John McEnroe, Sr. was a colorful character from tennis' golden age

by: Steve Tignor | February 24, 2017

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John McEnroe with his parents, John Sr. and Kay, in 1981 after receiving the Seagram’s Seven Crowns of Sports award in New York. (AP)

It was late on a quiet Friday afternoon in the TENNIS Magazine office when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I decided to pick it up anyway. The weekend was so close: What could possibly go wrong now? I put my feet up on my desk, leaned back in my chair and brought the receiver to my ear.

“Steve,” the flat, Queens-accented voice crackled through the receiver. “This is John McEnroe.”

I took my feet off my desk and sat up in my chair.

You might think that, for a writer at a tennis magazine, these would be words to celebrate, and normally they would. But this day was different. Earlier that week, an issue of TENNIS had come out that included an excerpt of my new book, High Strung, about the rivalry between McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. It wasn’t just any excerpt, either; it was the chapter describing the young Johnny Mac’s infamous “You cannot be serious!” tirades at Wimbledon in 1981. My scalp began to sweat. I fumbled for an answer.

“Oh, hi, how are you?” I finally said. (Excerpt? What excerpt?)

“I want to talk to you about this article about my son...”

Son? Then it dawned on me: It wasn’t John McEnroe the tennis player on the other end of the line; it was John McEnroe, Sr., his father.

“Oh, God,” I thought.

This was much worse.

John Sr., who died at 81 earlier this week, was the original straight shooter in the McEnroe family, especially when it came to mounting a defense for his oldest child. The son of Irish immigrants to New York, John Sr. had put himself through law school at night and eventually risen to partner at prestigious Manhattan firm Paul, Weiss. If there’s an equivalent to winning a major title in the world of New York attorneys, this is probably it. You don’t get to where John Sr. did without knowing how to make an argument.

We had talked a couple of times for my book, and the conversations had gone well.  Now, though, he was seeing the finished product for the first time, and the old lawyer had a few, shall we say, objections. Most of all, he wanted to make it clear that the fault in ’81 hadn’t all been with his son. I had to admit that he had a point.

“You can still make a change, right?” he asked, though it was more of a statement than a question.

“Uh, sure,” I said, without being sure at all.

When we hung up, I dialed my publisher and found out that, yes, there was time to make a few changes. The chapter, in the end, was stronger for them.

The sound of John McEnroe Sr.’s crackling, resonant voice didn’t always send me into a sweat. He was a tennis enthusiast, and was a regular around the game even after his sons, John, Jr. and Patrick, had retired. One year he popped up in line next to me on a flight from Paris back to New York after the French Open and talked about how he was going to attend all the majors that year, in what he called the Spectator Slam. (As I recall, he flew coach with the rest of us journalists.) And before a World Team Tennis match in The Hamptons one year, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked what I was working on. He was interested in the game.

It was a little surreal to see him in those places. Like anyone else, I still had vivid memories of John Sr. from the sport’s glory days of the ’70s and ’80s, and in particular from the 1980 Wimbledon final. When John Jr. had miraculously won the fourth-set tiebreaker over Borg 18-16, Senior, in his trademark white hat, had stood up in the player’s box and looked around in disbelief at what he had just seen his son do.

That was the first era of televised tennis, and the TV’s camera had made the players’ families part of the drama, in a way that they weren’t, and still aren’t, in any other sport. Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s coach, sitting up ramrod straight in his warm-up jacket. Mariana Borg sneaking cigarettes two seats down. Gloria Connors bellowing “Let’s go, Jimbo!” Ion Tiriac glowering and sending mysterious signals to his player, Guillermo Vilas. Renée Richard and Nancy Lieberman turning Martina Navravilova into a lean, mean, winning machine. They were the characters who helped turn tennis from sport to theater.

John Sr. would serve as his son’s manager for a time, but he was first and foremost a fan. He and his wife, Kay, didn’t push their sons to specialize in tennis, or try to make it their careers. John Jr. also played soccer in high school, and his parents at first expected him to finish his education at Stanford—there was talk, apparently, of Johnny Mac becoming a dentist. Thankfully for the future lapsed flossers of New York, they let him turn pro after his freshman year. (Still, I do like to imagine Mac as a dentist: “Do you need a new toothbrush? ANSWER THE QUESTION!”)

John Sr. never tired of seeing the magic that his oldest son could create with a racquet. He had loved to watch a young John, Jr. play at their home club in Douglaston, New York, and he was still in the stands watching when his son came out of retirement at 47 to win the doubles title with Jonas Bjorkman in San Jose in 2006. When it was over, John Sr. leaped in the air, as if his son had just won Wimbledon.

But he may have been even more proud of his son after he lost at Wimbledon. For the two weeks leading up to that legendary final in 1980, the Irish-American had been stung by the English tabloids’ treatment of the younger McEnroe: “Superbrat,” “McTantrum” and “King Sneer,” they called him. John Sr. didn’t approve of his son’s “episodes of temper,” as he once wryly referred to them, but by the time John Jr. was a pro, there wasn’t much he could do to stop them.

“I said it was terrible, you can’t do that,” Senior recalled telling Junior after one of those episodes. “John said, ‘You’re right, I shouldn’t have.’ So what I could say?”

In the 1980 final, though, there were no episodes of temper; just one long show of brilliance. The next day, on the flight back to New York, John Sr. read the tabloids; even they had to acknowledge Johnny Mac’s valiant effort in defeat. A tear slid down John Sr.’s cheek as he read the respect and praise for his son.

Four decades later, that match and that era, with all of its colorful characters on the court and in the stands, hasn’t been forgotten. John McEnroe Sr. hasn’t either. In 2012, I walked across the grounds on one of the first days at Wimbledon and came across a group of McEnroe impersonators. They sported curly-haired wigs, tight shorts and headbands. It’s a common sight at tournaments all over the world, but this group was a little more thorough than most. At its center, there was a man wearing a white hat and sunglasses. How many tennis parents have their own impersonator? John Sr. lives on.

RIP, J.P., and thanks for your help.

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