DENVER POST: JOHN MCENROE, FORMER TENNIS BAD BOY, NOW THE CROWD FAVORITE
The former bad boy of tennis is now its sage man of reason. Had someone suggested this possibility 30 years ago, John McEnroe himself might have laughed it off with his trademark phrase “You cannot be serious.”
In his autobiography of the same name, it is recounted that Jack Nicholson once told McEnroe at a party: “Johnny Mac, don’t ever change.” In many ways, the former No. 1 tennis player of the world has not changed. He’s as opinionated as ever and he remains fully capable of having ill-tempered moments on the court, all with that same impatient New Yorker sneer.
Except, now the on-court meltdowns are mostly for show. “Before, they used to fine me for what I said on the court. Now, they fine me for the things I don’t say.”
Make no mistake, though: McEnroe still cares. That much was evident Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, where the 53-year-old tennis legend had moments of genuine displeasure at a couple of calls that didn’t go his way as part of the PowerShares Series tournament.
Now, though, McEnroe gets over it quicker. Along with marital bliss, McEnroe found something else after his notorious career: a self-deprecating sense of humor and everyman feel that today has made him a favorite of the crowd wherever he goes. He has not changed, so much as he has evolved.
“I think evolve is a good word. As you age, you start to look at things in a different way,” said McEnroe, who beat Jim Courier 6-4 in his first match. “You start to appreciate things that happened in the past and what is happening now. I hope the change that has taken place is in a good way, not in a bad way.”
McEnroe gutted out a tournament victory, beating Michael Chang 8-6 in the final. Down 6-5, McEnroe held serve, then broke Chang to go up 7-6 and serve for the match. Match point was won when Chang mishit a shot well over the baseline. McEnroe and Jim Courier will play for the overall PowerShare Series title Friday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. “I just hung in there, and I got some good energy at the end,” McEnroe said. “I served better toward the end, and got a couple shots to fall in. It feels great to win. I’m pumped for (Friday).”
McEnroe used to make people feel nervously awkward when he played — they were never sure when the next profane, blistering tirade at an umpire might come. It partially overshadowed his brilliance as a player anda seven-time Grand Slam champion (four U.S. Opens, three Wimbledon titles, from 1979-84).
He has apologized over the years for some of his behavior, at the same time explaining it was just a manifestation of the intensity he felt he needed to become a champion. Most fans never seemed to hold it against him, with a large segment of the public nostalgic for the old fiery, rebellious “Johnny Mac.” They got it in his match with Courier, when McEnroe genuinely tore into the umpire after he lost a game that featured some close calls.
But the father of six, tennis television analyst, guitar player and former art gallery owner sounds relieved he no longer has to play the obnoxious rebel for a living.
“I like to think I’m a better person now than when I was 25. You should be, and you should learn from your mistakes,” said McEnroe, who has been happily married the past 15 years to Patty Smyth, who fronted the 1980s group “Scandal.” “While I think the essence of me is still the same, I think I’ve made some positive steps to just be more content with myself.”
McEnroe, who finished with a career singles record of 875-198, has worked tirelessly on behalf of U.S. tennis since retirement, teaching the sport to inner-city kids and through the Davis Cup. A man with a former reputation for selfishness now believes it is his duty to give back as much as he can.
“I definitely don’t take myself as seriously as I used to. I think that’s always been the case in some ways. I just didn’t do a very good job of showing it before,” he said.
A look at some of tennis legend John McEnroe’s career benchmarks:
- U.S. Open champion 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1984.
- Wimbledon champion 1981, 1983 and 1984.
- Career singles record of 875-198 (81.6 percent).
- 104 career tournament titles.
- Career doubles record of 530-103