Thus began, in June 1981, the “hate” portion of the most fascinating love-hate relationship in tennis history — one that, nearly four decades on, has morphed into something approaching a full-blown love affair.
Upon reflection, it baffles even McEnroe.
“I sort of look at it like, ‘How did this happen?’ ” McEnroe said with a slight chuckle in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday.
But it’s a story that speaks to the capacity of people to mellow with age, the willingness of institutions to adapt to the times and the grace of forgetting past insults and finding common ground.
Today, at 60, the graying McEnroe is as much a fixture at the All England Club as he ever was as a Wimbledon competitor, returning each June to provide commentary for the BBC and ESPN, his joint employers for the fortnight.
Though he does his best to pass unnoticed as he scurries from one broadcast assignment to another — wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap and never breaking stride like a Broadway star trying to run New York errands incognito — a McEnroe sighting on the grounds invariably thrills Wimbledon ticket-holders, who shout a quick hello, word of thanks or, if incredibly bold, ask for a selfie.
Nearly 30 years after he retired as a tennis pro, McEnroe remains sufficiently compelling as a fixture of British sporting history that the BBC produced an hour-long documentary, “John McEnroe: Still Rockin’ at 60,” in the run-up to this year’s edition of Wimbledon.
And McEnroe’s audiotaped voice is what visitors now hear at the Wimbledon Museum run by the All England Club — the same club that initially withheld the customary honor of membership when McEnroe won his first Wimbledon singles title that annus horribilis, 1981, after unleashing his epic tirade at the chair umpire in the first round and concluding with a four-set victory over Bjorn Borg, who had beaten him in a five-set thriller the previous year.
McEnroe accepted Wimbledon’s 1981 trophy, skipped the Champion’s Ball and went on to win Wimbledon twice more, in 1983 and 1984. But fed up with what he perceived as predatory treatment by the press, feasting on his relationship with actress Tatum O’Neal, and a failure of tennis officials to protect him from it, he skipped Wimbledon in 1986, half-expecting his absence to exact the vengeance he sought for the circus that had engulfed his life.
“The idea was to recharge the batteries, have my [first] child, give myself some time and basically come back a better player,” McEnroe said, recounting his thinking. “Part of it was also, ‘To hell with Wimbledon! I’m not coming here! I’m not playing! I’m bigger than they are!’ ”
The tournament, however, carried on without him. Nonetheless, McEnroe doubled down and skipped Wimbledon again in 1987.
“That was further throwing pie in my own face,” McEnroe mused. “Ultimately, I realized, ‘Wow! They’re not begging me to come play. They’re still playing.’”
Though McEnroe returned to Wimbledon in 1988, he never reclaimed his championship form on its grass courts, which were so well suited to his artful shot-making and potent volleys.
He ended up retiring four years later, at the end of the 1992 season, with seven career Grand Slam titles — three earned at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Open. It goes without saying that it could have been more.
“I was stubborn,” McEnroe said. “I missed two Wimbledons, where I had been in five finals, the quarters and the semis. I had results; was one of the best on grass. So I sort of look back and think, it’s too bad I didn’t give myself the chance. Then again, who knows?”
As his pro career wound down, McEnroe, by then married to O’Neal and a father of three, launched his second career in broadcasting, signing a contract with NBC.
He distinctly remembers thinking as a player that broadcasting was the last thing he’d want to do. “That’s when you know that you have folded!” he joked.
But he changed his mind after watching his tennis-playing buddy from Queens, the late Vitas Gerulaitis, glide into the broadcast booth like a polished pro. Gerulaitis made the job look like fun to McEnroe. Gerulaitis knew tennis, but he didn’t take himself too seriously as an analyst. That became McEnroe’s template.
And he has proved a natural.
Whether providing commentary for NBC or USA, as he did earlier in his career, or the BBC and ESPN today, McEnroe doesn’t sugar coat his analysis of players. Nor does he instruct viewers in a pedantic, patronizing way. Instead, he talks tennis like a New Yorker talking baseball with the guy at the deli counter.
“There are very few analysts of sports that see the game, take the intangibles and make it tangible,” said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production. “John makes me feel like he’s talking to me as a friend. He’s not taking me to school or over-analyzing. He’s giving me an easy way to understand tennis, and he filters it with a passion.”
McEnroe’s candor is particularly well received by British audiences, marking a sharp departure from the network’s staid commentary that preceded him.
On Tuesday’s BBC broadcast of the women’s quarterfinal between Britain’s Johanna Konta and Barbora Strycova, McEnroe swapped insights with former pros Tracy Austin and Kim Clijsters in a conversation moderated by Sue Barker. Among his pre-match suggestions: The typically reserved Konta, who ended up losing, needed to find a way to use the support of Wimbledon’s crowd to her advantage.
“Kind of like [Jimmy] Connors?” Barker asked, referencing McEnroe’s nemesis, who reveled in whipping U.S. Open crowds into a frenzy.
“There are limits,” McEnroe replied with a frown.
The irony, of course, was that McEnroe was just as extreme and excessive as Connors ever was, back when he was battling for major titles and the world No. 1 ranking.
The switch to the broadcast booth has clearly broadened McEnroe’s perspective, as has his second marriage, now in its 22nd year, to singer Patty Smyth, and rearing the six children they share.
“I’d like to think people see me, maybe, hopefully, as an adult — as someone who has gone through the trials and tribulations of being a parent, going through divorce, a lot of things people experience, and coming out the other end and being able to find my own niche,” McEnroe said, reflecting on his relationship with present-day tennis fans and favored-son status at Wimbledon.
“Hopefully I was intelligent enough to realize that this game has been good to me. All in all, I was pretty lucky to be able to turn that around and find ways to hopefully give something back while still being involved in the game. And to be seen in a different light. I didn’t anticipate that.”