Right from the start, in his 1977 introduction to pro tennis, John Patrick McEnroe, Jr., was a hit. An 18-year-old amateur (he would not turn pro until winning the National Intercollegiate singles as a Stanford freshman in 1978), McEnroe made his first splash in Paris, a boy edging into man's territory. He won his first of 17 major titles there, the French mixed with childhood pal, Mary Carillo, over the Romanian-Colombian combine of Florenta Mihai and Ivan Molina. Soon after, electrifying Wimbledon, he went through the qualifying tourney and all the way to the semis, losing to Jimmy Connors. It was a major tourney record for a qualifier (equaled by Belarussian Vladimir Voltchkov in 2000). It was also a record for an amateur in the open era. Immediately Mac was a player to reckon with.
Born Feb. 16, 1959, in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, he grew up in the Long Island suburb of Douglaston, N.Y. A 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-hander, McEnroe stands as perhaps the most skilled - and controversial - of all players. Brilliant in doubles and singles, he was distinguished by shot making artistry, competitive fire and a volatile temper. The last led to heavy fines, suspensions and, at the 1990 Australian Open, an extraordinary fourth-round disqualification for showering abusive language on court officials. A magnificent volleyer with a feathery touch, he was an attacker whose fast court style netted four U.S. Open and three Wimbledon singles. He had the baselining strength to do well on clay at the French. He might have won that at his zenith, but in the 1984 final he led Ivan Lendl, 2-0 in sets, only to be distracted by temperamental outbursts, and was beaten, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.
He revived American interest in the Davis Cup that had been shunned by Connors and other leading countrymen, saying, "My mother made me promise her I'd always play for my country if I was asked." Right from the start, as a 19-year-old rookie in 1978, he gave Capt. Tony Trabert's team a lift, and gave the U.S. the Cup that had belonged to other countries since 1973. In the championship round against Britain at Rancho Mirage, Calif., he showed none of the jitters so common to many other greats making debuts in the nationalistic setting. Mac was a miser, rationing John Lloyd (6-1, 6-2, 6-2) and Buster Mottram (6-2, 6-2, 6-1) to 10 games. Nobody had been stingier in a final. He was the most callow American to do so well in the Cup round, although Lew Hoad, a younger 19 by eight months for victorious Australia, also took both his singles in 1953,and American Michael Chang, 18, won one singles in the winning 1990 final. Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, also older than Hoad at 19, split his singles in the triumphant 2000 final. McEnroe continued as a mainstay in helping the U.S. win four more Cups (1979, '81-'82, '92), and set numerous U.S. records: Years played (12), series (30), singles wins (41), singles and doubles wins altogether (59).
A workhorse, he played both singles and doubles in13 series, and he and Peter Fleming won 14 of 15 Cup doubles together. An epic performance was his record-time six-hour-22minute, five-set victory over Mats Wilander in St. Louis, clinching a 1982 quarter-final, 3-2, win over Sweden. He and German Boris Becker nearly topped that, using six hours, 21 minutes for Boris' 1987 Cup relegation victory at Hartford. Another thriller was Mac's five-set win over Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina to send the Cup to the U.S. in the 1981 final at Cincinnati. McEnroe was named U.S. captain in 1999 and served one year, 2000, quitting after three series (3-2 wins over Zimbabwe and the Czech Republic, a 5-0 loss to Spain),and was replaced by his younger brother, Patrick McEnroe.
At 20, John won the U.S. title for the first time over fellow New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis, the youngest winner since Pancho Gonzalez, also 20, 31 years before. He repeated in dramatic battles with Bjorn Borg in 1980 and 1981. Borg retired shortly thereafter. McEnroe won for the last time in 1984, over Lendl. But he was defeated in the Flushing Meadow rematch 12 months later, relinquishing to Lendl the World No. 1 ranking McEnroe had held for four years. His most celebrated result may have been a loss, the 1980 Wimbledon final called by many the greatest of all. Beaten, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6, McEnroe nervelessly staved off five match points during the monumental fourth-set tie-breaker to fight Borg to the fifth-set wire. A year later he cut down Borg on Centre Court, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, ending Bjorn's incredible five-year, 41-match Wimbledon run. McEnroe won again in 1983, a quickie with unseeded New Zealander Chris Lewis and in 1984, reaching the pinnacle of his virtuosity; a virtually flawless wipeout of Connors, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
There were many ups and downs at Wimbledon, where McEnroe came close to being tossed out prior to his initial championship,1981, following a second-round flare up while beating Tom Gullikson. It was the infamous scene of labeling the umpire, Ted James, "pits of the world," and calling the referee every name but Fred Hoyles (which was his name). He went out in grand manner in 1992. Unseeded at No. 30, 33-year-old Mac wound up where he'd begun 15 years before: The semis, on a stirring knockout of ninth-seeded Guy Forget. He'd already beaten 16th-seeded David Wheaton in three, and won a rousing four-hour, nine-minute "battle of champions" over Pat Cash. But champ-to-be Andre Agassi was too much for him in the goodbye singles, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.
Yet there was more, and Mac's fading presence would be stretched triumphantly over two days and Wimbledon's longest closing act on the third Monday: His fifth doubles title, this time without old collaborator Peter Fleming, but with a stranger who did just fine, Michael Stich. Two points from defeat in the fourth-set-breaker, tied at darkness, 13-13, the German-American combine came through over Richey Renbeberg and Jim Grabb, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (7-5),19-17, a record-length final, five hours, one minute. Eight years had passed since his last title. "It was a great atmosphere [Court 1 was packed with 6,500 Mac fans],a great way to go out," Mac said.
Three intense rivalries stand out during his career. He had the edge on Connors (31-20), but not Lendl (15-21), and was even with Borg (7-7). Except for the French Open lapse against Lendl, he was unbeatable in 1984, winning 13 of 15 singles tournaments on an 82-3 record. Other big seasons were 1979 (10 titles on a 94-12 record), 1980 (10 titles on 88-18). In 1979 he set an open-era record with 27 overall tournament victories, 17 in doubles, winning a record total of 177 matches. He won the season-climaxing Masters singles thrice, 1978, '83-'84, and is the all-time overall Open Era leader with 155 tournament victories: 77 singles and 78 doubles. He is third in singles titles behind Connors's 109 and Lendl's 92, tied second in doubles (with Tom Okker) behind Todd Woodbridge's 83. His career singles W-L record is 849-184. Ten years a member of the World Top 10, he was four times No. 1 (1981-84).
Brother, Patrick McEnroe, younger by seven years (b. July 1, 1966), followed him as a standout pro, winning the French doubles (with Grabb) in 1989, ranking as high as No. 28 in 1995. In 1991 they met in the Chicago final, the second such clash of brothers (Emilio Sanchez defeated Javier Sanchez in the 1987 Madrid final). John won, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. His prize money for 15 years as a pro was $12,539,827. He has three children by ex-wife Tatum O'Neal, two by wife Patty Smythe, continues to play senior events and has made a successful career as a TV commentator on tennis.
John was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999.
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