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When McEnroe came along it was game, set and match for me

ByJohn Laverty

Published 25/06/2016

Court thriller: explosive tennis great, John McEnroe in action
Court thriller: explosive tennis great, John McEnroe in action

The first person I can remember hating was Stan Smith. It was 1972, a year when people in Northern Ireland had raised the bar when it came to hatred. But I reserved mine for a wiry-looking man with a funny moustache and receding hair.

I'd never heard of Stan Smith before July 9 that year, the date I started hating him. To be honest, I never heard anything about him after that day either.

But, that day, he defeated my hero Ilie Nastase in the Wimbledon men's final. And I'm still not sure how he did it.

To my nine-year-old eyes, the man looked about 90 (he was actually 26) ... and what pedigree did he have at Wimbers?

Well, enough to see off the overwhelming favourite in what people later called a thrilling (I called it "depressing") five-setter.

"Mr Nasty" was one of my favourite people at the time. He had - and I didn't have the word for it then - charisma. He was brilliant, unpredictable and, best of all, bad-tempered; always arguing with umpires.

My mum hated him. My dad thought he was the tennis equivalent of a man from Belfast who had just won the world snooker championship.

But Alex Higgins was a winner and, after that day, I went off the Romanian. He was just a shouty loser in my book. The thing is, in those days Wimbledon was the only thing that mattered. I hadn't a clue about the other Grand Slam tournaments; to me, there was - literally - only one tennis tournament, and that was the one that helped us through the summer holidays.

You fall in love with SW19 - and the players - at that age, and often for that very reason.

But, after Nasty, I needed a new hero.

Jimmy Connors just seemed too perfect for me. Indeed, a computer recently spat out that Jimbo was, statistically at least, the best tennis player ever.

He was certainly on top of the world in 1974 ... he had destroyed an ageing Ken Rosewall in the Wimbedon final - ergo that made him the world champion because there weren't any other tournaments - and he was engaged to fellow Yank Chris Evert, who had won the women's event.

They were young, gifted and beautiful, with great teeth. They will dominate tennis for the next decade, Dan Maskell said. I couldn't stand them.

And old Dan was wrong, too; Connors didn't even successfully defend his title. He would lose the following year to compatriot Arthur Ashe, in one of tennis's biggest shocks - not least, and a sign of the times, because of the colour of his skin.

It was one of two times poor Arthur - who psyched Jimbo out that day by meditating during the breaks - would make global headlines.

I was delighted when he won that day, and very vexed 18 years later when he became the first high-profile person to die of Aids. He was 49 and had been infused by contaminated blood during surgery for a heart condition.

In life, Arthur had changed people's perceptions; ditto in death.

Connors, meanwhile, kept getting beaten by Bjorn Borg (left). I didn't like him because he didn't shave and had a strange convex chest; perfectly good reasons. Wimbledon-wise, I was depressed; not even Ginny winning the centenary Wimbers in 1977, or Evert being regularly thrashed by Martina Navratilova, consoled me.

And then John Patrick McEnroe came along - my favourite tennis player of ... no, let's rephrase that - one of my favourite human beings ever.

Charismatic - there's that word again - and a genius with an explosive temper. It was like Mr Nasty, only this time turned up to 11.

Then, I'd watch McEnroe simply for the tingle that went up my spine when he played that left-handed whipped top-spin lob to perfection; today, I'd sit through the worst match in history just to hear him commentate on it.

He ended Borg's dominance at SW19 in 1981, but both players produced one of the tournament's most memorable moments - that 20-minute-long fourth set tie break during which the New Yorker saved five championship points before winning 18-16.

Other unforgettable moments: the Borg-Vitas Gerulaitis semi-final of 1977, which was the best Wimbledon match of all time until it was topped in 2008 by the Federer-Nadal final; the teenage Becker sinking to his knees in triumph in 1985; the elegant power of Steffi Graf; Jana Novotna "choking" against Graf; Evert's Wimbledon career ending with a double-fault.

Low points: Cliff singing in the rain, Becker's petulance en route to losing to fellow German Michael Stitch, the strawberries-and-cream rip-off, the Williams sisters replacing guile with brute force, the BBC's obsession with cutting away to non-tennis celebrities between points ... and the day McEnroe bowed out of Wimbers, as a player, for the last time.

  • John Laverty is the Belfast Telegraph's executive editor

Belfast Telegraph

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