For all his outbursts and some of the histrionics that surrounded John McEnroe’s career, there could be no doubting that the American was one of the finest tennis players of his generation. Seven grand slam singles titles between 1979-1984 highlighted McEnroe’s success in the sport, and his battles with Bjorn Borg are often cited as one of the defining rivalries in sport.
1984 would see McEnroe at the peak of his powers. Winning Wimbledon and the US Open, McEnroe would end the season with an 82-3 record, and scooped 13 singles titles during his Annus Mirabilis. McEnroe managed to keep Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl at arm’s length, making the world number one spot his own in August 1984 and not relinquishing this for another year.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Leading Lendl by two sets in the French Open final, McEnroe lost his cool and 41-match unbeaten run, in a crushing defeat. Losing his temper with both a cameraman and the crowd, McEnroe’s French Open final defeat was a devastating blow in an otherwise glittering season.
McEnroe’s short fuse had been lit in the third set at Roland Garros, when he approached a cameraman, ripped the headphones from him, and screamed “shut up” into his headset. Later telling the crowd to “shut your stupid mouths”, things began to unravel for the American.
Obviously, no one was surprised at McEnroe’s show of petulance. His Super Brat nickname had been earned after a number of highly-charged incidents in his past. The infamous “You cannot be serious” attack on umpire Edward James during Wimbledon 1981 coupled with his "You guys are the absolute pits of the world” remark were just two examples of the red mist descending.
These moments had led to backhanded compliments, with Not the Nine O'Clock News and Spitting Image both performing sketches focussing on McEnroe’s temperament. A 1982 single called Chalk Dust – The Umpire Strikes Back by Roger Kitter (aka The Brat) also reached number 19 in the UK charts.
Although many frowned upon McEnroe’s behaviour, you couldn’t argue that things were rarely dull when he took to the court. But there would be one moment of McEnroe fury that seemingly crossed the line. His actions at the Stockholm Open in November 1984 would bring widespread condemnation, with all uniting in their criticism of the star.
Trailing by a set in his semi-final against Sweden’s Anders Jarryd, McEnroe was getting back into the match, serving at 4-2 up and looking in a strong position to level proceedings. But as ever, he was never far away from a rumble. When his serve was called out, something inside McEnroe snapped. The next few minutes did not make pleasant viewing.
Approaching umpire Leif Ake Nilsson in a menacing fashion, McEnroe was far from happy at the call. “No mistakes so far in this match, right?” McEnroe enquired. “You haven't overruled anything. No mistakes whatsoever.” With Nilsson insistent that McEnroe should return to play the next point, the fact that the umpire had not replied to McEnroe’s original query irked the American.
“Answer my question! The question, jerk!” McEnroe screamed in sheer frustration. Already warned in the second game of the match for hitting the ball towards a spectator, McEnroe was slowly boiling. When Nilsson awarded the point to Jarryd due to verbal abuse, his mood turned darker. Smashing the ball in anger, the fact that his serve was broken in the next rally did little to improve matters.
Walking towards his seat with a look of thunder, McEnroe smashed his racquet into his sports bag, before demolishing some drinks on a nearby table. Nilsson immediately issued another code violation, for racquet abuse, awarding the next game to Jarryd. In the space of a few minutes, McEnroe’s 4-2 lead had been wiped out.
A split second after the code violation, McEnroe got up from his seat to inflict a second blow to the drinks. Boos echoed in the arena, with many spectators imploring Nilsson to disqualify McEnroe. For a brief moment, it looked as if Super Brat was poised to pack his bags and leave the court on his own accord.
Arms outstretched, McEnroe asked if the match was indeed over, before moving towards the chair to get confirmation that he had only been docked a game. “Is that it? Why don’t we just call off the match? That’s it, it's only a game?” The tournament referee, unsurprisingly observing courtside, made it clear that McEnroe had one more life, before refusing McEnroe’s request for Nilsson to be removed from the chair.
Somehow, McEnroe got himself together, winning the second set 7-6 before going on to take the decider 6-2. Defeating Mats Wilander in the final, McEnroe’s winning year continued. But there was big trouble ahead for Super Brat.
Fined $700 for each of his offences – smacking the ball towards the crowd, along with the verbal and racquet abuse – the $2,100 total took McEnroe’s season figure over the $7,500 limit. Opting to take a 21-day ban from all tennis, McEnroe would miss the Benson and Hedges Championships. His absence from Wembley was seen as damaging for the tournament, although not many had sympathy for the player himself.
Nigel Clarke in the Mirror went to town. “Anybody who saw his behaviour in Stockholm couldn’t fail to be filled with a sense of revulsion and dismay that his child-like petulance shows no sign of softening. McEnroe’s vile vocabulary and moronic manners have poisoned the game for too long.”
It didn’t stop there. “Maybe now we can have a week of top tennis without the pouting, scowling, snarling, graceless circus act this man takes with him around the world. And maybe three weeks isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time the tennis authorities put him in the sin bin for two months and threw away the key.”
A tired McEnroe admitted that the ban may have been a blessing. “To tell you the truth, a suspension at this time is not, for me, the worse thing in the world.” He would return to Sweden a month later, losing the Davis Cup final against a team featuring both Jarryd and Wilander. Yet things would never quite be the same after his ban.
In truth, the emergence of Lendl, and McEnroe’s mental exhaustion, played a key role in his relative decline from 1985 onwards. Taking breaks from tennis in 1986 and 1987, the fire within had burnt out. There were flashes of the old genius after his sabbaticals, but it was hardly surprising that after 1984 the only way was down.
The Stockholm incident, unsurprisingly, is not something that McEnroe looks back on with pride. But he obviously had not learnt from his mistakes, as six years after arguably his worst behaviour in the sport, he would be disqualified from the Australian Open. There was always a thin line between McEnroe’s genius and insanity.