John McEnroe is one of the greatest tennis players in the game’s history. Bursting onto the professional scene at 20, he transformed the game and held a long-running rivalry with Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg. McEnroe was as famous for his on-court antics as he was for his volleying skills, and nothing cemented his bad boy reputation like the day he said, “You cannot be serious.”
McEnroe’s Early Life
McEnroe was born in Germany to American parents who were in the Army. He grew up in Queens, New York, and began playing tennis when he was eight. Just a year later, he was playing in regional tournaments.
As a teenager, he began playing in major tournaments as an amateur.
At 18, McEnroe won the mixed doubles crown at the French Open and made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon. He lost to Jimmy Connors, who would become another major rival during his career. Still an amateur, he went to Stanford University on a tennis scholarship and led the Stanford team to an NCAA championship.
In 1978, McEnroe signed his first professional endorsement deal and joined the professional circuit. With Peter Fleming, he won the Wimbledon Doubles and the U.S. Open Doubles. He won the men’s single U.S. Open and, at 20, became the youngest male winner of a U.S. Open since Pancho Gonzales in 1948.
McEnroe won 10 titles that year, including his first defeat of Bjorn Borg, and finished at number 3 on the world rankings. In 1980, he faced Borg at the Wimbledon finals. Borg won, and it was his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. To this day, that match is considered one of the greatest matches in tennis history.
McEnroe was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year and racked up wins over the next decade. He was the number-one ranked player on 14 separate occasions. He won the French Open in 1988 against 16-year-old Jimmy Chang and took the U.S. team to several world victories in the Davis Cup.
By 1984, McEnroe had claimed 12 titles and was one of the best players on the professional circuit.
Despite an impressive career, McEnroe repeatedly garnered attention for what he called his “Queens” attitude. He reacted furiously to what he considered bad calls by the referees and linemen. Some criticisms of him were well deserved, and some overlooked his undeniable skill as a player. McEnroe, however, seemed to enjoy the notoriety.
At his first Wimbledon, he was fined $1,500 for calling an umpire “the pits of the world.” When he entered the court, crowds regularly booed. The British press nicknamed him SuperBrat, and the All England Club denied him an honorary membership.
He responded by telling the press, “I wanted to spend the evening with my family and not with a bunch of stiffs who are 70 to 80 years old and telling me I’m acting like a jerk.”
During opening day at a U.S. Open match, McEnroe was fined $1,000 for cursing and throwing sawdust at a fan. The fan was cheering for McEnroe’s opponent.
McEnroe’s manners were striking in a sport known for its civility, especially when they were contrasted with his chief rival Borg, who was known as “the Iceman” for his cool demeanor.
You Cannot Be Serious
His most famous tantrum, however, came during a 1981 Wimbledon match against Borg. Responding to a referee’s call that a ball was in, McEnroe yelled, “That ball was out. You can’t be serious. You cannot be serious.”
The line became one of the most famous moments of the match. It lives on in repeated YouTube viewings and is a big part of McEnroe’s lingering image.
In 1984, he was in a match against Anders Jarryd at the Stockholm Open. He disagreed with a line call and walked over to the umpire, demanding that the umpire retract the call. When the umpire ignored him, McEnroe began screaming, “Answer my question, jerk!” He then smashed the table holding the water bottles and cups for the match.
For his behavior, McEnroe lost a penalty game, and this tied the score. He won the match anyway. He also received a 21-day ban from U.S. tournaments.
A Break from the Sport
When asked about the event 25 years later, McEnroe said it was his most embarrassing moment. Asked if he remembered the umpire, however, he said, “I don’t remember any particular umpire. They were all equally bad.”
In 1986, McEnroe took an extended break from the sport. He returned, but he never played at the same level again. In 1992, he made it to the Wimbledon semifinals before losing to Andre Agassi. He retired from tennis after that.
In 2006, McEnroe registered a trademark for the sentence, “You cannot be serious.” Doing so, he joined many athletes who trademark their signature moves or phrases for licensing purposes. There are often good reasons for doing this. Most athletes have short careers. Making money from licensing deals allows them to extend their earning power.
Usain Bolt, the undisputed fastest man on earth, trademarked the lighting bolt icon that has long been associated with his name. After winning eight gold medals, the runner trademarked several phrases linked to his name, including “Bolt to the world.”
Related: Trademarking a phrase
Smart Move for Athletes
Former football player Tim Tebow trademarked the kneeling pose he used to take after game that commentators dubbed “Tebowing.”
In McEnroe’s case, the trademark would prevent anyone else from making a profit by using the phrase on any merchandise.
Today, McEnroe works as a tennis commentator and match analyst for ESPN. He regularly gets praise for his excellent insights into the game. He married rock singer Patty Smyth in 1985, and they have two children together. In 2003, he published his autobiography titled, You Cannot Be Serious.