington Post. "In the first three games they were on him like a swarm of locusts. He has complained about so many calls in such a short time that he is now the classic boy who cries wolf."
McEnroe himself cannot adequately explain why an official's mistake sets him off. Then again, isn't he from the same terrific generation that ate cocaine for breakfast and gave us punk rock? Why should its peer athletes be Mr. or Ms. Decorum?
McEnroe confirms that he was always something of a rebel. Way back he was damned with the terrible neighborhood nickname "Runt." In junior high school he led his basketball team in technical fouls and once was suspended for two games for screaming at the coach. At Trinity—a coat-and-tie school—he wore a dungaree jacket on the train ride into Manhattan every day, implicitly challenging the teachers to tell him to change for classes. "In ninth and 10th grades I was a total alky," McEnroe says. "I was in a high school fraternity and we'd drink beer all evening. By the time we got to the girls, we were always drunk."
Palafox remembers refusing to hit tennis balls with McEnroe for a month because of his behavior early in their relationship. Also, the youngster was suspended from the Port Washington Tennis Academy over some high jinks during a tournament in the Catskills. Something about setting the hotel towels on fire.
"We'd have arguments at home," McEnroe says. "My dad always yelled at me. I told him when he was wrong. Then I'd get yelled at some more. I guess I always had too much Irish."
At Stanford, where he stayed just the one year to get experience on hard courts and to win the NCAA title for himself and his team, McEnroe left nothing behind him but good feelings. "One of the most respected persons I've ever known," Coach Dick Gould says. "John's attitude was beautiful, he never assumed it was his right to be No. 1. He worked hard for it. It wasn't like some nobody just passing through. John's mark is here."
And it is elsewhere. In the pros McEnroe has had tiffs with Newcombe as well as with his current Davis Cup teammate, Bob Lutz, who nearly decked him after a match last summer. At Orange, N.J., McEnroe became involved in a dispute with a representative of the sponsoring Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company, who accused him of being a crybaby and even threatened to withdraw future support from the tournament. "I made ultimatums. I was terrible," McEnroe confesses.
Steadfastly in McEnroe's corner are his distaff supporters: his girlfriend Stacy Margolin and his "big sister," Carillo, both of whom play on the women's tour. Carillo says she "defends John to the death. He just handles things wrong. On questionable calls during the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, I would approach and ask the official if he would reconsider. John would say to him, 'What are you, blind?' He has no subtlety. He doesn't go out of his way to impress people. I don't think he should be a jerk or a hood about it, but the fact is he doesn't care what people think. This game is so simple for him, he just gets mad when anything goes wrong."
McEnroe says he does care. He says he is trying to do better. He says he will improve. "I don't think I've ever questioned a call I didn't legitimately know was wrong," he says. "My mistake has been not knowing when to stop. The people don't want to see arguing, they want to see tennis. Artie and Stan Smith just glance at an official, and the call is changed automatically. That's the way to go, but I guess it's too late for me. Let's put it this way. I've already got a terrible reputation, so now they're looking for me every time."
In recent weeks throughout Italy—where he is known affectionately as "Macaroni"—McEnroe did not enhance his reputation with the public, or the media. The Bologna crowd booed and hissed when it thought McEnroe was not trying in his semifinal loss to his doubles partner, Fleming. ("I was exhausted. I could not have tried harder," McEnroe said.) Then the Italian press nailed him for skipping a couple of press conferences. When his tennis-clothes manufacturer, Sergio Tacchini, finally did arrange for him and Gerulaitis to sit down for a mass interview in Milan, McEnroe, with his usual impatience, pounded the table to get the attention of the buzzing, then stunned, reporters.
Realizing a potential for violence when he saw one, Tacchini did not include the usual clause requiring his contract players' annual appearance in Rome in McEnroe's contract even though Tacchini's wife jokingly suggested that a police escort probably would suffice. "If the Romans threw coins at the stoneface Borg [which they did last spring]," McEnroe says, "can you imagine what they'd throw at me?"
Lea Pericoli, the former Italian women's champion, now a journalist in Milan, says, "This boy is a bit impossible. What is he like? He does not talk to me. So I have to invent him."
"Listen, I don't have to talk," McEnroe says. "People are going to write and say what they want. They pay to see my matches now. If they want to boo and clap against me, that's fine. I'm myself. Let's put it this way. I'd rather get some attention than no attention. If it's bad, that's life."
So there is America's new tennis hero. Let's put it this way. Nobody could invent John McEnroe.