The front pages here this week told of a fractious miners strike in the north, Princess Diana's dizzy spell at the opera and a bizarre case in which an aristocrat named Telling allegedly murdered his wife and stored her body in a sauna and her head in a car trunk.
A tough week indeed. But now all that can be pushed aside. Barring the completely unexpected, John McEnroe will have a secure hold on the headlines for the next two weeks. His appearances at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club in the past few years have been as controversial as they have been triumphant.
The English cannot abide his temper, and they are unanimous and vehement on the subject. McEnroe is the top-seeded player at Wimbledon, ahead of Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors; he also is the reigning champion.
At the Wimbledon tune-up tournament here last week--the Stella Artois tennis championship at Queen's Club--McEnroe thrashed Connors in the semifinals with nearly flawless play, but he also managed to outrage nearly everyone during the final match against an unlikely rival, 105th-ranked Leif Shiras. A call from the umpire's chair set McEnroe off on a four-minute barrage of insults and sneers.
"Over 1,000 officials to choose from and I get a moron like you," McEnroe told umpire Roger Smith. McEnroe also called Smith an "idiot."
Then, adding supervisor Kurt Neilsen and referee Jim Moore to his list of targets, McEnroe said, "You sit there like two bumps on a log and do nothing."
For his part, Shiras watched the proceedings from a linesman's chair with amusement. He smiled and bowed to the crowd before serving to resume play.
When the two players switched sides of the court, McEnroe told Shiras, "Don't make fun of me. I've been around a long time and I don't want to take that crap from you."
McEnroe won the tournament, though he clearly won no affection here. The media reaction was immediate and stern.
"Watch It, Mac!" warned Rupert Murdoch's Sun.
"Silence Him Now!" screamed the Daily Mail.
Even more reserved papers such as the Guardian, Times and Daily Telegraph agreed with the tabloids in sentiment, if not in volume. "No one should be permitted to voice such contempt for a fellow human being and get away with it," the Guardian said.
British newspapers demanded that Wimbledon officials take a stronger stance against such outbursts.
Under the banner, "It's Time for Tennis to Snap Back at the Brat," Daily Mail readers wrote in with suggestions and opinions.
"Ban McEnroe before he brings tennis into further disrepute," wrote Bee Mortimer of St. Albans. "It is no longer a game, but a disgusting slanging match where the obscenities are one-sided."
"McEnroe's outbursts are like those of an infant losing his rattle," wrote John Doherty of Old Trafford, Manchester. "Only when he is given a taste of his own medicine will tennis breathe easily again. He needs to be shamed, not slain."
The outrage extended from Fleet Street to Whitehall. Harry Greenway, a Conservative Party member of Parliament, said McEnroe was "a lout who should be banned for two years."
Finally, McEnroe had a chance to reply. At a press conference held in a sporting goods shop in fashionable Oxford Street, he slumped in his chair, stared at the tips of his shoes and answered questions for 20 minutes. His scorn was undisguised.
"The level of officiating in tennis is worse than in any other sport," he said. "When people look back in 10 years time they are going to thank me for improving the level of officials."
McEnroe saved his best shot for the press: "What I regret is having to come to places like this and deal with people like you . . . . If you want to know who's screwing up kids, go look in the mirror and read some papers. Kids are way above people like you."
Alan Mills, the Wimbledon referee, said, in obvious response to the McEnroe controversy, "The rules of the code will be firmly applied at Wimbledon to all players . . . . Umpires will be told to listen to complaints of the players, and once a decision has been made, he will instruct them to get on with the game.
"If the player still persists in arguing, the umpire will put the watch on him and bring in the 30-second time penalty rule. If the player continues to argue (through a penalty point and a penalty game) he will run out of time and be disqualified."
Told of such warnings, McEnroe smirked. "I am extremely concerned with that," he said.
So it went. And so it will probably continue until McEnroe makes his way to what many expect will be his third Wimbledon singles title in four years. His only loss this year has been to Lendl earlier this month in the finals of the French Open, which was played on clay courts. But McEnroe prefers the grass courts of Wimbledon to clay, and his greatest obstacle here is likely to be the press and his temper and the way he confronts both.
Norman Fox, sports editor of The Times of London, said, "There's no doubt the people here appreciate McEnroe's game. It's superb. But they dislike his lack of respect. I suppose these tantrums have been going on in a minor way for 15 years. (Australian doubles specialist) Bob Hewit used to cause a great fuss. And Ilie Nastase really cultivated his temper as a crowd-pleaser.
"People here want the players to show some respect. They believe the umpire is always right, even when he's wrong. But McEnroe well knows they won't toss him. The umpires will let him get away with most anything. I think people object to that as much as anything."
McEnroe has apologized often for his outbursts in the United States, but he seems more defensive here. His tolerance for Wimbledon's obvious self-regard is nil.
Lawn tennis has its origins in the aristocratic game of court tennis. Its manners were always those of Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. The ideal Wimbledon champion, perhaps, was J.T. Hartley, a Yorkshire vicar, who had been a champion at Oxford. He nearly missed his first singles title in 1879 because he had to give a sermon at his church before the final against Vere St. Leger Gould of Ireland. With the help of a rain delay, Hartley delivered his sermon in Yorkshire, hurried to a train and won the title.
McEnroe's own background is an American version of privilege. His father is a partner in the prestigious law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkind and Garrison. McEnroe grew up in a comfortable New York suburb and attended Trinity School and then Stanford for a year before turning professional.
Perhaps for those reasons as well, the English cannot understand why McEnroe is unlikely to change much. And McEnroe cannot understand why the English should care so much.
"I have always been one for constructive criticism. I always criticize myself," McEnroe said. "But there's a very narrow pont of view over here."
"I suppose there's a wide gap between us," said Fox of The Times.