The Amazing Genius of Tennis Legend John McEnroe
John McEnroe is much more than a famous tennis bad boy.
The left-handed serve-and-volley master may be most known for his emotion on the court, but he won an astounding 155 ATP titles during his career: 77 singles titles and 78 doubles titles. He also won one mixed doubles title, another eight non-ATP titles and was a member of five U.S. Davis Cup championship teams.
He was inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999. And his journey continues as one of the most interesting characters in sports. Ever.
Here is the amazing story of the tennis ace — in his own words and the words of those who know him best.
'I Was Polite'
John Patrick McEnroe Jr. is the son of Kay and John Patrick McEnroe Sr.
John was born on Feb. 16, 1959, in Wiesbaden, West Germany, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. His family moved to the New York City area a year later, and he grew up in Douglaston, Queens, just a few Long Island Rail Road stops east of Flushing Meadows, the home of the U.S. Open.
His younger brother, Mark, was born in 1964, and his youngest brother, Patrick, entered the world two years later. Apparently out of names, John and Kay flipped first and middle names and dubbed their youngest son Patrick John McEnroe, who also found fame on the tennis court.
Words to remember: "I was actually a very shy kid growing up. And I was also polite. Wouldn’t have guessed that, would you? I’m the eldest of three boys. Mark is three-and-a-half-years younger, and Patrick is seven years younger. Mark and I fought — my mom said I would jump on him unmercifully, as older brothers are wont to do. But when I was 15 and he suddenly grew taller than me, I decided it was time to stop beating him up and being mean to him. I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since." — John McEnroe, in 2016, in The Guardian
'You Are Going to Be the No. 1 Player in the World One Day'
Before turning pro, McEnroe entered the 1977 French Open mixed doubles event with his childhood friend, 20-year-old Mary Carillo. The duo walked away with the title, beating Ivan Molina and Florenta Mihai in straight sets.
Carillo rose as high as number 33 in the women’s rankings. She retired due to knee injuries three years later and has since been at home in the broadcast booth, working for the USA Network, MSG, NBC, CBS and HBO, among others, covering everything from tennis to the Olympics and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
The mixed doubles win was Carillo’s only title. McEnroe, who was only 18 and still an amateur, followed their championship with a semifinal run at Wimbledon, where he lost to Jimmy Connors.
Words to remember: "I used to be able to hang with John OK [on the tennis court]. And then, one day, he just threw me down a flight of steps. And we were sitting on the bench after he'd beat me badly, and I said to him, 'You are going to be the number one player in the world one day.' Cause we both loved [Rod] Laver, who at the time was obviously still playing great tennis. And I said that to [John], and he said, 'Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about.' Which I like to refer to as my first commentary, and my first review." — Mary Carillo, in 2017, on the Tennis Channel
'People Don't Realize What a Great Team Player He Was'
After he burst onto the world tennis scene, John McEnroe was recruited to play tennis at Stanford University by coach Dick Gould. The team was so strong that, with McEnroe at number one, reigning NCAA singles champ Matt Mitchell was relegated to fourth on the depth chart.
McEnroe won the 1978 NCAA singles title and led the Cardinal to a perfect 24-0 season and a national championship before turning pro later that year.
John’s younger brother Patrick led the Cardinal to NCAA titles in 1986 and 1988.
Words to remember: "The best athlete I ever had and maybe one of the very best competitors was John McEnroe. He was a genius with a racket, and a really, really tough competitor. I've seen him hit shots when he was down, his back against the wall, that I didn't think anyone could hit. Just amazing that way. ... But people don't realize what a great team player John McEnroe was. He never, as an example, turned down the ask to represent his country as a Davis Cup player. He never turned that down when he was asked, no matter how tired he was. He really believed in the team aspect of everything." — Dick Gould, in 2019, on Stadium Talk
'Business and Pleasure Must Always Be Separated'
McEnroe, at age 20, won his first Grand Slam singles title in his hometown at the U.S. Open in 1979. Ironically, Ilie Nastase most misbehaved during their match at this tournament.
In the second round, the umpire, Frank Hammond, penalized Nastase for arguing and stalling, then penalized him a game. The raucous Queens crowd threw beer cans and cups onto the court, the police restored order, Hammond was replaced, and McEnroe won the match in four sets.
He beat defending champion Jimmy Connors in the semifinals, then stopped Vitas Gerulaitis in straight sets to win the title. McEnroe teamed with Peter Fleming to win an all-American doubles final, beating Bob Lutz and Stan Smith in five sets.
