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How Superstar John McEnroe Became The Most Hated Tennis Champion of All Time

Updated September 4, 2020 7.6k views9 items

John McEnroe blew the tennis world away when – as an amateur – he made it to the senior tournament of Wimbledon in 1977. Only 18 years old, he made it through the qualifying rounds only to be defeated by Jimmy Connors in four sets in the semi-finals. McEnroe competed as a junior tennis player for the rest of the year and went pro in 1978 after a successful run as a Stanford University athlete. McEnroe went on to win numerous Grand Slam titles as well as singles and doubles championships, and his rivalries with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg were legendary. For these reasons, he ranks among the best, most famous male tennis players of all time.

All of that aside, John McEnroe is probably best known for his temper tantrums and notorious bad behavior on the court. His 1981 "you cannot be serious" outburst remains one of professional sports' most notable lines, and it earned him spot as reputation as one of the most outspoken athletes around. Universally disliked, obnoxious John McEnroe stories are a constant reminder that he's never been one to keep his mouth shut. 

  • Photo: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    He Badmouthed Serena Williams In 2017

    For all of John McEnroe's complaining, he changed the game of tennis. Researchers at the University of California investigated umpire calls and discovered that 84% of calls made by the naked eye are wrong. With this information, tennis has increasingly gone technological, using techniques like Hawk-Eye visual system to assess where a ball hits and allowing players to make appeals. 

    His legendary mouth has also gotten him into trouble as an announcer and sports commentator since his playing career ended. His comments about Serena Williams in 2017 put him in the hot-seat about men, women, and sport. 

  • In 1984, He Called The Official At His Match In Stockholm A "Jerk" Before Smashing A Tray Of Drinks With His Racquet

    Video: YouTube

    McEnroe's outbursts in Stockholm in 1984 were full of name-calling and tray-tossing. After a serve was called as out, McEnroe marched to the umpire, protesting that it was on the line. He went on to question the umpire's accuracy in calls, and when the umpire dismissed him,  he yelled (in the video), "Answer the question, jerk!" McEnroe hit a ball into the crowd, smashed a tray of drinks with his racquet, and continued to confront the umpire as the match continued. He was fined $2,100 for the whole affair, giving him more than $7,500 for the year in fines. He was also suspended from tennis for 21 days

  • Photo: Edwin Martinez / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    He Told An Umpire To Stick His Mic Where The Sun Doesn't Shine

    On the whole, 1987 was a rough year for McEnroe. He simply walked off of the court in a World Team Cup tennis match in Dusseldorf, Germany, in May, complaining that his back hurt. He was nonetheless fined $4,500.

    In September, at the US Open, his temper was his biggest enemy. McEnroe came dangerously close to being thrown out during his third round match against Slobodan Zivojinovicn. McEnroe lost his temper when there was a call against him, slamming his racquet onto the court before yelling at the umpire "Didn't you see anything? Couldn't you see a damn thing? That cost me the set. The set was over, the ball was out." 

    He carried on, swearing at the umpire and taking a point penalty for the language. At the next changeover, he again went after the umpire, Mike Ings:

    'Are you trying to set a Guiness book of world records to screw me? You can't see a thing, that was set point. I should have won the set, 6-3. What match are you watching?'

    Said Ings: 'If I see a space between the ball and the line, I'll call it.'

    McEnroe: 'Congratulations on this excellent officiating.'

    Ings: 'I've had enough of this conversation. It has nothing to do with me.'

    After this exchange, McEnroe calmed down – for what proved to be only a momentary interlude. When the break was over, he walked past the CBS technician, who was holding a court-side microphone. 'Do me a favor and stick that mike up your ass" McEnroe said.'

    In the end, McEnroe won the match. However, the microphone caught the expletive, and McEnroe was fined a total of $10,000 by the time all was said and done. He was also suspended for two months as a result of his behavior. 

  • He Became The First Participant To Be Disqualified From A Grand Slam Event In Three Decades

    Video: YouTube

    As he continued to be fined for poor conduct and insult opponents, officials, and bystanders, McEnroe didn't pull back from his bad behavior. In 1990 at the Australian Open, he was playing Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round and completely went off the rails. At first, he was just his typical self – pacing, cursing, and hitting his racquet on the court. He was issued a couple of warnings and finally started yelling at the umpire until the chief of supervisors from the event came to escort him off of the court. No one event prompted McEnroe to lose it in Australia in 1990, but it was the first time he was thrown out of a tournament for his behavior. It was also the first time a participant had been disqualified from a Grand Slam event since 1963.