With charisma, class and an iconic catchphrase, John McEnroe has solidified his place among the greatest sportsman of all time.
Renowned for his unrivalled shot-making and volleying skills, at the peak of his powers, the American hero dismantled every player who dared set foot on the court with him.
John McEnroe and Björn Borg were the perfect dance partners
Possessing a captivating personality, McEnroe quickly transcended the sport, capturing the attention of fans around the globe. And that’s why his feud with Björn Borg has gone down as the greatest rivalry tennis has ever seen.
In one corner, you had the Swedish poster boy, who couldn’t set a foot wrong. And in the other, you had McEnroe, a no-nonsense athlete who knew exactly how to create headlines.
Thus when the pair squared off in the 1980 Wimbledon final, the world stood still, watching in awe as the two titans went toe-to-toe.
Speaking exclusively to SPORF, McEnroe reminisced: “Our personalities were quite similar off the court, but obviously totally opposite on the court. So I had to be more careful playing him because everything I did was magnified that much more because he never said anything or virtually even changed his expression.
“So it was tricky to figure out how to navigate that. But at the end of the day, it actually probably helped me because once I got to the 1980 Wimbledon final, I felt like I could just go out and play tennis, and the other stuff was put aside. I just went out there, and it was, mano a mano, and we could see who was going to come out on top.
“And ironically, even though I lost, it’s a match that people come up to me 100X more than any other match I’ve ever played. So I’m proud that I was part of that. I learned a lot from that. And it was an incredible experience to play in that particular match.”
John McEnroe delivers the most iconic line of his career en route to Björn Borg rematch
Despite the devastating defeat, the born-winner never gave up on his dreams, knowing he had the minerals to lift the Wimbledon trophy above his head.
Consequently, when he returned to the court the following year, he put every fibre of his being into emerging victorious.
Therefore, when an umpire incorrectly refused to rule his serve in, he lost the plot.
Sporting a headband and frizzy hair, he screamed the unforgettable line: “You cannot be serious.”
And over four decades on, he still can’t shake that moment of sheer sporting brilliance.
McEnroe laughed: “I said ‘You cannot be serious’ once in a 15-year career. And it’s amazing if a day goes by where someone doesn’t say that to me, even though I’m in Paris right now, someone will come up to me and say it; it’s not always an American.
“At first, it was like, ‘Why do people want to rehash that’? And then it ended up becoming a mantra in a way.
“I played 25 years on a Senior’s Champions Tour, and if I went through one match and didn’t say it, people were disappointed. So it was bizarre. In certain ways, it was a little pathetic to me. But then, I tried to turn lemons into lemonade, honestly, and I think I did.
“Looking back, it feels like people think I did it all the time. They say, ‘When you were a kid, you were doing that’? No, I wasn’t. But that was the first round match, ironically, in 1981, where it was said. The rest is history. You hear that cliche, but in this case, it was true — 42 years later, I’m still talking about it.”
John McEnroe gets his Wimbledon redemption
With the media piling on the pressure, the road to the 1981 final wasn’t easy for McEnroe. But in a testament to his never-say-die attitude, he remained focused on the goal at hand.
So when he clashed with his arch-nemesis for the second time, the crowd sat on the edge of their seats, in the knowledge that they were about to witness something truly special.
And this time, McEnroe came out on top.
The 64-year-old said: “He’d won five in a row by that point. So everyone was gonna try to go after him. It was even more sweet if I could play him and beat him, which ended up happening. But there was a frenzy around me; some of it was self-inflicted, but I felt like some of it was unfair; the press were on me.
“By that point in 1981, when I played him, I felt like, if I ever win this thing, I’m never coming back. Because I just have so much going on, it felt a little bit overwhelming, until I hit that volley, and won Wimbledon for the first time.
“For a minute or so, I felt like I could fly out of the stadium. And then I remember thinking, ‘I definitely want to win this again’. So, I went from ‘I’m not coming back’ to ‘I got to try to do this again’, because that feeling was so intense.”
John McEnroe looks back on his journey to the pinnacle of the sport
In his incredible career, the maverick went on to win two more Wimbledon titles and five doubles championships, thus solidifying his place as the only man in history to secure the number-one ranking in singles and doubles simultaneously.
But while fans remember him for the sensational player he was, his story really began all the way back in 1959, when he was born in a military base in West Germany.
He beamed: “I’m sure that any person who grows up is impacted pretty greatly by their family, their parents. And I’m no different than anyone else. I grew up in a family of high achievers and perfectionists. I guess you could say that I became one myself, or maybe I was one from the beginning.”
McEnroe moved to New York, US, at nine years old, which seasoned him into becoming the man fans know and love today.
John McEnroe was always destined for superstardom
He recalled: “My mum used to tell me I’d cry if I didn’t get an A on my second-grade history test.
“My dad was my biggest supporter, but he was also like, ‘You can do it’ and, ‘This is your destiny’. He said it in a rather loud voice; he’d shout, ‘You can do it’.
“So, to me, that was normal. So when I came to England for the first time, there was such a drastic change. I’m like, ‘Wow, they’re so polite here. This is incredible’. They just act differently.
“And so it was like a culture clash. But in a way, it made it more interesting in the end. Although, at the time, it was a bit much to bear.
“But I certainly always tell the story of after my dad left the Air Force, he eventually went to law school. And he came in, and got second out of 500 people in the class, as he graduated, my mom was saying, Why didn’t you come in first?
“So that’s the way the McEnroe family grew up. I’m the oldest of the three, so I probably got more of the brunt of it.”
John McEnroe picks his 2023 Wimbledon winner
Having done so many amazing things in his life, McEnroe has forgotten far more about tennis than most of us will ever know. Therefore, when he makes his official pick, it’s integral that people take out their notepad and pen and write it down.
Speaking with authority, he concluded: “Right now, Novak Djokovic is the guy that you have to pick to win Wimbledon because he understands how to play on grass better than Carlos Alcaraz does right now.
“I think Alcaraz is an electric player that I absolutely love watching, and he’ll figure it out. And he may figure it out this year, but at the moment, Djokovic is the favourite at Wimbledon.”
Wimbledon will be available across BBC TV, radio and online from Monday 3 July until Sunday 16 July
Featured Image Credit: Getty