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John McEnroe at his worst - A black-letter day in tennis' illustrious history


McEnroe arguing with the chair umpire

John McEnroe was known for being a genius with a racket in hand as well as for being a bad-tempered and foul-mouthed individual on a tennis court. McEnroe and controversies walked hand-in-hand and, at one point, tournament organizers prayed while McEnroe played.

His worst, though, was reserved for a grand slam in 1990. It was the Australian Open and on January 21st, the second Sunday, McEnroe faced Sweden's Mikael Pernfors. McEnroe was expected to win and he looked relaxed and assured when he entered the court that day.

McEnroe took the first set 6-1 but, from experience, he could realize that Pernfors was in good touch and it was just a matter of time before he would come back hard at him. He was correct. McEnroe became a touch edgy and began complaining about trivial things. He seemed to be very upset with the photographers moving during points. The ones who knew McEnroe sensed that the volcano was about to erupt.

Pernfors got the break in the fourth game of the second set, courtesy a close call by a lineswoman. He then held his serve to extend the lead to 4-1. While changing ends, McEnroe walked up to that lineswoman, stared at her, and repeatedly bounced the ball on his racket. Umpire Gerry Armstrong issued warning number one, reason being 'intimidation'. That put a tick mark beside step one in the 'Code of Conduct'.

McEnroe's faith over the linesperson in Australia was already at an all time low. He participated in the Hopman Cup a couple of weeks earlier and claimed to have been at the receiving end of some poor calls from linesmen and lineswomen.That bitterness was once again coming through.

McEnroe kept his cool in the third set and took it 7-5. Serving at 2-3 and deuce in the fourth set, his forehand missed the line by a whisker. His racket took the wrath and the umpire's voice boomed: " Racket abuse, Mr. McEnroe. Point penalty." McEnroe argued that it was only a crack and he had every intention of continuing to play with it. Armstrong was not to be intimidated, though. He calmly said 'let's play' to end the discussion.

McEnroe was not in a mood to accept the decision and demanded to meet tournament referee Peter Bellenger. Armstrong, on the other hand, summoned supervisor Ken Farrar. Both of them arrived at the court and heard what McEnroe had to say but couldn't help the American superstar.

As Farrar was about to leave the court, McEnroe shouted out, " Just go **** your mother". Farrar turned back, walked up to the court once again and asked Armstrong if McEnroe really said what he had just heard. Armstrong confirmed and that was the last nail in McEnroe's coffin. "Verbal abuse, Mr. McEnroe. Default. Game, set and match Pernfors."


The rules had changed. Till the last day of 1989 it was a four-step default but from 1990, it was changed to three steps. McEnroe was caught unaware and looked perplexed when Armstrong's final verdict came. “The rule changes were always posted in the locker room, but he obviously didn’t read them.”” Bellinger later said.

Most people in the crowd couldn't quite realize what had actually happened and demanded McEnroe back but, by then, it was too late. McEnroe became the first player in 27 years to be disqualified from a grand-slam because of misconduct. One of the black-letter days in tennis' illustrious history.

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