Unbeknownst to the majority of anarchists, John McEnroe wasn't the first to ravage Wimbledon last summer. Before a ball was struck in the 104th renewal of tennis' grand event, the London Observer, the British Broadcasting Company and, yes, England, fair England herself, took their shots at the old green monster. The genesis was the release of the Smith Committee report, an investigation by the British government into Wimbledon's finances, which had been kept secret for a century. The report revealed, for example, that while the tournament grosses nearly $7 million a year, its payback to the national tennis development program is one-tenth of that. In reaction, the Observer bannered "Is Wimbledon a Racket?" and the BBC televised a critical documentary. Both the paper and the TV explored the distinct possibility that the All-England Club—dues eight pounds a year; coat and tie required; don't bother applying unless a bunch of initials follows your name—was a bastion of rich, titled, snobbish dilettantes unconcerned with social responsibility and not very interested in tennis. This came as no surprise to the pros who, if "Wimby" (as they refer to it) wasn't the most prestigious event in the sport, wouldn't set foot near the joint; nor to journalists who didn't need another reason to despise the place, what with the weather and the food and the working conditions.
This background is needed to explain the atmosphere that pervaded the hallowed greensward as McEnroe took his loud and obnoxious stance against the sacred values and practices of the All-England Club. To be sure, it wasn't only McEnroe. Wimbledon's benign neglect of reality has left it quite unprepared for, and unprotected from, the legions of independent and volatile modern tennis pros. McEnroe became the focus of the unrest.
The moment I remember most didn't occur in a McEnroe match. In a way, his matches were irrelevant. His draw was such that he played woofers straight through to the final against Bjorn Borg. So McEnroe matches were transmuted into McEnroe incidents, which became McEnroe press conferences, which became further McEnroe incidents. Which became The Story.
Out of all this came the infamous fight between Nigel Clark of the London Daily Mirror anti American Charlie Harrison of RKO radio—essentially a harmless shove-down following a mass interview—over the propriety and tone of the McEnroe interrogations. The physical part occurred long after McEnroe had left the room, but he hasn't yet been accorded proper credit for setting the mood, for establishing the nasty spirit that menaced the occasion. McEnroe's influence on the proceedings was so overwhelming the record must be set straight.
February 10, 1982
That particular press conference had deteriorated into a cloying interlocution on the champion's private life—with McEnroe becoming increasingly boisterous and profane—when the gentleman from Reuters interrupted by saying something like "John, getting back to tennis: Do you think you're playing well enough to win the championship?" To which James Whitaker, a "snoop" gossip columnist for The Daily Star, who had recently made it his business to harass McEnroe, responded sarcastically from the rear of the room, "Greaaat question."
What followed was a remarkable scene—peers, friends, comrades-in-joumalism railing against one another. I have never experienced anything like it. And up front amid the ensuing hubbub of snickers and shouts and insults among the fourth estate was McEnroe, a strange placidity enveloping his countenance. For a moment he was stunned by this outbreak of stupidity from his tormentors. Then he grinned. The press brawling on the floor was to come later, but surely McEnroe knew what he had wrought. He had insulted officials, berated spectators and offended his opponents. He had possibly, probably, corrupted Wimbledon forevermore. He had caused the all-knowing, self-proud media to fight and embarrass itself. His world was in place. He had gotten to us all, and John McEnroe knew it.