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"The thing Connors has over McEnroe is experience," says Palafox. "Next time they play, the match may be up to John. He knows now it is all in his hands."
Because the game looks so easy for him—and, more, because it is—McEnroe's orneriness between the white lines sticks in the craws of players, linespersons and spectators alike.
It all began at Wimbledon in '77 when in his first match McEnroe yelled at a spectator to "get the hell out." Violent sneers and snickers continued to emanate from his matches until McEnroe met Phil Dent in the quarters, when he kicked his racket around the hallowed turf, railed at officials and cussed up a storm with such beauties as "No way I'm losing to this——guy," and "Jesus, how much longer before I get a——call in this——. place." His reputation for facial expressions has preceded him ever since.
"I've never seen a tennis crowd turn against a player so fast as they did against McEnroe when he played Tanner out in Hawaii," says Barry Lorge, the tennis correspondent for The Washington Post . "In the first three games they were on him like a swarm of locusts. He has complained about so many calls in such a short time that he is now the classic boy who cries wolf."
McEnroe himself cannot adequately explain why an official's mistake sets him off. Then again, isn't he from the same terrific generation that ate cocaine for breakfast and gave us punk rock? Why should its peer athletes be Mr. or Ms. Decorum?
McEnroe confirms that he was always something of a rebel. Way back he was damned with the terrible neighborhood nickname "Runt." In junior high school he led his basketball team in technical fouls and once was suspended for two games for screaming at the coach. At Trinity—a coat-and-tie school—he wore a dungaree jacket on the train ride into Manhattan every day, implicitly challenging the teachers to tell him to change for classes. "In ninth and 10th grades I was a total alky," McEnroe says. "I was in a high school fraternity and we'd drink beer all evening. By the time we got to the girls, we were always drunk."
Palafox remembers refusing to hit tennis balls with McEnroe for a month because of his behavior early in their relationship. Also, the youngster was suspended from the Port Washington Tennis Academy over some high jinks during a tournament in the Catskills. Something about setting the hotel towels on fire.
"We'd have arguments at home," McEnroe says. "My dad always yelled at me. I told him when he was wrong. Then I'd get yelled at some more. I guess I always had too much Irish."
At Stanford, where he stayed just the one year to get experience on hard courts and to win the NCAA title for himself and his team, McEnroe left nothing behind him but good feelings. "One of the most respected persons I've ever known," Coach Dick Gould says. "John's attitude was beautiful, he never assumed it was his right to be No. 1. He worked hard for it. It wasn't like some nobody just passing through. John's mark is here."
And it is elsewhere. In the pros McEnroe has had tiffs with Newcombe as well as with his current Davis Cup teammate, Bob Lutz, who nearly decked him after a match last summer. At Orange, N.J., McEnroe became involved in a dispute with a representative of the sponsoring Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company, who accused him of being a crybaby and even threatened to withdraw future support from the tournament. "I made ultimatums. I was terrible," McEnroe confesses.