A month earlier, in the spring of 1977, John McEnroe was but a promising teenager who’d skipped his high school graduation so that he could play the junior events at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But now he was in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, a qualifier on a remarkable run.
His opponent was 13th-seeded Phil Dent. The two had just played at Roland Garros. As a junior, particularly one frequently vastly superior to many an opponent, McEnroe had been used to conceding tight calls. He repeated this behavior versus Dent at Roland Garros. But after losing a tight five-setter, Dent had admonished McEnroe. Young man, he’d told him, this isn’t the juniors. In the pros, we take the calls as they come.
Dent’s words echoed in McEnroe’s head. As their Wimbledon match grew tighter, McEnroe began to question calls and even gave his racquet a kindly kick. The crowd, already engaged by the tennis and plot line of the veteran Aussie versus the young American, took notice of this cheeky young lad.
Down two sets to one and 2-0 in the fourth, McEnroe rallied. He would win the match 6-4, 8-9, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was spectacular in its own right for him to have become the first qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semis, it was even more notable to the British – and time, the world – that he had displayed such emotion. And so, a new character was born: John McEnroe, tennis’ rebel with a cause.