NEW YORK -- Sophisticated New Yorkers in their plaid suspenders and Gucci shoes came to watch eighth-seeded John McEnroe play top-seeded Ivan Lendl in a quarterfinal match Wednesday evening. Most expected fireworks and expletives from McEnroe. Neither materialized.
Sunday, after his match against Slobodan Zivojinovic the day before, McEnroe was assessed $17,500 in fines and a two-month suspension for a second occurrence of cumulative fines exceeding $7,500 for verbal abuse and audible obscenity. Although he will appeal the fines and the suspension as excessive, the smart money says McEnroe will have to pay and take another two months off.
I believe his penalty is fair for three reasons: his history, his poor behavior in the Zivojinovic match and his position as a role model for young players.
McEnroe has been suspended more often than any other top player. Under the old rules, players accumulating fines exceeding $7,500 were suspended for 42 days -- 21 of them forgiven if they did not play any commercial tennis for the first three weeks of the suspension. Players laughed at this provision because the penalties never really hurt. What is $7,500 and three weeks to a player who makes $5 million to $7 million a year?
These new provisions do sting, and the message is crystal clear: clean up your act or you will find yourself on the sidelines. The audible obscenity in McEnroe's match was evident. Everyone heard it and television viewers in the corporate tents at the U.S. Open gasped, asking, "Isn't he penalized for that?" What most wanted was immediate retribution.
But no, the match proceeded and I explained that, although the umpire had the authority to default him, he was handling the match according to the rules in the Code of Conduct. When it was explained on television that McEnroe was within one more penalty of being defaulted, I predicted that there was little chance he would misbehave again. He did not say another word; he had been to the edge before and enough was enough.
One cannot dismiss the role model position our star athletes and entertainers occupy for our country's youth. Like it or not, these performers are trend-setters and their actions and words as well as their clothes and hair styles are copied by tens of thousands of youngsters. Any 12-year-old listening to McEnroe hurling invectives at an official and drawing only a warning, a point penalty and a game penalty will think that he can do the same.
My hope is that John Patrick McEnroe Jr. will pay his fine, accept his two-month suspension, be present at the birth of his expected second child shortly and come back chastened in top form in 1988. But I doubt it.