When Aer Lingus flight 159 landed at Dublin Airport last Sept. 27, one of those on board was John McEnroe, who was about to set foot on the Auld Sod for the first time. Five years ago, when Pope John Paul II arrived in Dublin he consecrated the ground with a kiss. But the newest Johnny-come-lately didn't even kiss the Blarney stone. All he wanted to do was play tennis.
McEnroe had come to Ireland to take part in a Davis Cup tie. Both Ireland and the U.S. had lost first-round matches in 1983, and the loser of this one would be banished to zonal play in 1984. McEnroe intended to be on his best behavior, for he regarded his appearance in Ireland as a sort of homecoming. He has bragged he had a purer pedigree than Ireland's No. 1 player, Matt Doyle, a Yalie from Menlo Park, Calif. who has one Irish-born grandparent fewer than McEnroe. Ireland lets anyone with at least one native grandparent play on its team, and Doyle, then ranked No. 103 in the world, had one—his paternal grandfather. The No. 2 Irish player, Sean Sorenson, comes from Waterville, Maine and lives in West Germany. His parents are Irish.
But McEnroe's best intentions were dashed by the inventive invective of the Irish press. At the airport press conference, the ever-wary McEnroe lacked the gift of gab. The 12-hour trip from San Francisco had him beat. He carefully chewed off his words in a monosyllabic drone.
Dublin's five daily papers compensated by building a character out of the minutest clues. They concocted vignettes out of his anatomy: his sleepy eyes; the way he scratched his shoulders as he spoke and reflectively licked the tip of his nose. "He had little pink eyes, which he kept scrubbing with his knuckles," reported The Irish Times. "And he had deep purple gouges rather than bags under them. He looked about eight, as if he should have been put to bed hours ago."
February 13, 1984
The Irish Independent and The Irish Press were more preoccupied with the elusive McEnroe smile. "Smile please," implored one of the photographers.
"But I did already," McEnroe pleaded.
"You call that a smile?" asked the photographer, and McEnroe tried to oblige.
Under the front page banner headline TIRED 'SUPERBRAT' SAGS AS HE ARRIVES IN DUBLIN, the Independent observed, "With some effort he raised the side of his mouth for a fleeting second, then resumed his original tired grimace."
"It was hardly the most expansive of smiles," allowed The Press, "but from the taciturn McEnroe it was a major concession." McEnroe summed up his plans to tour the countryside in what The Times called a "major speech": "Well, uh...if I get a chance, I will...and if I don't I won't.... I don't think it's maybe the ideal time right now, but I would...at some point."
The Times followed him around the practice court later that afternoon like a hyena stalking a pea hen, and came away with this intriguing shred of conversation between McEnroe and the American captain, Arthur Ashe:
MCENROE: This court is a bit slow.
Rather than play catch-up with the morning papers, the Evening Herald dispatched its outrageous and immensely readable scandalmonger, John Feeney, to the scene. Feeney improvises his stories out of the most gossamer information, which may be why his column is called "adlib." The respected Irish current affairs monthly Magill regularly refers to him as "the worst journalist in the world," an epithet he revels in.
Feeney's thrilling narrative had Young Mac arriving at his hotel, spending thousands of dollars on clothes, ordering room service to send him a guitar since his own was lost in transit and being guarded round the clock by armed detectives, a precaution against terrorists.
"This is lies from start to finish," McEnroe, brandishing a rolled-up Evening Herald, screamed during the tournament draw that evening. "This happens to me all over the world, and naturally it annoys me. Who wouldn't it annoy?"
Asked if he had done any sightseeing, McEnroe said testily, "I haven't been able to go in the streets and meet the real people. I don't consider the press real people."
After the draw, McEnroe finally met a real person, Sean Kinsella, who happens to be a real Irish chef in a real expensive restaurant, Mirabeau. But McEnroe didn't know that his tormentor, Feeney, was in the kitchen, whipping up a batch of new fictions. Feeney attained new heights of calumny in the next day's Evening Herald with the news that McEnroe had sneered at Kinsella's famous brown bread and demanded sliced white bread, and that McEnroe had commanded Ashe to take McEnroe's meal into the kitchen to be recooked. Feeney imagined Kinsella saying, "As he [McEnroe] left, he said it was the best meal he had ever had outside the U.S. If he behaved like that for the best, God help us for the worst." Continuing to give free rein to his vagaries, Feeney next related that McEnroe had "proposed a toast to the end of the lying press, which was loudly hailed by friends of the night. He then launched into a diatribe about the journalists who dogged him and his guitar around the world."
It was a strong day for the Evening Herald. A piece on the front page described how a pair of shorts that McEnroe had donated to a local charity had fetched 550 pounds. The headline read: MCENROE SELLS 'SWEATY' SHORTS. Even when Johnny be good, Johnny look bad.
"The newspapers treat him grotty," said Louise Corcoran, a 20-year-old Montessori schoolteacher from Dublin. "McEnroe gets knarked about things when he's treated unfairly. The Irish people are like that, too. The more he knarks, the more we love it."
McEnroe confined his knarking pretty much to his room at the Berkeley Court Hotel and to Simmonscourt pavilion, where the matches were played. He had brought his entire family and girl friend Stella Hall with him to Dublin. John McEnroe Sr. feared a mob scene if John Jr. ventured out, though it didn't seem likely. Indeed, only five admirers showed up to meet McEnroe at the airport, and they were tipped off by the national tourist board. Just a handful of teen-age girls kept vigil outside his hotel. The Finnish embassy's peat symposium in the Grosvenor Suite drew a larger crowd of curiosity seekers.
