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John McEnroe
Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup

John McEnroe

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John McEnroe is a former tennis champion who earned fame for his graceful play and his temperamental outbursts.

Who Is John McEnroe?

John McEnroe is a former tennis champion who made a splash by advancing to the 1977 Wimbledon semifinals at just 18 years old. He went on to win several Grand Slam championships, earning fame for his impressive skills and rivalry with Björn Borg along with a volatile court persona. After retiring in 1992, he forged a successful second career as a television analyst.

Early Life

Born into a military household in Wiesbaden, West Germany, on February 16, 1959, John Patrick McEnroe Jr. was the eldest of three sons born to Kay and John McEnroe Sr. The family moved to the New York City borough of Queens in 1960, and McEnroe grew up primarily in the community of Douglaston, where he started to excel in sports during his early years. He eventually attended Trinity, a Manhattan-based prep school, where he continued to make athletics his focus. His younger brother Patrick would go on to become an esteemed tennis player as well.

Early Tennis Career

In 1977, a pivotal series of events in McEnroe's career took place after he graduated from high school. That year he traveled to Europe and won the French Juniors Tournament. Initially going for the junior title at Wimbledon as well, he shifted gears and tournaments upon qualifying for the men's competition. The 18-year-old then surprised everyone by becoming the youngest man to reach Wimbledon's semifinals, though he was eliminated by Jimmy Connors.

Having earned a tennis scholarship, McEnroe returned to the United States to attend Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. With McEnroe leading the charge, his school team won the NCAA Championship in 1978. After his freshman year, he decided to turn pro. In the summer of 1978, McEnroe was eliminated in the first round at Wimbledon but reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

It was during this time that McEnroe began his long commitment to Davis Cup play. Tony Trabert, then the U.S. Davis Cup coach, took a risk with the 19-year-old McEnroe, who handled the pressure well, winning his matches against England to help clinch the first American Davis Cup victory in six years.

Over the next four months, McEnroe won four singles championships, including an important (and portentous) victory over Björn Borg in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1978, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) recognized him with a Newcomer of the Year Award and ranked him No. 4 in the world. In his first six months as a pro, he earned nearly half a million dollars.

Sublime Playing Style, Volatile Persona

Over time, McEnroe's playing developed into a style known for its finesse and agility. His serve did not overpower, but instead he had extremely quick reflexes and an uncanny court sense — he seemed to know instinctively where to place his shots. Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion, summed up his style in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick: "Against Connors and Borg, you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer, but McEnroe is a stiletto."

As his talent came to public attention, so did his antics. McEnroe became known for having an acerbic, volatile personality, with an array of well-documented outbursts directed toward a variety of tennis personnel, including himself. Pete Axthelm from Newsweek noted at one point, "He is a young man who raised perfectly placed strokes to a high art form, only to resort to tantrums that smear his masterpieces like graffiti."

In 1979, after a loss at Wimbledon, McEnroe won the U.S. Open in a match against Vitas Gerulaitis, becoming the youngest player to win the tournament since 1948. Shortly after the triumph, he led the United States to victories over Argentina, Australia and Italy to allow the team to retain the Davis Cup championship.

Famous Match With Borg at Wimbledon and More Grand Slams

In 1980, one of tennis' most notorious rivalries between McEnroe and the unflappable Swede, Björn Borg, took shape, beginning in July of that year at the Wimbledon final. The fourth set went into a famed 34-point tiebreaker, with the overall match lasting four and a half hours. Borg emerged victorious (1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6) in the contest that would go down in history as one of the most epic tennis matches of all time.

The two squared off again at the U.S. Open, where McEnroe took the championship (7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4). The contenders faced each other yet again in the 1981 Wimbledon final, with Borg losing his five-year crown to McEnroe, who pulled off a win in four sets. McEnroe defeated Borg again at the U.S. Open, becoming the first man since Bill Tilden to win three consecutive Open titles.

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Joy Harjo

McEnroe was unable to add to his Grand Slam collection in 1982, but he was back in top form the following year, winning his second Wimbledon by crushing Chris Lewis (6-2, 6-2, 6-2). In 1984, McEnroe won 82 of 85 matches, including his fourth WCT final, his third U.S. Pro Indoor Championship and his second Grand Prix Masters title. He captured his third Wimbledon title, soundly defeating Connors (6-1, 6-1, 6-2), and his fourth U.S. Open title, beating Ivan Lendl (6-3, 6-4, 6-1), and finished with the No. 1 ranking for the fourth consecutive year.

Professional Decline and Retirement

Although McEnroe won eight singles titles in 1985, none of them were Grand Slam events. He took a six-month sabbatical in 1986, and stepped away for several months again after drawing a suspension for an outburst in 1987.

McEnroe remained a highly competitive doubles player, winning the U.S. Open in 1989 and Wimbledon in 1992, but he struggled to keep pace with the successive generation of talent in singles play. He was also famously disqualified for misconduct from the 1990 Australian Open in Melbourne in a match against Mikael Pernfors.

McEnroe called it quits in 1992, retiring with seven career Grand Slam singles championships, nine doubles titles and one more in mixed doubles, along with a host of Davis Cup wins. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999. 

Broadcasting and Other Endeavors

In 1995, McEnroe began a second career as a television broadcaster and continued to occasionally compete on the court for charity, devoting a good amount of time to the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the defeat of AIDS.

McEnroe is also a guitar player, having performed live via bands such as the Package and the Noise Upstairs. In 1994, he launched the John McEnroe Art Gallery in New York City to showcase developing artists. 

In 2010, he founded the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York.

TV and Movies

After hosting a game show called The Chair in 2002, McEnroe debuted his eponymous talk show on CNBC in 2004, though the show was canceled six months later due to poor viewership.

McEnroe has made numerous appearances on TV and film over the years. He surfaced in the Adam Sandler movies Mr. Deeds (2002) and Anger Management (2003), as well as in multiple episodes of the hit show 30 Rock.

In April 2018, the sports film Borg vs McEnroe featured Shia LeBeouf as the temperamental tennis star, to much critical praise. Later that summer, the doc John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection showed archival footage of the athlete competing in the 1984 French Open.

McEnroe returned to the screen in 2020 as the surprise narrator of Mindy Kaling's coming-of-age series Never Have I Ever.

Wife and Children

In 1986, McEnroe married Oscar-winning actress Tatum O'Neal. They had three children together before divorcing in 1994. Three years later, McEnroe married rock singer/songwriter Patty Smyth, with whom he had two more children.

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