THE brat is back. There is a great anecdote concerning McEnroe’s last trip to Edinburgh, to compete in the Scottish grass court championships in 1989.
A Scottish sports writer decided to stake him out on arrival at Edinburgh airport, and why not?
After all, this was a long time before Andy Murray’s emergence. It was a rare enough even for a world-class tennis player to visit Scotland, let alone come from here (somewhere in Dunblane, Murray had only just turned two years old). Who wouldn’t want to seek to hear his thoughts on the issues of the day?
However, in a snatched fragment of dialogue that recalled Sir Alf Ramsey’s shirty response when a journalist once had the temerity to welcome the England football manager to Scotland, McEnroe was equally brusque. ‘F*ck off’, he told the sports writer from the Edinburgh Evening News, who had only been waiting for around ten hours.
Fortunately, after a slightly frosty start, McEnroe was rather more expansive yesterday when he found himself re-engaging with not just one Scottish reporter, but several of them. The group included the miscreant from nearly 25 years ago, although he was comforted by McEnroe’s first answer.
The New Yorker admitted he couldn’t remember much about his last visit to Edinburgh, when he lifted the Scottish title at Craiglockhart with a victory over his old foe, Jimmy Connors.
“Don’t ask me too much about it,” he said. “However, I have heard good things about the city. I have pretty much seen the courts, airport and hotel – like most of the cities I go to,” he added. “Every now and again I get to go to a museum, see a concert, get to a good dinner but that not might even be the case this time.”
He was determined to give as good an account of himself as possible yesterday evening, when playing doubles alongside his sometimes BBC commentator colleague Tim Henman at the Brodies Champions of Tennis event in Edinburgh.
It is already well established that McEnroe is not your average tennis interviewee. But even if it was not already clear, his Rage Against the Machine tee-shirt helps spell it out. Here is someone who has never conformed to convention, and while we are in the midst of another golden age of tennis in terms of quality, it’s difficult not to be wistful when considering a time when mavericks like Connors and McEnroe ruled the roost.
These memories are much of the reason why such senior tour events as the Brodies Champions of Tennis tournament are able to attract spectators, who actively will the man once known as ‘superbrat’ to re-connect with his former, angry self. “I feel as though it was a great time when I was coming up,” recalls McEnroe, peering back to days when Hawk-Eye was only a glint in some technological genius’ eye.
“Some people might say that people like me and Connors went too far, and it would be tough to argue,” he conceded. “But there was a give and take, and people saw raw emotion. Some of it was negative, but at the same time it was passion. While it is better to know you are getting the right call, but you lose a bit of that, which might have been appealing to some people – including myself.”
“Connors and I went at it, and it brought the average sports fan in, not just tennis fans,” he added. “They saw the personality that maybe they had not seen before. I idolised Rod Laver but he wasn’t going out screaming at the umpires. They thought we went too far so they tightened the rules. Maybe they went too far the other way. In a one-on-one sport, you are not supporting a city or a team.
“I mean, when I grew up I loved the New York teams,” he added. “If you live in Edinburgh you want teams here to do well. That’s the way it is. But if you are an individual you have to grab a little more. Jimmy and I are obvious examples. People liked or didn’t like us, but they had feelings one way or the other. That’s what you need in tennis.”
There is not much of it around now, however. Although great players, those such as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are too cordial towards one another. Perhaps only Murray could be said to have had some McEnroe-style rough edges, although not so much now. According to McEnroe, sports nowadays are “like industries”. He added: “It wasn’t quite that serious back when I was coming up, there did not seem to be so much at stake if you blew it.”
If someone had told him 24 years ago that in 2013, when he next came to Edinburgh, there would be a Scot among the top four players in the world, would he have been surprised?
“I probably would have been mildly surprised,” he admitted. “There hasn’t been a lot of history of great players here. But it was pretty clear pretty soon that he had that kind of ability.
“People like Andy don’t come along every day, but then, if you had told me someone from Mallorca would be the best player that ever lived I probably wouldn’t have believed that either.
“Before Carlos Moya, I don’t think there was ever a player that came from Mallorca, and the same goes for Switzerland.”