Several years ago I sat on a New York subway, listening to a stranger extol John McEnroe as a nice guy away from a tennis court. As millions know, however, the reigning US Open champion projects a far different image when brandishing a racket. His Vesuvian match temper has made him the bad boy of tennis, a role he played to the hilt in his opening match at Wimbledon this week.
Things became quite ugly when he called one official an incompetent fool and uttered a four-letter word to another. During the match, all McEnroe received were a couple of hand-slap point penalties, but later Wimbledon got tough, fining him $1,500 and threatening a suspension and $10,000 fine for any further "aggravated behavior."
The action was cheered by those fed up with immature behavior in tennis. For too many years, the sport has allowed players to get away with murder. The problem stems partly from the absence of a central authority in the game, a commissioner capable of acting quickly and decisively. The commercial success of tournament tennis has also been an obstacle.Tournament organizers, interested in making money, know that big-name stars hold the key to success. Booting them off the court is unthinkable, since to do so is to rob spectators of what they paid to see. In team sports, a player or coach can be ejected and the game goes on. Not so in tennis.
Some tennis players have hidden behind the same sort of flimsy excuse used to justify hockey fights, that is, that ranting and raving are natural emotional releases. The argument just doesn't hold water.
Tennis once put a high premium on court decorum, and even McEnroe realizes its importance. "I know I won't be considered a champion in the real sense," he says, "until I can control myself."