Tennis players are a unique breed of people. Unlike with many other sports, their influence and style often transcend the tennis world, significantly influencing both society and ourselves as individuals. They are often lauded as heroes or villains depending on their on-court behavior, as well as their performance. This makes the challenge of being a tennis player even more difficult, especially in a time of increased scrutiny via social media. In such an age, it is easy for players to refine themselves to suit public expectation. To say what people want them to say. To do what people want them to do. Rarely do the top tennis players speak up about significant issues relating to the game. This is why the sport needs big personalities, and they don’t come much bigger than John McEnroe.
McEnroe is a colorful character. When he appeared on an episode of the famous “Desert Island Discs” BBC podcast, his musical choices included David Bowie, Rage Against the Machine, and The Sex Pistols). The adopted New Yorker is, like his chosen musicians, someone who will push the boundaries of what is acceptable in his own unique way. He is one of the few players to be disqualified from a Grand Slam tournament, after his “various audible obscenities” earned him an expulsion from the court during a match at the 1990 Australian Open. His words “You cannot be serious,” made famous after an outburst at Wimbledon in 1981, gave McEnroe the nicknames “Superbrat” and “Mad Mac” in the Anglophone tabloid media. On the flipside, McEnroe’s seven Grand Slam singles titles, alongside doubles and mixed doubles titles, place him among the sport’s greats. He has often said that his outbursts were prompted by a desire to speak up for issues he felt others were too timid to stand up for. This is why, even now, the game needs him more than ever.
In a recent interview for The Sunday Times newspaper prior to Wimbledon, McEnroe correctly pointed out that tennis (epitomised, to many, by Wimbledon) is plagued by a reputation that it is a white, middle class sport. Contrary to the impression which many bestowed upon him following his comments on Serena Williams, McEnroe has also been an outspoken supporter of equal pay between male and female players. In the same aforementioned interview for The Sunday Times, he said: “…just because a film goes on for 3 and a half hours doesn’t mean it’s better than the one that lasts 90 minutes. Just because the guys play best of five doesn’t mean we should get 40% more money.” Admirably, despite his retirement from professional singles events in 1994, McEnroe continues to speak up for players’ issues and continues to be involved in the game. This is a feat that not many former champions and world #1 tennis players can boast.
McEnroe is still disliked by those who recall his on-court arguments and berate him for his misplaced comments. Nonetheless, it is essential that tennis fans throughout the world realize how important he is to the modern game. He incites discussion and highlights important issues that still need to be addressed in the game. John McEnroe brings much more to tennis than a quote printed on a t-shirt or a memorable tantrum; and it’s about time that this was recognized.