At Wimbledon, you are either of the mob, or above the mob. Either you mill with the congested crowd, or you sit in a box or balcony, showing your millinery and looking down on the human comedy below.
Perhaps that is where John McEnroe's problem, starts and why it is so acute here.
The tempestuous southpaw, who made a fool of himself again today, sees the tennis world through the eyes of an idealistic, impatient young man who wears ancient, faded denim jackets in the midst of high society and flaunts a red headband that might as well be a filthy bandanna.
Although he comes from affluent, upper-middle-class America, and is already a millionaire himself, McEnroe still wants to identify with the people milling by those outside courts here. And he wants to show his contempt for those who look down their noses -- like umpires who sit in their elevated chairs and render their stuffy decisions like proclamations.
What McEnroe has not yet fathomed is that the British do not respect his egalitarian strain, his flair for the insolent antihero position. In America, McEnroe picks up the Jack Nicholson vote. On Wimbledon's Centre Court, McEnroe's got nobody on his side. In a land that still loves and bends its knee to royalty, McEnroe's entire temperament is at odds with the tenor of the place.
Today, England gave McEnroe the red card. As far as the British are concerned, he's been waved off the pitch for good.
You don't call an umpire at Wimbledon "an incompetent fool." Nor do you call the hallowed head referee "an imbecile." At least you don't do it at a shout on Court No. 1.
McEnroe frosted England by cursing a lineswoman at the Queen's Club two weeks ago, then hitting a ball at her. He completed the breach of etiquette today.
Last year, in his legendary 55-game, five-set final with Borg, McEnroe won cheers for his unaccustomed good behavior. But it stuck in McEnroe's craw that he lost. He is still at the stage where the world's goodwill means little to him. He knows it should mean more, but it just doesn't.
The current hot punk lyric here might be McEnroe's anthem: "How you get so rude and reckless? Don't you be so crude and feckless. You been drinkin' brew for breakfast?"
If crushing unpopularity is the price McEnroe thinks he has to pay to win here and now, then he seems stubbornly committed to paying it. But, unlike Jimmy Connors, who cultivated a similar skinny man's me-against-the-world belligerence in his great early '70s years, McEnroe is obviously profoundly bothered by his predicament.
"I'm not like John," said the now somewhat mellowed Connors today. "I've never regretted anything I ever did like that (tantrums). If you start second-guessing your emotions and your reactions out there, you'll drive yourself crazy."
McEnroe is in the midst of a second-guessing frenzy here. One day he is searching out a journalist who has ravaged him in the past. to grant an in-depth magazine interview, saying, "My father told me I should do it, and he's right. I should show the guy that I'm not what he thinks I am."
This afternoon, in a competitive but hardly tense three-set win over Lefty Tom Gullikson, McEnroe seemed to be trying to set new standards for unprovoked assault.
He complained and argued over many line calls; twice, during breaks, he was in such a supressed rage that he put his foot on the face of his racket, then deliberately yanked up on the handle, snapping the wooden racket in half.
"Mr. McEnroe, I must warn you that you are abusing your racket. Please behave," sermonized the stuffed shirt in the chair over his microphone.
It was just a step from the ridiculous to the sublime in McEnroe's insubordination. McEnroe called the umpire and his crew "the pits of the world." The umpire answered with the penalty point. McEnroe retorted, "You incompetent fool, could we have the referee brought in?" And so it went. All infantile. All irrelevant to a one-sided match. All pointless and ultimately self-destructive.
And McEnroe knew it. There's the rub.
"As inner turmoil goes, today was high on the list," said McEnroe afterward. "I know that all this (his unpopularity) is never going to change until I completely change the way I act on the court. But that may take years.
"I want to be a real true professional, give something back to my sport. I do it now by playing doubles and Davis Cup and always trying my hardest."
And, he might have mentioned, by declining a flat $1 million offer to do a piece-of-cake exhibition match in South Africa, declining solely because he thought it might be a tiny victory for apartheid. He will turn down a million for a principle. He's proved it.
"But I also know I do negative things, too," continued McEnroe."If other players can control themselves over bad calls, I should be able to, too. . . I've got no one to blame for the boos but myself. I wish people knew that I wasn't that bad. . . I know being a linesman is a thankless job, especially with guys like me around.
"It's gotten to the point where people just want to get on you. They're waiting. It's sad."
John McEnroe is the ultragifted child who is called into the principal's office and, in a clear-sighted burst of intelligent contrition, wins back the hearts of his elders.
Then, he goes right back out and does whatever it was all over again. Any schoolteacher knows the simple syndrome.
But in McEnroe's case, his tantrums may help him play better. And winning has already brought him $2 million in purses. The more he wins, the more he joins that "above the mob" class that is tempted to think it can live above judgment, floating on a cloud of wealth and glory.
As McEnroe walked out of the No. 1 Court grandstand today, surrounded by British imprecations -- "You make me sick, you twit," and "That lad wants a punch in the nose more than anybody I've ever seen," -- one teenage girl ran up to him.
She threw her arms around his neck, screamed, "I love you," and hung there -- feet off the ground -- like an albatross as McEnroe grimaced.
"The sorry thing," said McEnroe with a sad twist of the mouth, "is that she's probably my only fan."
More's the pity.