Last summer in this space I wrote about a young tennis player who had been a brat as a junior star but who had matured into a poised and potentially great competitor. I recounted the first-round loss of one Jimmy Arias to a veteran professional in the Washington Star International and said Arias had left his tantrums behind and might someday fulfill the dreams that I too once savored as a regular on the USAT kiddies' circuit.
Now I have another story to pull from my pre-Bar Mitzvah days of glory and shiny new Jack Kramers, a story about another kid who was a monster as a junior and whom I saw play--and win--many times after I had lost yet another grueling three-setter in the third round at the Port Washington Tennis Academy. I don't know what has become of Jimmy Arias since I heralded him last year, but I can safely predict John McEnroe will be a prominent name in tennis circles for some time.
My introduction to McEnroe was comical at the time. Today it seems startlingly appropriate as I watch the young Mr. M behave like the most spoiled of 12-and-under beasts. The setting was, in fact, that famous tennis emporium at Port Washington. The air conditioning was too strong; I was cold and sweating and losing to yet another little creep I should have blown away. My Dad was watching from behind the glass windows, high above. I was 12 years old and my second serve was floating.
To make matters worse, the chunky kid on the next court was swearing at the top of his lungs and stopping after every few points to crack his racquet against the hard artificial surface. "Goddammitfuckit...crack!" From what I could gather--and I obviously should have been paying more attention to my own match and less to the one next door--the chunky kid was killing his opponent. But he kept on screaming. Maybe his dad was watching too.
What happened next was unusual, even at Port Washington. As I was in the midst of returning a backhand with pitiful timidity, the chunky kid coiled his body into a ball and then released, throwing himself into the air with a fierce, raging scream and launching his Wilson Prostaff toward the high ceiling. The raquet returned to earth on my side of the green court divider, bouncing at the service line and coming to rest near to where I had been awaiting a deep forehand. I called a let, as seemed only appropriate when under attack by unidentified flying Prostaffs.
Then I got very angry. Who was this guy? He could have done some serious damage. Half-aware of the potential to look tough in front of the audience high above my head, I picked up the projectile and casually tossed it back over the court divider without comment. John McEnroe managed to hold onto his Prostaff for the rest of that match, which, as I recall, he won by about a 6-0, 6-1 stargin I lost.
So you see, when I watch John McEnroe toss raquet into the beautiful turf at Wimbledon and call the wonderful old gentlemen who serve as umpires "incompetent fools," I have little patience for the argument that Mac does it to psyche himself up. He's been a crybaby for a long time.
McEnroe himself dismisses these specious contentions that Jimmy Connors once used to justify his torturing of officials and using his T-2000 as a symbolic phallus to impress unfriendly fans. After making a fool of himself during a rather unexciting first-round win at Wimbledon this week, the kid from New York admitted he had erred. But as usual, he had to add an excuse, telling reporters, "I have this feeling that, God, I won the point, but they (the officials) are taking it away. When I'm an incompetent fool playing, I lose. But when they are--they just keep officiating."
Well, John, what would you propose? Everytime an official calls a serve "in" that you think is out (as was the case in the big shouding match this week) he should remove himself from the chair? Not only does the official have a better view of most calls than the player, but both competitors are equally exposed to any incompetence.
And what's the point of arguing about this anyway? It's not a matter of whether an umpire happens to make a bad call now and then. They all do. It's a matter of whether John McEnroe will ever be considered a champion if he does not reform his on-court behavior.
Implicit in the title of "tennis champion" is a certain code of behavior emphasizing patience, dignity, generosity, and courage. Stan Smith possessed these qualities during his brief reign at the top of the world rankings. Arthur Ashe rarely questioned a call and certainly never called an umpire a "fool" before thousands of fans. Further back, men like Laver and Rosewall exemplified these virtues, as did the countless female champions of the century. Today, the dominant force in men's tennis--Bjorn Borg--carries himself with the pride of a man who never has to whine for a point.
McEnroe doesn't have to whine for points the way little kids do when they know they have double faulted but cry "cheater" in frustration anyway. McEnroe wails and curses because he is too lazy to wean himself away from the habits he perfected at Port Washington so many years ago. Whether or not he wins Wimbledon, surpasses Borg, or becomes the greatest player ever, he will never receive the respect of a champion if he doesn't learn to keep his raquet on his side of the court divider and his mouth shut.