“Can you show me the mark?
Please! Why not? No, why not?
Why can’t you show me the mark?
That’s all I am asking.
Show me the bloody mark.
You can’t see your shoelaces!
Oh, he made up the mark!
Can’t fucking believe it!
He just put his finger
on the line, on the line!”
After this six-syllabled fusillade, John McEnroe began walking on the court like a blind man, using his racket as a prop, and lo! stumbled upon ‘the’ mark. This sublimely ridiculous show would have impressed Charles Spencer Chaplin beyond measure, if this was a stage! Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have looked askance at this bumptious, cantankerous Superbrat , enthralling the audience with his Supershow. One could sense even on the 16mm coloured films of Gil De Kermadec that there was unbearable tension in the air. The virtuoso was fuming, or performing (depending upon your PoV). Many in the stands felt for him, most were plainly annoyed. But none could have argued that this was not on the expected lines. If there was McShow on court, there was bound to be pandemonium. John might have been right about the mark, for human eye is not perfect. Technology was still three decades away from coming to assistance on line-calls. But in face of John’s shrill attention-seeking tactics, one was simply not eager to get that call particularly right, just for that one standoff to be resolved for the proceedings to move forward.
After winning the first two sets rather comfortably (6-3, 6-2) in the 1984 final at the Roland Garros, John had lost the third by 6-4. The top two players in the world- the McMercurial Numero Uno and Ivan the Terrible Lendl were locked in an epic struggle on the Red Clay. John seemed very annoyed with the ubiquitous, nosy, persistent cameramen. “Come out you piece of jerk”, he slammed one who was filming him while hiding inside a semi-underground cavity made in the wall behind the baseline. “Get off you all. You are not worth my time,” he barked at others around the court! A meltdown loomed large. The atmosphere seemed laden. Precipitation looked imminent.
Borg put the ball where the other player was not. McMaster put it in a place where the other player would never reach. John used to rush to the net like a gazelle, never betrayed his intent during his movements and his serve, although not as big as modern giants, was highly unpredictable, yet accurate. But for all his feathery touches and rhythmic footwork, watching John McEnroe for sustained period of time must have been an ordeal. Point after point, call after call- the American was relentless. He contested everything. There was always someone or something- be it officials, cameramen or spectator, line-calls, intrusions or noise- which bothered him enough to swear and whine.
“Now, take off your glasses,
So you can see the ball,
Can you show me the mark?
Why can’t you just show me?
Do your job properly,
Let me focus on mine,
Did you sleep with my wife?
You can’t be serious”
Was John McEnroe a perfectionist? A Perfectionist ends up playing against himself, as a set idea, there being permutations in his mind. A perfectionist is very demanding with himself and tends to expect that those around him would be just as invested. Others, with slightly less intensity, come across as amateurish, casual, just not interested enough.
“There is something very wrong if you can’t listen to a ball two inches in front of you. Perhaps I’m twenty times better look, and twenty times better see than you’ll ever be. Who are you? Who the hell are you? Picked your name out of a hat?”
Tom Hulce watched John McEnroe in action to prepare for his role of Mozart in Amadeus, the film (1984). That is perhaps the most apt commentary on the subject. Mozart was an unprincipled, spoilt, conceited brat, albeit a genius.
“I’m a vulgar man. I assure you my music is not.”
This could very well serve as the McEnroe’s epitaph.
Julien Faraut’s magnificent essay-film ‘In the Realm of Perfection’ relies upon Gil De Kermadec’s obsessive 16mm tennis films taken over the years. It focuses on John McEnroe in the French Open Men’s singles final 1984, and explores the themes of time, movement, form, passion, obsession, temper, control, image and perception through the use of carefully placed (shameless) cameras. Gil was fascinated by how a player’s form held up in slow-mo while serving, hitting ground shots and chasing the ball. John’s arched back as he served, his grip, the full-stretch, the tractor-beam focus along with the mannerism- these were the subjects of Kermadec- shot coverage, not the point per se. Although Faraut raises various questions like ‘cinema lies, sports doesn’t’ and ‘elasticity of time in tennis’, yet Gil’s primary focus were biomechanics and tempestuous behaviour of the champion showman.
Everyone was McEnroe’s enemy. They wanted him to lose. His back was always against the wall. The whole world was forever conspiring against him. Yet he found ways to win. That was the narrative in his head. One thing interested him -the eternal injustice that inflicted him, and him alone. A single passion motivated him- to owe his victories only to himself, to seize them from the rest of humanity, and share them with no one else. Was this all just a ruse?
The Golden Rule was that he must never seem happy with what he was doing. He played on the very edge of senses. Acting in this theater of the absurd, climaxing with self-destruction, seemed like a technique. Gestures of despair, pretending to be in seize, throwing tantrums, alleging global conspiracy- were all these ploys to transform hostility into sublime tennis?
Did he feign the anger, the tantrums, all that misbehaviour?
“You know something I’ve practiced over the years. What?”, John later tried to laugh it off.
But was he ever in absolute control of those negative feelings? Or was he quite helpless? Those were not pleasant moments for him. He could sometimes turn them into advantage, but not always. Nasty and Jimbo were different kinds of players. Their rudeness, arguments, rage and tantrums were all theater, and consequently they had more control over the events.
But John was more transparent. He dint like pretending off court. He hated posing, was just not an actor. “The image we’ve of ourselves rarely tallies with how others see us,” with awareness like this, John was bound to suffer in public eye.
Professional sportsmen possess abnormal desires and are driven beyond measure. Their pain-bearing capacities are enormous. Yet it would be relief to know if John at least enjoyed his tennis, and savoured the victories. One hardly ever saw him celebrate after points! Did winning merely vindicate what he’d always known- that he was just so good, or better, nay perfect? Did he compete only to prove his mental permutations and theories right?
“Are you afraid of him?”
Even Ivan Lendl pitched in with his own six syllables.
But he couldn’t follow them up by another, and had to settle for nine in the next.
“Don’t do everything in his favour!”
Commiserate with the man at the other side of the net! How tough would it have been to take on McEnroe, as well as the demons in his head. Lendl won the fourth set, and then the fifth, each by a margin of 7-5. McEnroe swung his racket at cameras after the loss while mouthing some inanities. It was Ivan’s first Grand Slam victory. McEnroe never came close to winning the French Open again, but went onto enjoy one of the Tour’s most successful ever season. He won the Wimbledon and the US Open later in the year, and finished with a win-loss record of 82-3 in 1984. In November that year, McEnroe had an epic meltdown during the semi-final of the Stockholm Open. He lambasted the umpire, asked him if he didn’t make any mistakes in that match so far and then broke his cups and ice bottles. His quip ‘Answer my question. The Question, jerk!’ became a meme. He defeated Andres Jarryd in that match, and the beat Wilander in the final, but was fined, as well as banned from the tour for 21-days.
Don’t let that mellow Mc, chirping away in the commentary box, fool you- the champion should have faced many more defaults than just the one he suffered at the AO 1990, for intimidating a female line-judge, smashing a racket and abusing the chair-umpire and the tournament referee. But those were different times, and social media pressure was not there. Mc made hay, while the sun shone on America.
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