Make no mistake, but for all the beautiful and creative texture spun by his racquet, John McEnroe was a remarkably logical tennis player. Rarely did he attempt the wrong shot. Rarely did he try and hit the ball harder than necessary. All this was exponentially true on big points.
So how could someone so rational be so irrational? More than 20 years later, McEnroe would admit that prior to his first round match at Wimbledon in 1981, he was, “tight as a piano wire” and that “the devils were crawling all over my brain that afternoon.”
His opponent was future Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson. That Gullikson was a formidable competitor and also a lefty added traces of difficulty to the encounter. But only traces.
Why would McEnroe be so on edge? At that stage, he was more than nipping on world number one Bjorn Borg’s heels. He had taken major bites, including a win at the previous year’s US Open. Just 12 months earlier, McEnroe had earned the respect of the world when he’d fought off seven championship points versus Borg in the Wimbledon final, only to lose it, 8-6 in the fifth.
So here he was, clearly the heir apparent. Perhaps that was the problem. McEnroe always admitted his happiest days in tennis had come when he’d been making his way up the ladder; first taking out the veterans, then making a go at such stars as Jimmy Connors and Borg.
Now, on this second day of summer in 1981, expected to grab the crown, McEnroe was ready to snap. McEnroe won the first set 7-6. In the second, after Gullikson had gone up 4-3 as the result of a line call McEnroe later described as “miserable,” McEnroe smashed his racquet. Later came another call McEnroe disagreed with, and a line that will likely echo for decades to come: “You cannot be serious.”
Though McEnroe would beat Gullikson, his run through the tournament – concluding indeed in a title run -- would be punctuated by potential fines, tabloid media coverage and all the kind of excess clutter so different than his remarkably pruned tennis game. Even as much as he’s talked about it in all sorts of forum, perhaps even McEnroe himself is unable to grasp the full extent of the remarkable contradiction between anger and artist.