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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
John McEnroe: Big mouth strikes back
John McEnroe: Still controversial

John McEnroe has hit the headlines once more with allegations of drug taking and a new best-selling memoir, Serious. Though now in his 40s, and enjoying a lucrative career as a commentator, has Superbrat ever really grown up?

For sheer elegance, lawn tennis has few peers. Conjuring up images of endless summer afternoons, cream teas and genteel athleticism, the sport reached its apotheosis in the youthful suburban passions of the poet, Sir John Betjeman.

"Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn."

John McEnroe kicks a racquet
1981: McEnroe in full flight

But then along came John Patrick McEnroe Jr., of Queens, New York, to shatter the illusion and make Miss J Hunter Dunn turn in her grave.

Few of us probably remember the year, let alone the match, which propelled Superbrat to eternal sporting infamy.

Actually it was the first round of Wimbledon in 1981: McEnroe's opponent, Tom Gullikson.

When Gullikson went ahead 4-3 in the opening set, McEnroe, already established as the sport's foremost troublemaker, exploded.

Johnny Mac, don't ever change

Jack Nicholson

Warned by umpire Edward James - whom he now calls "a pleasant enough middle-aged man" - after smashing his racquet, McEnroe responded and a new catchphrase was born.

"Man, you can not be serious!"

A disputed Gullikson serve in the third set saw McEnroe demand to see the tournament referee, Fred Hoyles, before tossing in another bon mot:

"You guys are the absolute pits of the world, do you know that?"

Later in the same tournament - which McEnroe went on to win - he called another umpire "an incompetent fool," bringing a $10,000 fine, later rescinded.

In his newly-published memoirs, entitled Serious, a contrite McEnroe says that he "felt terrible" about his behaviour.

Bjorn Borg
The ice man: Bjorn Borg

And some years ago, he told his biographer, Richard Evans, "When I walk out there on court, I become a maniac. Something comes over me, man."

Though other players before him - most notably Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase - ranted, raved and berated umpires, McEnroe took outrageous behaviour, and sheer playing genius, to a whole new level.

Born in 1959, the son of a self-made New York lawyer, John McEnroe burst upon the tennis scene in 1977, after being coached by the legendary Harry Hopman at Long Island's Port Washington Academy.

The 18-year-old amateur won the first of his 17 major titles in the mixed doubles at the French Open.

Qualifying for Wimbledon, he reached the semi-finals before being knocked-out by Jimmy Connors. In doing so, he laid down the marker for a spectacular career.

The ultimate is sitting around a dinner table and it's just all of us there

McEnroe on family life

A left-hander, McEnroe at the height of his powers combined a vast, windmill-like, serve, with breathtaking delicacy.

Naturally aggressive, he also had the patience and artistry to master the baseline game and shot-making skills every bit as outrageous as his temper.

Together with Peter Fleming, he dominated men's doubles, too, winning nine Grand Slam tournaments.

1980 brought the match for which he will probably always be remembered. A thrilling five-set Wimbledon final with Bjorn Borg saw McEnroe rescue the fourth set after facing five championship points.

The final set, which went to the Swede, 18 games to 16, was pure theatre, the Nordic ice man prevailing against the young, ill-mannered, upstart with a voice like a New York cabbie.

The following year, it was McEnroe who came out on top, ending Borg's 41-match Wimbledon-winning run.

A scowling John McEnroe
1989: McEnroe tells it like it is

Victories there followed in 1983 and 1984. The latter, a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Connors, with only two unforced errors, was probably McEnroe's greatest moment.

His final hurrah at Wimbledon came in 1992 when he and Michael Stich won the men's doubles. "It was a great atmosphere," McEnroe said later, "a great way to go out."

John McEnroe's private life has mirrored his professional one. A six-year marriage to the actress Tatum O'Neal, with whom he had three children, ended acrimoniously in 1992.

You guys are the absolute pits of the world, do you know that?

McEnroe charms Wimbledon in 1981

She has recently accused McEnroe of having used steroids to improve his performance. Though obviously upset, he has stopped short of denying the allegations.

Now married to the rock singer Patty Smyth, with whom he has had two daughters, McEnroe is very much a family man. "To me," he says, "the ultimate is sitting around a dinner table and it's just all of us there."

Having given up his ambition to be a rock star, McEnroe panders to his other great love, modern art, by owning a gallery in Manhattan.

Tatum O'Neal
McEnroe's ex-wife Tatum O'Neal

He commentates on tennis tournaments around the world and his television quiz show, The Chair, is about to come to the UK.

And he is still to be seen on court, in the Champions Senior Tennis Tournament, playing exhibition matches against Borg, Connors and Henri LeConte.

But McEnroe is still prone to his old antics, still comes out with the occasional obscene outburst and continues to rail against the sport's "phonies and elitists".

Though he has many celebrity friends, including Sir Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, it was Jack Nicholson who paid McEnroe his favourite compliment.

"Johnny Mac, don't ever change."

The truth is that, like it or not, he hasn't.

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