John McEnroe interview: I'd get paid extra to say, 'You cannot be serious!' - that's what people expected

·6 min read
John McEnroe yells 'You cannot be serious' - GETTY IMAGES
John McEnroe yells 'You cannot be serious' - GETTY IMAGES

“You cannot be serious!” Why was it these four words, of all the feisty remarks that John McEnroe uttered during his 15-year career, which became so inextricably linked with his persona?

McEnroe was not only an irascible player but a quotable one too. “You can’t even see your own shoelace,” he told one unfortunate chair umpire at Roland Garros. Another was asked “Who are you? They picked your name out of a hat.”

But there was just something about “You cannot be serious!” - especially when delivered in McEnroe’s twangy New York brogue - that delivered real punch.

As the New Yorker magazine once observed, this was a “tremendously cathartic” phrase, as well as being universally applicable. Only last week, a national newspaper headline yelled “You cannot be serious! Fury at Wimbledon bosses' bid to shut local road during tennis tournament”.

June 22 is the 40th anniversary of McEnroe’s first-round win over Tom Gullikson. A couple of weeks later, he would land his first Wimbledon title by overcoming Bjorn Borg in four sets, but that is hardly so well remembered. So what does the man himself think about it today?

John McEnroe celebrates defeating Bjorn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final - GETTY IMAGES
John McEnroe celebrates defeating Bjorn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final - GETTY IMAGES

“It’s amazing that the comment which was made in the first round in 1981 has stuck with me forty years later,” he told reporters in a Zoom call earlier this month. “I would call it a mixed blessing, but more positive than negative. It was the only time I said it in my 15-year career and then all of a sudden when I played on the seniors tour I got paid a bonus if I said it! I’m saying that half-jokingly but I’m kind of serious: that’s what people expected.”

Here was the sort of behaviour that earned McEnroe the nickname “Superbrat”. It didn’t go down well with Gullikson on the day. “Everyone’s afraid of these guys,” he said. “If it was the 120th player in the world they would have defaulted him.”

The incident happened in only the third game of the match. The first-set score had been 1-1, 15-30, when a McEnroe serve was called out. “Chalk came up all over the place, you can’t be serious man,” he began. And then came the kicker: “You cannot be serious,” he screamed. “That ball was on the line.”

He wasn’t finished yet. “Chalk flew up, it was clearly in, how can you possibly call that out? Everybody knows it’s in in the whole stadium and you call it out? You guys are the absolute pits of the world, you know that?”

Edward James, the umpire who was officiating McEnroe for the only time in his career, coolly responded, “I’m going to award a point against you Mr McEnroe.” He was later called “An incompetent fool, an offence against the world”, which earned McEnroe a second penalty point, but didn’t prevent him from coming through in straight sets: 7-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Two weeks later, with the first of his three Wimbledon titles safely stashed, McEnroe declined to attend the Champions’ Dinner at the end of the tournament. He was also the first winner of Wimbledon to be refused automatic membership of the All England Club, on account of his “poor behaviour and antics”.

Scandalous or not, those antics helped make tennis the sport it is today. As McEnroe wrote in his autobiography - which he named “Serious”, of course - “The better I got, and the more money I made (for myself and for the events that were selling tickets and television rights), the more that linesmen, umpires, referees and tournament organisers had to put up with from me.”

Did his errant behaviour make him play better? That was the theory at the time. In the magnificently French movie John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection, the film critic Serge Daney called it “a ploy to transform all the hostility which he feels is bearing down on him into wonderful tennis”.

But McEnroe himself disagrees. He says that his “shtick” stemmed from a fear of failure, and rarely improved his game. He wishes, in hindsight, that Hawk-Eye had existed at the time.

“I suppose I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you guys today had it not been for people remembering that I had issues with umpires,” he told us, during our recent Zoom call. “But at the same time I sort of wish I’d had the challenge system, so that I could have used the energy in more effective ways, instead of - at times - wasting energy.”

John McEnroe argues a point with the umpire during his semi-final match against Jimmy Connors in the men's singles at Wimbledon - HULTON ARCHIVE
John McEnroe argues a point with the umpire during his semi-final match against Jimmy Connors in the men's singles at Wimbledon - HULTON ARCHIVE

The scale of this cultural moment is hard to overstate. Wimbledon had been about Dan Maskell’s “Ooh I say”, rhapsodising over a field of pristine athletes who were always seen rather than heard. And then this turbulent New Yorker arrived, a divisive figure who played angelic tennis while ranting like a delinquent youth.

The story escaped the tennis bubble and became a national obsession. During the course of that 1981 Wimbledon, the tension in the press room between hard-nosed British hacks and American tennis aficionados reached such a pitch that a brawl broke out after one of McEnroe’s interviews. The immediate spur was a question from one of the so-called “Rotters” - news reporters sent to stir the pot - who asked “John, have you and Stacy [Margolin, his on-off girlfriend] split up?” and so sent McEnroe storming from the room.

Neither was the whole affair quickly forgotten. When Wimbledon reconvened the following summer, a novelty single called Chalk Dust: The Umpire Strikes Back satirised McEnroe’s infamous outburst, and reached No19 in the charts.

When he received an invitation to work for the BBC, around the turn of the millennium, McEnroe found himself initially unsure how he would be received. “It seemed like they did things a certain way, and then they came to me 20 years ago and said, ‘We just want you to be yourself and do what you want to do’. And I thought that was awesome because they were considered conservative, dare I say stuffy, early on. So I have been fortunate that I have had that opportunity to present myself in a different way, unlike what I was doing on the court which is a different situation.

John McEnroe as a pundit for the BBC at Wimbledon - BBC
John McEnroe as a pundit for the BBC at Wimbledon - BBC

“Obviously you want to be remembered for what you accomplished,” he concluded. “In conjunction with that, you remember the stuff with the antics. It makes people remember and look back and think about what you did do. So I guess it’s a net positive - although at the time it seemed like a negative, certainly early on. It’s nice in a way to be remembered at all.”

John McEnroe is part of the BBC’s Wimbledon 2021 line up. Catch all the action across BBC TV, Radio and Online from June 28th.

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