The 1979 Open also produced the youngest U.S. Open title winner on the women’s side as 16-year-old Tracy Austin beat Martina Navratilova in the semis and Chris Evert in the final.
McEnroe won the U.S. Open singles title three more times, in 1980, 1981 and 1984.
Words to remember: "Once Frank was out off the court, I knew the air had gone out of Nasty [Ilie Nastase], and ran out the rest of the match easily. Even the crowd seemed spent now. It was finally over at twelve thirty in the morning. After the match, I was somewhat astonished when Nastase came up to me and said, 'Hey, let’s go to dinner.' Here was another lesson: business and pleasure must always be separated. 'Sure,' I said." — John McEnroe, in "You Cannot Be Serious," his 2002 autobiography
'I Respect John, He Respects Me'
The Brits booed Johnny Mac as he entered center court at Wimbledon for the1980 championship match, but he and Bjorn Borg rewarded the crowd with what was considered at the time to be the greatest Wimbledon final ever.
McEnroe won the first set easily, 6-1, but Borg won the next two sets, 7-5, 6-3. The fourth set brought the magic — a tiebreaker for the ages. McEnroe saved five championship points before winning the tiebreaker, 18-16, and taking the set, 7-6.
Borg, however, won the last set, 8-6, and took the title.
Words to remember: "We respect each other. I respect John, he respects me. It's not too many guys who you respect on the tennis court, but I know he respects me because in the beginning, when we started to play our first three or four matches, he felt like I was not the bad guy. It was more like I wanted to help him in certain ways, because in certain ways he misbehaved or didn't know what to do. That wasn't really his fault — he was coming into tennis and he was this guy. I thought he was learning a lot of positive things, and he felt that I wanted to help him with those things. So I think that's why he respected me, not as a player but even as a person." — Bjorn Borg, in 2016, on CNN
'You Cannot Be Serious'
At Wimbledon in 1981, McEnroe had his most famous tantrum. Serving at 15-30 and one-all in the first set against Tom Gullikson, McEnroe smashed what looked like an ace down the center of the court. The linesman called it out. A stunned McEnroe turned his hands up to chair umpire Edward James and said, "The chalk came up all over the place."
After James quietly said it was a good call, Mac said, "Excuse me? … You can’t be serious, man." Then, with his Irish and Queens accent coming through, he shouted, "You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line. 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, know that?"
James docked McEnroe a point. Not for nothing, on replay, it sure looks like that ball was right on the line.
Later in the match, McEnroe smashed his racket into the famed Wimbledon grass. "You are misusing your racket, Mr. McEnroe," said James. "You are an incompetent fool, an offense against the world," retorted McEnroe.
Years later, McEnroe pointed out the "genuinely lousy level of officiating that was prevalent in professional tennis when I came along."
In 2008, a motion-perception scientist in England conducted research, according to The Independent, that found players have a knack for judging the position of a fast-moving ball. Though nobody's perfect.
"The analysis reported in this paper finds that the vast majority of challenges can be explained by perceptual limitations," the study concluded. "When a ball bounces very close to a court line, the brain is unable to locate its position with sufficient precision to reach a correct decision on every occasion, so both players and line judges are bound to make errors."
Words to remember:"People have personalities ... seems like umpires did terrible jobs when I came out, so to me it was normal, you're confronting people all the time, so I was surprised when I went to England and they thought I was Attila the Hun or something. I think despite what you may see here, I'm not as physically intimidating as a Rafael Nadal, so you have to try to get an edge in a different way. One person who I saw that did an unbelievable job at that was [Jimmy] Connors. The guy wanted it more, he was hungry, he tried harder, and he had this intensity. He hated your guts before he stepped on the court so I had to try to get inside someone's head and get myself so worked up so they'd feel they were up against it. So the best way I knew how was to give 110 percent and want it more than them, and walk on the court and every moment of the match feel like it was the end of the world, in a sense. So that worked for me in a lot of ways. There were times that it hurt me, but for the most part, it helped me." — John McEnroe, in 2013, on CNN
'Don't Get Me Wrong'
After winning his first Wimbledon singles title (and his second Wimbledon doubles title, for that matter) in 1981, McEnroe faced more than $14,000 in fines for his bad on-court behavior.
Tradition dictated that he attend the annual Champions Dinner at the Savoy Hotel.
McEnroe instead blew off the pretentious party to hang out with his pal Chrissie Hynde and her band, The Pretenders, and caused a near riot of reporters at Heathrow Airport as he left London the following morning.
