A WIMBLEDON “bad boy” has been enthralling fans at the Brodies Champions of Tennis in Edinburgh ... and John McEnroe pitched up later in the press tent to add his say about the tournament, Wimbledon and that notorious abrasive streak.
Back in 1995, Tim Henman was disqualified from a doubles tie at SW19 after hitting a ball away in disgust at missing a volley and, accidentally, striking a ball girl.
McEnroe, for all his indiscretions – some of them acknowledged in an interview which at times was as self-effacing as it was insightful – was never shown the tennis equivalent of a red card.
So, it was left to Henman to don the hair shirt as he recalled how he was able to pass on lessons to Scotland’s own Andy Murray about dealing with pressure based on experience of walking on the wild side.
Fresh from going down in a champion’s tie-break to Swede Thomas Enqvist, Henman said the disqualification early in his career had led to him to live life in a media-free bubble
“My first experience (of Wimbledon) was when I got disqualified in 1995 and that was obviously a steep learning curve.
“[But] I loved the whole environment [and] made a good decision early in my career that I would never read the papers and I never did.
“The only time I’d read the papers was for about half-an-hour at Christmas when I went home to my parents house and they would keep the funnies.
“I was always just amazed at the magnitude of the coverage.”
Operating in the goldfish bowl is something Murray has had to get used to, but Henman discerns a public who are warming to the Scot after a period when he was unfairly perceived in some quarters as anti English. Readily accepting an invitation from the Evening News to set the record straight on the bantering which ended with Murray making his “anybody but England” remark in relation to who he’d be supporting at a World Cup Henman said: “We were doing an interview towards the end of my career. After practising we were walking towards a journalist who had set up with a photographer.
“It was a World Cup year and I was giving him some stick about how Scotland never qualified for anything.
“We were bantering and I was saying, ‘you don’t qualify for World Cups and European Championship and your rugby is not very good and you don’t play cricket’.
“We were laughing and the journalist was laughing. We both said, ‘who are you going to support’ and he said, ‘I really don’t give a monkeys. I’ll support anyone that’s playing England’.
“It was very funny – obviously the right answer. We sat down and did an interview for an hour and didn’t speak about England, Scotland or football once. Next day the headline was, ‘I’ll support anybody but England.’
“It’s unfortunate for Andy because it has stuck – he is labelled with that. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell the story and I do all the time . . . when people realise it they can’t believe it. That is the nature of the beast. I don’t think Andy loses any sleep. I wouldn’t.”
Nevertheless, according to Henman, it took until last summer for some public affection to really start flowing Murray’s way.
“In some respects I find it a little bit sad that it takes him to cry in his speech after the Wimbledon final for people to look at him and go, ‘wow, he really does care’.
“He has always had good support but I think that was a turning point for him . . . and then the Olympic final. You reflect on the crowd in the Wimbledon final and I think it was 50-50 and quite rightly because Federer is probably the most popular player there has ever been.
“Then when you move it forward four weeks and it was 90-10 in favour of Andy.
“Support is growing for Andy. Does that make a difference? It’s tiny percentages but they all add up.”
According to McEnroe it never really mattered whether the crowd were for or against him, as he acknowledged a tempestuous nature – including a brittle relationship with Jimmy Connors and what amounted to a mutual admiration society with Bjorn Borg.
“Some people may argue myself and Connors went too far at times and it would be tough to argue that,” he said.
“There was give and take. People saw raw emotion. Some of it was negative, but at the same time there was passion.”
McEnroe was responding to a question about whether the current generation were “too nice”.
“It is better to know you are getting the right call, but you lose other parts of it that may have been appealing to some people, including myself.
“Connors and I went at it (and) it was something that brought maybe the average sports fan instead of just the tennis fan in.
“They saw emotion and personality that maybe the hadn’t seen before.
“With Jimmy and I people either liked us or didn’t, but they seemed to have a feeling one way or another.”
McEnroe clearly enjoyed recalling his halcyon days and particularly his relationship with Borg.
“There was one time In New Orleans I was typically going crazy and it was about 5-5 in the third set and Borg motioned for me to come to the net.
“I thought he was going to tell me I was the biggest jerk that ever lived and I would have deserved it. He sort of put his arm around me and said ‘look, it’s OK. It’s a good thing.’
“At first I thought, ‘is he trying to get into my head’, but he was embracing me as part of the group. When they show respect the other players, even if they think you are nuts, show you respect if you can produce. I felt a great appreciation for that.
“Although our personalities seemed to be totally different, our sense of humour, the way we look at things made us pretty compatible.
“Bjorn stopped playing so early we never got to the point we got into a fight (or) I would have tried to get there somehow . . .”
Lest anybody had the impression McEnroe was totally starry eyed about the past, he made a point of emphasising: “This is a great time in tennis when you are watching arguably two of the greatest players who ever lived in [Rafael] Nadal and [Roger] Federer with [Novak] Djokovic and Andy [Murray] now trying to make their impact.”
McEnroe, who plays a singles with Mikael Pernfors this afternoon, still lives in the present himself.“I’ve come and hopefully people will say ‘hey, this guy can still play,” he remarked.
In the evening session, McEnroe went on to win his opening doubles with Tim Henman against Mark Phillipoussis and Wayne Ferreira, while Carlos Moya posted a straight-sets win over Greg Rusedski.