John McEnroe – An Exceptional Tennis Player and a Genius

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John McEnroe was one of those ‘supernovas’ that enter the tennis atmosphere but rarely.Since then, Boris Becker and Nadal are, perhaps, other good examples of the phenomenon.In his own right, McEnroe was an exceptional (if volatile) talent, but he will also be defined by his rivalries on court, chiefly with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl: the best in the world at the time.Like the current Top Quartet of Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal, they stood astride the men’s game in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

In the crucible of men’s tennis of the early 1980’s as a fan, you were either pro-McEnroe or pro-Borg.Things were as simple as that.For a few years previously, the main clash was between Borg and Connors, exemplified by their titanic Wimbledon Final tussles, but the ‘new kid on the block’ from Queen’s, New York supplanted Connors as Borg’s main rival in 1980.

The two could not have been more different:Borg’s ice cool demeanour beside McEnroe, the explosive yet magical controversialist.Feeding the public and the media’s need for gladiatorial clashes of opposites, he was the Non-Borg to Borg.Borg was the quiet, undemonstrative respecter of tradition, while McEnroe sought to tear the tennis establishment limb from limb. McEnroe became the replacement for previous ‘bad boys’, Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors.As far as theatre is concerned, McEnroe always promised and delivered ‘box office’ performances.Some of his encounters with Borg in particular, will go down as some of the greatest contests in the annals of tennis.

Let’s look at some of the objective facts about his career record.His pro career stretched from 1978 to 1992 at the end of which, he amassed an impressive 104 titles with a 81.55 % career win record.He was the winner of 7 Grand Slam Singles titles (3 at Wimbledon and 4 at the US Open) and 9 Grand Slam Doubles’ (5 at Wimbledon and 4 at the US Open).He also won one Mixed Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1977, although he never managed to win a Singles or Men’s Doubles title either there or at the Australian Open.His total Grand Slam haul at 17, puts him comfortably in the top ten players of all-time.He also stood atop the world rankings at the end of four successive years (1981-84), holding the No.1 position for 170 weeks in total.

His Doubles record on paper is even more impressive than his Singles.In partnership with fellow American, Peter Fleming, he won 57 career titles. Competing regularly in both singles and doubles and to come out on top in both is a credit to his stamina and determination – a record which few in the modern era have been able to combine.

Often forgotten was his impressive record lining out for his country in the Davis Cup, something he took very seriously, being the patriotic American he is. In the Davis Cup, he established a number of records: no. of years played (12), ties (30), singles wins (41), and total wins in singles and doubles (59). With Peter Fleming, he won 14 of 15 Davis Cup doubles matches together.  As well as his personal triumphs, he was able to revive interest in the game in the US through these Davis Cup performances.

His first Grand Slam Singles triumph came in the 1979 US Open final when he beat Vitas Gerulaitis.This teed him up nicely for what is thought by many to have been the greatest match of all-time, the 1980 Wimbledon Final against Borg.Losing that match in five thrilling sets, he gained his revenge the following year when he beat Borg in the final and also a couple of months later in the final of the US Open.

Despite their strong professional rivalry, McEnroe’s personal relationship with Borg was and remains positive.The same could not be said of his relations with either Lendl or Connors, however, with whom there was not much love lost.With Lendl, the two were too different; with Connors they were too much alike. It is instructive, nevertheless, to look at McEnroe’s head-to-head record against his three main rivals at the time.

Against Borg, McEnroe had a career head-to-head record of 7-7, but of the four Grand Slam Finals in which they met, he won 3 to Borg’s 1.These head-to-heads, however, only covered the two years 1979-81, due to Borg’s premature retirement.Against Connors, his record was more decisive (20- 14 in his favour), but in Grand Slam Finals, they tied 1-1.Against his other great nemesis, Lendl, however, Lendl comes out on top 21-15.On these stats alone, Lendl stands supreme, yet too many other factors come into the equation: Lendl had nothing like McEnroe’s doubles career and critically, Lendl never managed to win the ‘Daddy of Them All’, Wimbledon.   Furthermore, neat comparisons are difficult, as both Lendl and McEnroe began to peak as Borg’s star was beginning to wane – so the debate goes on.

McEnroe had very few flaws in his game (even his renowned bad temper seemed to propel him on to success).He was explosive on the run from the back of the court on either side; his passing shots were dream-like; his serve wide to the ad court was a particularly effective weapon and his drop shots displayed a surprising delicacy from a player with such a ‘slash and burn’ personality. 

Once a pariah at Wimbledon, he now rubs shoulders with the ‘great and the good’ of the tennis establishment, having toned down much of his previous histrionics in favour of the role of respected ‘senior statesman’.His tennis prowess continues to be on display on the Seniors Tour and his trenchantly-put views as a respected commentator, still carry much weight.Overall, his career Grand Slam total, his peerless Doubles record, his commitment to and record for the US Davis Cup team (as player and coach) and last but not least, his thrilling head-to-heads with Bjorn Borg, place him in a position among the very best in the history of the game.

Paul McElhinney

May 2013





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