In 1986, Hynde wrote a song inspired by McEnroe, "Don’t Get Me Wrong."
Words to remember: "I wanted to write a song for John because I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s always getting in trouble — so I heard. Because I never watched him play tennis particularly, because I’m not really a tennis fan. I hate to admit it because I don’t think he likes that very much. He used to say, 'Can’t you just pretend you’re into athletics when you’re with me?' He loved playing guitar. He’s a big music person, which is how I knew him, because he used to come to our shows and he was friendly with the band and stuff. I had in mind that I was going to write this song for him to do. Years later, when I was on British [Airways], I heard an announcement — because I did write some of that song on a plane — and I think I nicked one of the top-line melodies from the overhead announcement: 'Dong-dong-dong-dong ... Welcome to British Airways.' So … f--k them too!" — Chrissie Hynde, in 2018, on Ultimate Classic Rock
'Have You No Manners?'
The winner of the Queen’s Club Championships — an annual Wimbledon warm-up event — is granted an honorary membership at the Queen’s Club in London.
In June 1985, McEnroe, a three-time Queen's Club runner-up and four-time champion, used an open grass court to practice before Wimbledon. When club members who had reserved the court asked him to vacate, he reportedly let loose with a "stream of unprintable" words.
Ivar Boden, a former chairman of the club, said that his wife, Sheila, then asked McEnroe if he had no manners, and that the tennis ace "said the most vile things to my wife, the most obscene four-letter words."
He was asked to resign his honorary membership after a vote of the club committee in July 1985.
A year earlier, during a match in Sweden, he had another famous meltdown on court with a chair umpire, when McEnroe uttered six infamous words: "Answer my question. The question, jerk."
Words to remember: "Let them do the things that they feel is necessary. It's not something I'm going to lose a whole lot of sleep over. I don't think people even know what the Queen's Club membership is, much less care about it here. It kind of makes me angry that people ask about it. People don't even know what it is. It's just another story to them [reporters]. Let's put it this way: I'm glad to be in America. That's about the only thing I can say." — John McEnroe, in 1985, in The Associated Press
'I Love Doubles'
McEnroe won 78 men’s doubles titles to go with his lone mixed doubles title at the French Open. He won 52 of those titles playing with longtime partner Peter Fleming, including seven Grand Slam titles — three at the U.S. Open and four at Wimbledon.
“He was a better doubles player than a singles player," Fleming said in 1992. "You certainly couldn’t say that anybody was better than he was on a doubles court."
In 1989, McEnroe won the U.S. Open doubles title partnered with Mark Woodforde and took the Wimbledon doubles title with Michael Stich in 1992.
The world’s top-ranked doubles player over 270 weeks of his career, John McEnroe also captured two titles with his brother Patrick as his parter — in Richmond, Virginia., in 1984, and in Paris in 1992.
Words to remember:"Doubles — why are we even playing it? Most of you guys know I love doubles. But I look at it now and say, what is this? I don’t even recognize what this is. I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles. Would it be better off, no disrespect, but would it be better off if there was no doubles at all, and we invest all the money we save elsewhere so that some other guys who never really got into a good position in the sport, end up playing more in singles?" — John McEnroe, in 2013, in The Times of London
'I'm on the Haagen-Dazs Diet ... I've Got to Get in Better Shape'
McEnroe has played in three of the 10 longest pro tennis matches, all before the tiebreak era and all during Davis Cup competition.
Jose Luis Clerc of Argentina beat him in the 1980 Davis Cup Americas Inter-Zonal final by a score of 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 14-12. The match took 6 hours and 20 minutes. Germany's Boris Becker beat him, 4-6, 15-13, 8-10, 6-2, 6-2, in 6 hours and 21 minutes during the 1987 World Group Playoffs. And in the 1982 quarterfinals, McEnroe outlasted Sweden's Mats Wilander, 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6 in 6 hours and 22 minutes.
"I remember at the end I fell into [U.S. captain] Arthur Ashe’s arms," McEnroe told ESPN Front Row about his win over Wilander. "I had just lost to Jimmy Connors in the final at Wimbledon, so this was a nice way to get over that disappointing result.
Added former tennis star and well-known broadcaster Cliff Drysdale: "It was great drama."
