Andy Murray has no lack of advice on how to become the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry triumphed in 1936, but he’d do well to listen to John McEnroe. The Scot, who so often seems to let his feelings get the better of him on court, could turn his emotions to his advantage. At least that’s what the most famous tennis player ever to have raged on Wimbledon’s show courts believes.
“Anger should be fairly straightforward,” says McEnroe, whose volatile temper saw him dubbed Superbrat during his playing career. It was a reputation he sealed when he kicked his own tennis racket playing Tom Gullikson in an early round at Wimbledon in 1981, the year he went on to win the title for the first time.
“If you use that anger in a positive way, where you get yourself to try harder and dig deeper, it can be a good thing. I would often get mad at myself to try to increase my intensity level, so if Murray could use that in a way where it wouldn’t hurt his game, I think it’d be a good thing. I’m sure he’s trying to find a way to utilise his emotions in a more positive way. That’s partly why he hired Ivan Lendl.”
Murray hired the former number one as his coach in December, but Lendl has a job on his hands for McEnroe feels time’s running out for Murray to win Wimbledon. “I’d like to see it happen, but I see it’s becoming more difficult. The other three guys show such grades that it’s very tough. Obviously Murray hasn’t won any majors yet. It’s not getting any easier.”
Of the three players ahead of Murray – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – the great contrast is between the fourth-ranked Murray and the world number one. Under biography, Djokovic’s website has this bold declaration: “I am very emotional on and off the court. I show my emotions. This is the way I am.”
McEnroe has been impressed by the way the Serb now handles his emotions on court. “Djokovic has just got a lot better and that’s exactly why Murray thinks he can improve. Djokovic is becoming healthier, fitter, stronger, and probably that’s one of the things Murray is trying to do because the fitter you are, the more you believe in yourself.”
Looking back on his own career, McEnroe does accept that he didn’t always control his own on-court outbursts well. “It was not as controlled as I would have liked. Initially especially, the intensity and the energy that I let out in certain ways helped my tennis. In the first eight to ten years of my career especially, things would just happen. The fact that perhaps I thought I could get away with certain things doesn’t mean that I did things on purpose. It just means that I was less afraid that I would get penalised if I did do something. Towards the end the misplaced, wasted energy and anger became what I would call the lob of diminishing return.”
McEnroe draws an interesting contrast between his own displays of emotion and the reserve of the ice-cool Swede Bjorn Borg, to whom he lost an epic, five-set Wimbledon final in 1980 before breaking Borg’s five-year reign the next year. “Because he literally didn’t make any expression at all, it became pretty evident early on, after I had played him a few times, that anything at all that I did would be magnified.”
“We were actually friends, so there was a mutual respect. When we were playing the finals in majors, I would just go out there and try to play my best tennis. So in a way I definitely did make more of an effort to stay away from that [those outbursts] when I played Bjorn, especially towards the end.”
Later, after he’d retired, McEnroe did attend anger management classes. But this isn’t an area he likes to talk about: “Well, that’s far more complicated, but it would be safe to say that I would probably be someone that at some stage in my life thought it wouldn’t be the worst thing to try to learn from experts in the field. I became more open to the idea of perhaps getting help from other sources.”
It did, though, help McEnroe to reinvent himself as a respected commentator, aware his playing career might have typecast him. “When playing I didn’t do a good job of showing that I didn’t take myself quite as seriously as people may have thought. I had a sense of humour, I knew the game and I had a likeable way of explaining it to the people. After all, to be a commentator is a lot easier than being out there playing. I could have fun.”
To remind yourself of John McEnroe’s famous “you cannot be serious” meltdown, have a look at the video below: