John McEnroe was Pablo Picasso using a tennis racquet instead of a paintbrush. “The greatest compliment I ever got was when people called me an artist,” McEnroe said. “I understand that solo aspect of being an artist, when you’re in there by yourself, trying to do something great.”
McEnroe was a player of considerable skill and finesse; his volleying touch considered the best tennis has ever seen. The subtle nuances he displayed at net, which was just a sliver of his wide arsenal of shots, stood out in sharp contrast to his boisterous outbursts between the lines, which often overshadowed the depth of his game. McEnroe was controversial, immensely competitive, and prone to outbursts, but there could be no disputing his enormous talents. He possessed a capacity to defeat any competitive style he faced – he could nullify the power and pace of Ivan Lendl, match the aggressive counter punching of Jimmy Connors, and trade groundstrokes with Björn Borg, his three biggest rivals. What made McEnroe a marvel was how easy he could make the game appear, all the while defeating the world’s best players and winning seven major singles titles. His deft acumen around the net earned him nine major doubles titles and one major mixed doubles championships. The bombastic McEnroe won 77 singles titles, 72 in doubles competition and was ranked No. 1 in the world in both categories, compiling an 877-198 career record in singles and a 532-103 mark in doubles. The combined 149 titles are the most in the Open Era, highlighted by the 1979 season in which he won 10 singles and 16 doubles titles.
His play sparked some of tennis’s most intense rivalries, especially with Borg and Connors. McEnroe won three of four major finals against Borg (at the US Open in 1980 and 1981 and Wimbledon in 1981; and his Wimbledon loss in 1980 to Borg is considered one of the greatest matches in tennis history) and spilt his 14 matches against the Swede. His battles with Connors, who he defeated 20 of 34 times, were epic matches, but the pair only met in two major singles finals, McEnroe losing at Wimbledon in 1982, but rebounding on Centre Court in 1984. Lendl was a tough foe in three major finals, nipping McEnroe at the French Open in 1984 and the US Open in 1985, while McEnroe captured the 1984 US Open.
McEnroe won three championships at Wimbledon in five trips to the finals. It was the site of his memorable match against Borg and his most memorable outburst, coming in opening round against Tom Gullikson in 1981. After a shot McEnroe hit was called out, he approached chair umpire Edward James bellowing, “You cannot be serious, man. YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! That ball was on the line, chalk flew up (to emphasize his point McEnroe threw his arms up). It was clearly in. How could you possibly call that out! He (Gullikson) walks over, everyone in the whole stadium knows it’s in and you call that out?” McEnroe walked away saying, “You guys are the absolute pits of the world.” Upon hearing that less-than-flattering description, James calmly said, “I’m going to award a point against Mr. McEnroe.” Readers of Britain’s Telegraph once voted McEnroe’s rant as the “top Wimbledon moment of all time.” To his credit, McEnroe later admitted he felt “terrible” about the incident, but it nonetheless cemented his fiery legacy, and McEnroe later titled his autobiography, “You Cannot Be Serious.”
McEnroe was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany, where his father was stationed in the Air Force. The family moved to Douglaston, an upper middle class community in Queens, New York. McEnroe began playing tennis at age 8, honing his game at the Douglaston Club and then the famed Port Washington Tennis Academy in Long Island. His tireless assault on the game led him to become a junior champion at the 1977 French Open, and few will recall that the first of McEnroe’s 17 major titles came as an amateur playing mixed doubles with Mary Carillo at the 1977 French Open. He advanced to the French second round that year and made an unexpected run at the Wimbledon Championships after his play in the qualifying tournament earned him a spot in the main draw. He lost to Connors, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in the semifinals (the youngest semifinalist in 100 years), and the match was the start of a combative history against his fellow left-hander. McEnroe won 12 of his last 14 matches against Connors, starting in 1983 at the Cincinnati Open, where he lost in the final to Mats Wilander.
McEnroe’s play at Wimbledon led him to attend Stanford University in the fall of 1977, and although he led the Cardinals to the NCAA Division I National Championship and won the national singles title, his stay in California was short-lived. He turned professional in late 1978, winning five tournaments and defeating Arthur Ashe in his first of three Masters Grand Prix championships, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. McEnroe’s three subsequent Masters Grand-Prix Year-End Championships were: 1978 (over Arthur Ashe), 1983, and 1984 (both over Ivan Lendl). He was also runner-up to Lendl in 1982. To close out the 1978 majors, McEnroe advanced to the fourth round of the US Open. In 1979 he won the first of four his US Open titles – and three straight – defeating friend Vitas Gerulaitis convincingly, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3. At 20 years, 6 months and 24 days old, McEnroe was the youngest US Open champion in 31 years, dating back to when Pancho Gonzaleswon the title at the same age in 1948. He won 10 ATP championships that season.
The 1980 season was historic for McEnroe, playing in back-to-back epic major singles finals against Borg. The 1980 Wimbledon final, McEnroe’s first-ever Wimbledon final, is widely considered one of the finest matches in history, won by Borg, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6. The 34-point tiebreaker that decided the fourth set, saw McEnroe thwart off five match points and Borg stave off six set points himself before McEnroe prevailed to force a fifth set. “There’s a magic when our names are mentioned together,” said McEnroe “We brought tennis to a place it wasn’t at before.” “It’s a match I will remember for the rest of my life,” Borg said of the 4 ½ hour classic.
Another McEnroe-Borg classic would ensue at the 1980 US Open, where McEnroe outlasted Borg, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 5-7, 6-4, but the duo, who were as different as night and day in playing style and on-court demeanor, were far from through with contesting major singles championships.
McEnroe won 10 championships in 1980. He and Borg met again in the 1981 Wimbledon final, with McEnroe battling Borg’s heavy topspin baseline game with a picturesque serve and volley match en route to his first Wimbledon title, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4. The 1981 US Open would pit the two combatants against one another for a fourth time with a major title at stake, and McEnroe remained composed after dropping the first set to win in four, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3. He added the second of his three Wimbledon titles in 1983, defeating unseeded and relatively unknown New Zealand native Chris Lewis, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.
Perhaps McEnroe’s finest year on tour came in 1984, when he recorded the best single season win-loss record in the Open Era, comprising an 82-3 record (96.5 percent). He advanced to his lone French Open final, losing a tightly-contested five setter to Lendl, one that saw McEnroe take the first two sets, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5. He won his third Wimbledon by routing Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, and evened the score against Lendl at the US Open with a prolific performance, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1. McEnroe had reached the height of his career; in the following eight seasons he advanced to just one major singles final – a 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-4 loss to Lendl in 1985 at the US Open. He took a six-month break from playing in 1996 and a seven month break in 1997, and never regained his form upon his return. In his 16-years playing in the majors, McEnroe only entered the Australian five times and played the French 10 years, though unevenly dispersed through his career.
McEnroe’s doubles prowess may be among the best of all time. He forged a virtually unstoppable tandem with Peter Fleming, and the duo won 52 doubles titles, including four at Wimbledon (1979, 1981, 1983, 1984) and three at the US Open (1979, 1981, 1983). He was 9-3 in major doubles finals, winning a fifth Wimbledon doubles title with German Michael Stich in 1992 and a fourth US Open championship with Aussie Mark Woodfordein 1989. McEnroe was ranked No. 1 in doubles for 270 weeks.
McEnroe was ranked in the World Top 10 in singles for nine years, finishing No. 1 four consecutive years (1981-1984) and spent 170 weeks atop the rankings. He was the top-ranked doubles player for five consecutive years (1979-1983). He played Davis Cup for 12 years, helping the Americans win the Cup five times (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1992). For his dedication to Davis Cup play, McEnroe was awarded the Davis Cup Commitment Award by the International Tennis Federation in 2013.
McEnroe also won a record eight season ending championships, including five WCT Finals titles and three Masters Grand Prix titles from twelve final appearances at those two events, a record he shares with Ivan Lendl. He won five WCT Year-End Championships: 1979 (over Björn Borg), 1981 (over Johan Kriek), 1983 (over Ivan Lendl), 1984 (over Jimmy Connors), and 1989 (over Brad Gilbert). He was a finalist in 1980 (Jimmy Connors), 1982 (Ivan Lendl), and 1987 (Miloslav Mečíř).
McEnroe earned his 78th doubles title in 2006 when he partnered with Jonas Bjorkman to win the SAP Open in San Jose, California. The win came just a few days shy of his 47th birthday. McEnroe had last won a doubles title at the Paris Indoors in 1992 with his brother Patrick. Both brothers are former Captains of the United States Davis Cup team and they both entered broadcasting following their careers. John is recognized by a younger generation of tennis fans as a familiar face and voice working for CBS, NBC, Tennis Channel, and ESPN at all of the major championships. McEnroe has made numerous television and movie appearances, and written and collaborated on many books.