Corcoran was among the two dozen fans who attended McEnroe's first practice. She preferred to keep her distance and cringed at the thought of asking for his autograph. "I'd swallow into the ground," she said. "I'm quite happy just to be looking at him."
"He looks like such a rough fellow," offered David Murphy, 14, of Dublin. Murphy owns three copies of the hit record The Umpire Strikes Back, a popular British send-up of McEnroe. A McEnroe sound-alike argues heatedly over a line call with a very proper English referee. The record ends with the would-be McEnroe getting zapped by laser fire amid a stream of blasphemies.
"John is very shy, but perhaps that's just the way younger people are around their elders these days," said McEnroe's great aunt, Mollie Proctor, at a bash in the family's honor at the Berkeley Court on the eve of the tournament. Auntie Moll, 85, lives with her 11 cats and a 14-year-old male Yorkshire terrier named Bonnie in a small cottage in the block-long central Ireland village of Rathwire. She had been a great Irish beauty and remains a handsome and charming woman with a lively laugh. "I used to like Bjorn Borg," she said. "He was so cool and placid. But at the present time I think John is the greatest. Write that down. He'll shoot me if I don't say it."
Mollie had a glorious time partying with the press; her nephew, John McEnroe Sr.; his wife, Kay, whose ancestry two generations back was half Irish, half English; and their sons, Mark, 21, a senior at Stanford who spent his junior year at Dublin's Trinity College, and Patrick, 17, the Irish junior champion in 1982 and a nonplaying member of the visiting U.S. Davis Cup squad. The clan was presented calfskin scrolls that traced its Irish roots back to the village of Ballyjamesduff in 1821.
McEnroe gave the affair the cold shoulder, claiming he had to ice an injury. An hour later McEnroe was spotted in the hotel lobby waiting for an elevator. Reluctantly, he agreed to pose with the family coat of arms—a wolfhound scaling a tree. When a British photographer asked McEnroe to stand next to his girl friend, McEnroe barked cryptically, "Don't ask and you won't get."
But the shutterbug asked on. "Go brush your teeth," McEnroe snapped.
The photographer was devastated. "I am an Irish person who came here hoping to love and respect this son of Ireland," the papers had him saying the following day. "Not any more—I'll never forgive him."
Meanwhile, McEnroe's father held forth on how his late parents, Kathleen and John, left Erin's green shores. They had departed Dublin independently for New York City around 1915. She worked the switchboard at a brokerage house; he drove a truck for what is now the Sunshine Biscuit Company and helped guard the Chase Manhattan Bank. They married in 1933. He later played a mean trombone as leader of a quasiceilidh band billed as Sean McEnroe and His Orchestra. Nobody knows where the name Sean came from.
During the party Donal Begley, the genealogist who had personally signed the sacred McEnroe scrolls, gave SPORTS ILLUSTRATED an exclusive: McEnroe's paternal grandmother, he confided, hailed from County Westmeath, where in 845 the Norse plunderer Turgesius was drowned in Lough Owen by King Malachi. And that's not all! McEnroe's grandpa grew up in County Cavan, the birthplace of Miles (Slasher) O'Reilly, an 18th century mercenary who earned his moniker slicing up lads in the New World. It was the kind of stuff that might have tempted Feeney to go back to honest reporting, if he hadn't been off mongering scandal in Paris. But the vacuum was quickly filled by the Independent: NOW MCENROE HAS THE RIGHT TO CALL HIMSELF JOHN O'SUPERBRAT.
The Irish press having done the preliminary goring, the British tabloids moved in for the kill. A venomous story in the Daily Mail was headed: SUPERBRAT SNUBS HIS IRISH HERITAGE. The Daily Star branded McEnroe a "spoilt child," "paranoid" and a "graceless ace," and wrote, straight-faced, "We gathered here on the naive assumption that McEnroe would permit us a harmless reunion with his distant cousins. Some hope!"
That was the same day McEnroe finally played ball. A packed house of 6,000, which included Republic of Ireland President Patrick Hillery but not Auntie Moll—"If I didn't go straight home to Bonnie, he'd fret too much"—greeted McEnroe with more or less thunderous applause. When he lifted his racket to serve, the Irish and British press corps collectively flinched. He disposed of Sorenson 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
"I came wishing McEnroe would say something wicked," said young Murphy. He probably went home disappointed. McEnroe muttered one "disgusting" after a poor serve, but the only dispute he had with the umpire was about the artificial carpet that kept bunching up and splitting at the seams. The predictable headline gracing the front page of the next day's Independent went: MCENROE MEETS THE PRESIDENT—THEN SLAMS THE COURT: 'IT'S GOT BUBBLES.'
A line of pickets was lying in wait for McEnroe when he returned the following evening for his doubles match. The Dunlop tire factory in Cork had laid off 650 workers the previous day, and a senior union official had proposed that McEnroe fork over to the idle employees the millions he was getting in a five-year deal with Dunlop's tennis racket division. McEnroe expressed his sympathy for the workers' plight, but declined to make a contribution. McEnroe and partner Peter Fleming beat Doyle and Sorenson 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
The next night it was Doyle's turn to fall. The 6'4" Doyle had learned to speak with a jaunty brogue after only three years' intermittent residence in Ireland. "John's bloodline may make him more Irish than mine, but I bleed Guinness and he doesn't," boasted Doyle before the match. He could have used a transfusion. Doyle couldn't break McEnroe's serve or his spirit, and lost in straight sets. McEnroe's win clinched an American victory.
Afterward, McEnroe accepted a Waterford crystal trophy for his efforts and told the crowd he'd like to return someday to see the rest of the country. Then, for perhaps the first time all week, he smiled. It wasn't the most expansive of smiles, but it would do.