SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
December 11, 1978
But to the tennis public the bristling behavior of John McEnroe has obscured his talent. Now he grimaces into the Davis Cup
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 11, 1978

Winning Is No Laughing Matter

But to the tennis public the bristling behavior of John McEnroe has obscured his talent. Now he grimaces into the Davis Cup

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

Steadfastly in McEnroe's corner are his distaff supporters: his girlfriend Stacy Margolin and his "big sister," Carillo, both of whom play on the women's tour. Carillo says she "defends John to the death. He just handles things wrong. On questionable calls during the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, I would approach and ask the official if he would reconsider. John would say to him, 'What are you, blind?' He has no subtlety. He doesn't go out of his way to impress people. I don't think he should be a jerk or a hood about it, but the fact is he doesn't care what people think. This game is so simple for him, he just gets mad when anything goes wrong."

McEnroe says he does care. He says he is trying to do better. He says he will improve. "I don't think I've ever questioned a call I didn't legitimately know was wrong," he says. "My mistake has been not knowing when to stop. The people don't want to see arguing, they want to see tennis. Artie and Stan Smith just glance at an official, and the call is changed automatically. That's the way to go, but I guess it's too late for me. Let's put it this way. I've already got a terrible reputation, so now they're looking for me every time."

In recent weeks throughout Italy—where he is known affectionately as "Macaroni"—McEnroe did not enhance his reputation with the public, or the media. The Bologna crowd booed and hissed when it thought McEnroe was not trying in his semifinal loss to his doubles partner, Fleming. ("I was exhausted. I could not have tried harder," McEnroe said.) Then the Italian press nailed him for skipping a couple of press conferences. When his tennis-clothes manufacturer, Sergio Tacchini, finally did arrange for him and Gerulaitis to sit down for a mass interview in Milan, McEnroe, with his usual impatience, pounded the table to get the attention of the buzzing, then stunned, reporters.

Realizing a potential for violence when he saw one, Tacchini did not include the usual clause requiring his contract players' annual appearance in Rome in McEnroe's contract even though Tacchini's wife jokingly suggested that a police escort probably would suffice. "If the Romans threw coins at the stoneface Borg [which they did last spring]," McEnroe says, "can you imagine what they'd throw at me?"

Lea Pericoli, the former Italian women's champion, now a journalist in Milan, says, "This boy is a bit impossible. What is he like? He does not talk to me. So I have to invent him."

"Listen, I don't have to talk," McEnroe says. "People are going to write and say what they want. They pay to see my matches now. If they want to boo and clap against me, that's fine. I'm myself. Let's put it this way. I'd rather get some attention than no attention. If it's bad, that's life."

So there is America's new tennis hero. Let's put it this way. Nobody could invent John McEnroe.

1 2 3 4 5