Words to remember:"Everyone used to ask me if I was on the Haas diet. But I told them, 'No. I'm on the Haagen-Dazs diet.' I still am. I've got to get in better shape. It's not something you think about when you're 18 or 19, but lately, some foods just haven't gone down right. I've put it off for eight years now. I'm embarrassed with myself for the way I'm playing. — John McEnroe, on his conditioning in 1985 (referring to Dr. Robert Haas, who worked with tennis champions Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl), in The New York Times
John McEnroe didn’t like to lose — to anyone. He particularly didn’t like to lose to friends or even his brother. He once said that Patrick could have been a top-five player, but that he lacked the "merciless focus" required to maintain such a lofty ranking.
In fact, when Patrick McEnroe reached his first career singles final in Chicago in 1991, it was his brother’s familiar face on the other side of the court. Big bro won the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
It was John McEnroe’s final singles title.
"What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion?" McEnroe once pondered. "I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well. ... We all choke. Winners know how to handle choking better than losers."
Words to remember: "When I was eight and a half, my parents moved to a part of Queens where there was a club nearby. We joined and if you believe in someone up above, I think I was meant to play tennis. I was extremely well taught and there was a bit of magic hopefully in the hands, the feel of the racket — those days the wood racket — that suited me, the strategy, the feel, the subtlety of the game. And then there's a bit of Jekyll and Hyde that comes out, maybe with the upbringing, maybe it's something inexplicable, maybe with the times, but it somehow came together." — John McEnroe, in 2013, on CNN
'He Has Always Been There for Me'
The tennis brat has been part of two celebrity marriages.
He wed actress Tatum O’Neal in 1986. O'Neal won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1974 at age 10 for her role in "Paper Moon," playing the daughter of a grifter portrayed by her actor father, Ryan O'Neal. She aslo starred as tomboy pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer in 1976's "The Bad News Bears" with Walter Matthau.
O'Neal and McEnroe had three children, Kevin, Sean and Emily, before their divorce in 1994.
Three years later, McEnroe married singer Patty Smyth, the voice of the band Scandal and their biggest hits, "The Warrior" and "Goodbye to You." The couple has two daughters, Anna and Ava. The two New York City natives make their home in Malibu, California.
McEnroe is known as a demanding, diligent father.
"He has always been there for me," Kevin told People in 2015. "There’s something about fathers and sons — it’s almost impossible to get the approval you want. I had to grapple with him for approval. I respect his work ethic, and he is proud of me."
Words to remember:"I wanted to be someone that they knew loved them. I wanted them to know that whatever was going on in our lives, they would be coming home to a place of safety where they felt nurtured. I’ll always have their back." — John McEnroe, in 2016, on being a father, The Guardian
'The Next Thing I Knew, I Was Hanging Out With Robert Plant'
The lefty tennis ace also knows how to create quite a racket with the guitar. He reportedly learned to play from celebrity pals like Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen, and briefly formed the Johnny Smyth Band (an homage to his new wife) in 1997 as lead singer and guitarist.
McEnroe also played guitar on Chrissie Hynde's solo album "Stockholm" in 2014 and partied with many rock stars over the years.
"The next thing I knew, I was hanging out with Robert Plant, and he was telling me what I did was cool," McEnroe wrote in "But Seriously," his 2017 memoir, on meeting the famous English rock star and Led Zeppelin lead singer in 1977, while playing at Wimbledon.
With Johnny Mac's love for music, it's no surprise that he's been name-dropped in a few songs. House of Pain's lead rapper Everlast pays tribute in the 1992 smash hit "Jump Around":
I'll serve your a-- like John McEnroe.
If your girl steps up, I'm smacking the h-.
The Black Eyed Peas song "Bridging the Gaps" mentions the tennis ace as well:
John McEnroe get the kids all wacky
Jamal Anderson look now he's from back in.
And French pop singer Da Silva even penned a song called "John McEnroe." The lyrics (and please, pardon my French) translate roughly to:
Like John McEnroe, I take you from court
When love crumbles to the bottom of the court.
Words to remember: "I couldn't handle the world Keith [Richards] and Ronnie [Wood] lived in (though I did try)." — John McEnroe, in "But Seriously," on rolling with rock stars like The Rolling Stones
'McEnroe Was More Director Than Actor'
McEnroe retired from the professional tour in 1992, then used used his personality to entertain. He played host on a 2002 gameshow called "The Chair," which aired on ABC, and its British twin on the BBC. Contestants sat in a chair and tried to answer questions while having his or her heart rate monitored. If a player could keep their heart rate under control and answer seven questions, they could win a top prize of $250,000. "The Chair" lasted for just nine episodes on ABC, and only one contestant won the top prize.
