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John McEnroe: The Jerk Who Made Tennis Must-See TV

Bad boy athletes come and go, but they tend to leave chaos in their wake. In the 1980s, soccer had Diego Maradona, basketball had the Detroit Pistons, and tennis had John McEnroe. His skill was undeniable, but his attitude was almost intolerable. Known for losing his cool under pressure, he wasn’t a stranger to complaining, arguing with umpires, and smashing his rackets. People called him “McBrat” and “Mad Mac.” He was a loud and proud New Yorker, with little to no respect for the gentleman’s game, or its traditions.

Oddly enough, McEnroe had something of an attitude makeover and eventually made a complete turnaround. He later admitted to having been a jerk in his younger years. After he finished playing tennis, he spent time playing guitar and touring with a band. He also made a few cameo appearances in some popular TV shows and movies. Then he went on to become a sports commentator for several big networks in both the U.K. and the U.S. It was a massive recovery from his tarnished tennis-playing years.

Though McEnroe turned his attitude around, he is still known as the all-time tennis bad boy. Unsurprisingly, he was either hated or loved in his heyday. People were put off by his often immature and selfish behavior, but they loved his anarchist attitude toward the tennis establishment. He wasn’t willing to be stifled by the stuffy country club mentality.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Pruneau

The Exclusive Club Of Tennis

McEnroe was relentlessly competitive and shamelessly outspoken. Despite his antics (or because of them), he widened the audience of the sport to include the blue-collar demographic. Before this, tennis was almost exclusively a “white, upper-class sport,” as McEnroe has been quoted calling it. Only the wealthy, young athletes could afford the lessons, academies, and club memberships, which limited those who had less money from participating. McEnroe, who was not in the exclusive group who could afford it, “wanted [tennis] to be treated like other sports were.”

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Nationaal Archief

The Young And The Talented

But he was an exception to the norm. He didn’t have the wealth, but he had the talent. Even from a young age, he was recognized for his skills. He was ranked 7th in his age group by the time he was 12 years old.

At Wimbledon, he rose to the semifinals as an amateur, setting the record for the best performance by a nonprofessional. Already bordering on cocky, the Queens-born amateur said, “The only thing ‘championship’ about Wimbledon is its prestige.”

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Brittle heaven

The “Superbrat”

McEnroe went on to attend Stanford University, where he won the singles title. After that, he went pro. He had raw talent, but it was overshadowed by his cringe-worthy outbursts.

At the 1981 Wimbledon Championship, he went to town on an umpire, ridiculing his calls in front of the entire stadium. He even went so far as to call umpires the “absolute pits of the world.” He completed his tantrum with a line he would become famous for: “You cannot be serious!” Despite being fined and losing points, McEnroe won Wimbledon that year. That incident (and many others) would earn him the title “Superbrat” by the British Tabloids.


Famous Outbursts

After many more incidents, McEnroe was asked to resign his honorary Queen’s Club membership. The club chairman’s wife, Sheila Boden, called McEnroe’s language “something you would not hear in the gutter.” She also said the “offensive” language was the reason London’s Queen’s Club was asking for McEnroe’s resignation.

He responded in “Superbrat” fashion by saying that he didn’t even know what a membership to the Queen’s Club was and that he didn’t care about it anyway. He finished by telling everyone he was happy he was in America and not the U.K.

The drama continued for years. At the Stockholm Open in 1984, McEnroe smashed a tray of drinks and called the umpire a jerk, which earned him a three-week suspension. At the U.S. Open in 1987, he let another umpire have it, accusing the officiate of costing him the match and finishing by telling him to shove his microphone up his ass.

More Of McEnroe

Though his behavior made fans cringe, everyone seemed to want more of McEnroe. He continued playing, and the cameras kept rolling. According to McEnroe, the tennis establishment was benefiting from the energy he was bringing to the game. In his autobiography, he wrote that he was able to get away with pretty much anything because the system knew he brought fans to the matches and put “behinds in the seats.”

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Levg

A Legend In Talent And Tantrums

McEnroe’s one of the greatest tennis players of all time- there’s no doubt about it. This was probably another reason why his behavior was tolerated throughout his career. During this career, he managed to win seven single majors and ten double majors. He ranked number one for three years in a row, peaking in 1984 when he had 82 wins and only three losses, giving him the unbroken record win rate.

It was a wonder he could have risen to that skill and success level, considering how much he partied. The money came in, and he spent it on big nights out, hanging with rock stars like Keith Richards and Chrissy Hynde. He got married, twice—first to actress Tatum O’Neal, and then to rocker Patty Smyth.


Over the years, he “mellowed,” as he once said. He’s still opinionated, but much less crass. Occasionally, he still gets himself into trouble, but has found a way to entertain people in a less cringe-worthy manner. In fact, some might even find him charming these days.