John McEnroe had been pissing off ATP World Tour circuit judges for 12 years when he went down to Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round of the 1990 Australian Open. The West Germany-born, Stanford-educated bad boy of American tennis had taken a few years off to spend time with Tatum O’Neal, his first wife, and returned with something between a vengeance and straight-up blood lust. The mellower version of “SuperBrat” that was favored to beat the young Swede didn’t show up to Flinders Park. Angry McEnroe showed up. It was the last time the tennis would would see Angry John and he did not go softly into those consolations.
The match started as McEnroe matches invariably did, at pace. McEnroe took the first set, but, when Pernfors stormed back in the second, started getting demonstrative. He came close to hitting a ball boy (with a ball) then asked for replacement projectiles in the tenth game. He fired those into the net - much to his extremely apparent consternation.
Early on, it looked like a fairly typical McEnroe performance - albeit one augmented by white lip gloss and a world-class headband - but cursing rapidly gave way to pacing and then to actively intimidating a lineswoman. The Chair Umpire, played on that day by the unfortunate Gerry Armstrong, issued a warning then helped McEnroe in his campaign to have a crying baby removed from the crowd, which had turned against the former World No. 1.
Armstrong gave McEnroe another warning for “Racquet Abuse” when he started taking hammering his weapon into the court. McEnroe’s reaction was to harangue the ump until he called the Grand Slam chief of supervisors, who got a vocabulary lesson then showed McEnroe the door. It was the first time a player had been kicked out of a Grand Slam Tournament in over 25 years. The crowd went nuts. McEnroe went home.
The tantrum wasn’t the most famous of McEnroes career (that honor goes to the 1984 Stockholm debacle), but it was the most operatic. McEnroe wasn’t just angry about a call or a fan or the balls; he was angry about everything. John McEnroe was too pissed off to play tennis, too McEnroe to McEnroe. He was two years from retirement with an assured place in the Hall of Fame (there is one, it’s in Newport, Rhode Island) and a movie star wife, but the idea of not winning still destroyed him. Whatever else McEnroe’s behavior made have done - terrify at least one child - it neatly illustrated what made him a champion: a childish refusal to not be a champion.
If Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic ever melted down, their flacks would be horrified. They don’t just represent massive international brands; they are massive international brands. McEnroe was famous, but he wasn’t a brand. He was a tennis player and he was having a bad day.
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