With his hoop earring and ever-salty tongue, John McEnroe took his place among the white pants and straw hats of tennis society on Saturday with his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
As McEnroe himself once said, "YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!"
"He's probably the most controversial player in modern tennis. He took whining to the next level," said Olympic champion speed skater Eric Heiden, who presented his college buddy for induction. "I think we ought to hold off on that induction until John apologizes."
"Is it true that I have to apologize?" McEnroe asked the crowded stadium at the Newport Casino. When the answer came back as a resounding "No," he said, "That's what I thought. To hell with them."
He then embarked on a rambling but amusing 45-minute speech, his co-inductee Ken McGregor took five, in which he thanked everyone from his first coach to his last while insulting newspapers, erstwhile doubles partner Steffi Graf, Australia and England.
With that, McEnroe was enshrined alongside his hero Rod Laver, his mentor Harry Hopman and fellow former bad boys Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors. Already, a McEnroe room has been established in the Hall's halls, complete with McEnalia from baby photos to trophies to pictures from his after-tennis life as artist, guitar player and father of six.
Although he is known for his whining as much as his winning, it was the latter that earned McEnroe a place in the Hall. Winner of three Wimbledon singles titles and four in the U.S. Open, McEnroe won 77 championships in all and also played 12 years for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
Calling himself "the last guy to play great tennis with a wood racket," McEnroe said his career marked the end of an era. But it was also clear that he had more in common with today's brash young stars than with the men and women in long pants and white dresses that populate the pictures in the Hall's galleries.
Making no apologies for the behavior that earned him a reputation as tennis' enfant terrible, McEnroe said that he knows that his legacy will be tainted by the tantrums that punctuated his career.
"That's OK. I deserve it," he admitted. "... I think that my emotions were on my sleeve. I think that my drive and intensity were on display. I'll never get away from the label of the next Nastase, or Connors, or a combination of both, or worse."
"I don't think I was as bad as them. But I was pretty close."
McEnroe told about the first time he played Boris Becker and the then-unheralded 18-year-old was pouting the entire match "pulling a McEnroe, I guess you'd call it."
"I said, 'Listen, guy. You've got to win something before you start pulling that. This is out of line,"' McEnroe recalled. "Three months later, he won Wimbledon."
The winning, McEnroe said, was the key.
"It's like h said: if he was just a naughty boy, no one would have noticed him," said former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who was on hand for the ceremony. "He'll be remembered for his record. You can't take that away from him."
In his current job as television commentator, McEnroe is all talk and very little action. But he made a run at the Wimbledon mixed doubles title this year before Graf pulled out to concentrate on singles; she bore the brunt of McEnroe's anger for much of the afternoon.
Arriving half an hour late for his pre-enshrinement news conference, McEnroe proceeded to commit at least five potential code violations for foul language. Still, it was a slightly mellower McEnroe that praised the Hall facilities, was gracious to McGregor and even gasp! campaigned for the enshrinement of an umpire, though not the one he once called "the pits of the world."
"I didn't get along with umpires," he said in uncharacteristic understatement. "That was pretty clear."
Much as he shook up the tennis world when he became the youngest man ever to be ranked No. 1 on the ATP computer, McEnroe hurled bombs at the establishment most of them in good fun. But he turned serious when he thanked those who shaped his career, saying that when Hopman moved to New York it was a turning point in his life.
"If you believe in someone up above," McEnroe said. "That person, for whatever reason, wanted me to play tennis."
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