Perhaps, as the son of a lawyer, John McEnroe possessed a superpower that let him know the precise limits of the law. For whenever McEnroe threw a tantrum, he was always keenly aware of the line separating compliance from violation—the score, the officials, the rules, even the significance of the specific event and the accompanying importance of his presence to the tournament director.
But this day in Melbourne was one where even McEnroe lost sight.
He was in the round of 16 of the 1990 Australian Open versus Mikael Pernfors, a dogged Swede who had reached the final of Roland-Garros in 1986. McEnroe easily won the first set, 6-1, lost the second, 6-4, then squeaked out the third, 7-5.
In the fourth, serving at 2-3 deuce, McEnroe hit a forehand approach shot wide and tossed his racquet to the ground. Since earlier in the match, McEnroe had been given a warning for glaring at a lineswoman, the cracked racquet meant he would be penalized a point—and therefore, since the score had been deuce, McEnroe’s loss of the ad point handed Pernfors the game and a 4-2 lead. A fifth set now seemed likely on a day when the on-court temperature was well north of 100 degrees.
McEnroe protested, saying that he hadn’t thrown his racquet that hard. Chair umpire Gerry Armstrong noted that it was cracked—a cracked frame triggering an automatic penalty.
“All I did was crack it,” McEnroe said. “I have every intention of continuing to play with it. Look, it isn’t broken, it’s just a crack.”
Said Armstrong: “Let’s play.”
But McEnroe wasn’t about to do that, instead demanding more justice from tournament officials.
Here is where it all took a twist. Prior to 1990, players were penalized in four stages—warning, point, game, match. But a new rule had taken effect: only three stages, eliminating the game penalty. McEnroe later claimed he was not aware of this change. Others noted that it was posted on the walls of the tournament’s locker room.
Out to the court came Ken Farrar, Grand Slam chief of supervisors. Farrar was a familiar face in the tennis world, naturally surfacing most frequently during controversies involving such combustible competitors as McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. His aviator shades and mustache gave Farrar the look of a Secret Service man, adding a touch of intriguing and highly official significance to these interactions. But Farrar was also known as a fair official who always sought most of all for the match to continue smoothly.
McEnroe made his case to Farrar, but to no avail. There was no way Farrar was going to overturn Armstrong’s call. “Let’s play,” Farrar told Armstrong. Farrar then walked across the court to his seat.
At this stage, McEnroe figured he had two strikes left. So why not empty the holster one last time? Yelling at Farrar, McEnroe loudly demanded he do something rather obscene involving his mother. Still, much as McEnroe regretted what he’d said, his immediate thinking was that he’d only earn a game penalty.
But regardless of whether it was a four-stage or a three-stage process, upon taking in McEnroe’s harsh words, Farrar was prepared to take significant action. Confirming with Armstrong what McEnroe had said, Farrar recommended a default.
Armstrong: “Verbal abuse, audible obscenity, Mr. McEnroe. Default. Game, set, and match, Pernfors.”
This was the first time a player had been defaulted from a Grand Slam event since 1963.
McEnroe’s post-match press conference was a vintage mix of him abdicating and taking responsibility.
“It was just one little four-letter word,” he said. “The guy could have let me off.” But then he also conceded, “In that sense, it was my fault.”
Wrote McEnroe more than a decade later in his autobiography, “Of course I have to take responsibility for the whole incident. I truly believe, though, that if I had known the new rule, I would have contained myself. I sometimes went off the rails, but I always knew where I stood.”