Every time John McEnroe walks onto a tennis court, he turns that once peaceable greensward into a medieval morality play. Suddenly the forces of good and evil are clashing in a Manichaean struggle. Players, umpires and fans bare their teeth at one another. Never has a player seemed so complex, so contradictory—and so immensely talented. If there is agreement about McEnroe, it is only about one thing: At 22, he has earned the indisputable right to be called the best tennis player in the world.
At the U.S. Open in September, just five miles from the shady Long Island street where he grew up, McEnroe wielded his racket like a surgeon’s scalpel, slicing up the once-invincible Bjorn Borg in four sets. He won his third straight U.S. Open championship, the first to do so since Bill Tilden, and has now beaten Borg in three straight major championship finals. Almost as an afterthought, McEnroe also became the first player ever to rank first in both singles and doubles.
At Wimbledon, two months earlier, John showed his Mr. Hyde personality. Publicly railing at officials (“incompetent fools”), the press (“liars”) and even the venerable All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (“the pits of the world”), McEnroe was fined $5,000—and became the first champion in Wimbledon history not invited to join the club. Oh, yes, between imbroglios he kept Borg from a sixth straight Wimbledon title.
Paradoxically, McEnroe is regarded off-court as a gracious and conscientious sportsman. Unlike Jimmy Connors or even Borg, McEnroe has unhesitatingly played in Davis Cup competitions. “He gives up hundreds of thousands of dollars to play,” notes his friend George Martin, a New York restaurateur, “because he’s an American.” Frank Deford, who writes about tennis for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, observes that McEnroe is “wonderful to his family, and with his friends he is loyal and courteous. Then he goes on court and acts like an ass.”
McEnroe is conscious of his image problem but is loath to change “a winning formula. If I joked around, did things that pleased the crowd, maybe I wouldn’t do so well.” There are still plenty of challenges left for him. He’s won only a single Wimbledon and never the French Open. “If his goal is to be known as the best player of all time,” notes Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe, “he’s got a ways to go.”
When McEnroe is not playing tournaments (Martin estimates John is home one out of every eight weeks), he visits longtime girlfriend Stacy Margolin in Los Angeles. “We’ve discussed marriage,” says Stacy, “but that won’t happen for some time.” Meanwhile McEnroe is studying guitar (he got a backstage lesson from Bill Wyman at a Stones concert in New York last month) and may star in a movie based on the Archie comics. Producer Steve Leber is considering McEnroe for the lead because, as he puts it, “He’s an all-around, spunky kid.”