In 2004, McEnroe played host to his own four-day-a-week talk show, "McEnroe," on CNBC. Guests included Elton John and Will Ferrell, and Patty Smyth sang the theme song, but the content never clicked with an audience. The short-lived series aired from July through mid-December, and the show twice pulled a Nielsen rating of 0.0 before it was cancelled.
McEnroe has made other television appearances, including spots on "Arli$$," "Suddenly Susan," "Frasier," "CSI: NY," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "30 Rock."
McEnroe also made several film cameos, first in 2002’s "Mr. Deeds." After Adam Sandler's character Longfellow Deeds goes on a bender, a mock TV celebrity anchor tells how Deeds "joined forces with the original bad boy of tennis, John McEnroe, and stupidity won in straight sets," as footage showed Deeds and McEnroe egging cars in New York City. A cab then careens down the street at McEnroe, and he jumps some 20 feet in the air to avoid the car. "What kind of driving is that?" he screams. "You're a f---ing disgrace!"
McEnroe went on to join Sandler again in 2008’s "You Don’t Mess with the Zohan," after his role in 2003’s "Anger Management" ended up on the cutting-room floor. He cursed at Sandler when the actor called to explain, upsetting McEnroe's wife, Patty Smyth. "Obviously, there is a funny side to your wife ripping you a new one because you couldn’t stop yourself from losing your s--- when your childish tantrum cameo got cut out of the film 'Anger Management,' " he wrote in "But Seriously."
In 2019, McEnroe's 1984 French Open final loss to Ivan Lendl was turned into a documentary called "John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection" by French filmmaker Julien Faraut. According to The Guardian, Faraut found uncovered courtside footage of McEnroe at Roland Garros in Paris and turned it into a story "about sport, film and the nature of genius."
"When you look back at old tennis matches, it’s always poor-quality video. Always the same boring edits, the same boring angles. But this felt dramatic, grainy, cinematic," Faraut told The Guardian. "When you focus on one man, it creates a kind of empathy."
Words to remember: "Actually, I think McEnroe was more director than actor. That was the key misunderstanding between him and the public. They thought his tantrums were a performance, put on for show, and I don’t think that they were. If you don’t believe me, watch his TV commercials where he’s basically playing John McEnroe. He’s a really bad actor." — Julien Faraut, The Guardian
'It's Not About Me, It's About Them'
John McEnroe became a regular on the senior tennis circuit after his pro playing days — and learned to not take himself too seriously.
In 2009, he filmed a PETA ad on the importance of neutering dogs. When a man says he would "never do that" to his dog, McEnroe again recycles his famous rant, but applies it to the issue: "You cannot be serious. Neutering is good for his temper. Shelters have to kill more than 4 million animals every year just because there’s not enough good homes out there."
His greatest achievement off the court, however, is his work as a tennis commentator on television. He has worked for CBS, NBC, USA and now splits his time between ESPN and BBC. His tennis knowledge, combined with his sharp wit and gift of gab, makes him one of the most interesting broadcasters in any sport.
His blunt style still can stir some controversy, as he did in 2017, when he said Serena Williams would rank "like 700 in the world" if she played on the men's tour (even though McEnroe thinks Serena is an incredible player) . Williams responded on Twitter: "Dear John, I adore and respect you but please, please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based."
Words to remember:"I put myself inside their head. But it’s not me playing — my style’s different and I don’t want it to be like, 'Well, if I played, I’d do this.' It’s not about me, it’s about them." — John McEnroe, on his approach to commentating, in The New York Times
'The Real Victory in Life Is the Long Game'
John McEnroe continues to evolve as a person. In June 2023, McEnroe became the first professional athlete to deliver a commencement speech at Stanford University.
The tennis legend and former Stanford student-athlete was the keynote speaker for Stanford's 132nd commencement and shared lessons he learned from his life, career, and time on the Farm during the graduation ceremony honoring the Class of 2023.
McEnroe's speech was filled with humor and wisdom and showed how far the former bad boy of tennis has come in life.
Words to remember: "In sports, you often hear the phrase, 'Winning is everything.' But in reality, it’s not. The questions you have to answer are: 'Am I getting better as a person?' And, 'Is what I’m doing bringing me and the ones around me happiness?' The answers will tell you whether or not you’re REALLY winning. ... Know that the real victory in life is the long game. Measure your success by how much you evolve, not necessarily how much you win." —John McEnroe, on the key to life, during his 2023 commencement speech at Stanford University