Peter Fleming and John McEnroe were the meanest gunslinger act in doubles tennis, winning 57 titles in all. But, here, Fleming tells of his regret that the pair didn’t have more laughs on court – and reveals how a certain Scot reminds him of his old doubles partner
‘You’re kidding me,” says Peter Fleming when I ask if he’s noticed any similarities between John McEnroe – his old doubles partner and one of the most belligerently brilliant players to have ever picked up a racquet looking for something or someone to hit – and Scotland’s finest. “When I first met Andy Murray I thought: ‘Clone.’”
Fleming won 57 titles in tandem with the man dubbed Superbrat and got to know better than most what made him tick and what made him spontaneously combust. That early encounter with Murray came 12 years ago when Murray was 16.
“It was the US Open Juniors, Andy reached the quarter-finals, the kid was clearly good and I was keen to meet him. We chatted in the players’ restaurant for about an hour and I walked away from that conversation thinking he was the closest thing to a young John that I’d come across in 30 years. The way they spoke, the way they thought was so similar. John as a junior had this incredible fire, a self-belief that was absolutely unshakeable, and Andy was like that. I just thought: ‘Wow, buddy, keep this up and you’re going to have a great career.’”
Next week, as Murray bids for his second Wimbledon title, Fleming and McEnroe will be bringing their insight, and not inconsiderable “attitood”, to the TV coverage. Despite being seriously unnerved by the oppressive traditions of the tournament as young bucks, you can’t keep these guys away from the place these days. McEnroe is as big a name in commentating as he was as a player but Fleming at the mic is no slouch.
When I listen to him I always think: Best in Show. The funniest moments in this spoof documentary about a dog show involve Buck Laughlin, played by Fred Willard, a pundit prone to crazy tangents and mildly dangerous asides. “Take a guess at how much I can bench-press,” Buck will announce suddenly, or observing a judge’s inspections of a mutt he’ll remark: “I don’t think I could ever get used to being poked and prodded like that. Once I told my proctologist: ‘Why don’t you take me out to dinner and a movie sometime?’”
When I first met Andy Murray, I thought: Clone…he was the nearest thing to John McEnroe I’d seen in 30 years
Fleming, now 60, never quite threatens to inform us about his rectal examinations but he has a wry style which occasionally threatens mischief. Interestingly, he says his telly persona is almost an apology for the way he played tennis, when he rarely let McEnroe out-scowl him. “I try to bring a bit more humour into the game than I did as a player, which was none basically, and I hope the folks appreciate it.”
Fleming is a long streak of New Jersey, the heartland of Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano, but with his blond-haired, square-jawed good looks always seemed more Californian out on the courts. He surely would have made a good lifeguard, being almost tall enough – 6ft 5in – to dispense with the watch-station. Fleming may have been unable to prevent the young McEnroe having his hair frizzed by a deranged octopus, but minder duties were among our man’s key tasks in the partnership which yielded four Wimbledon doubles titles.
Can he remember the first time they met? “Sure, it was when John was essentially a twerp. I was 16, sitting in the coffee-shop of the Port Washington Tennis Academy in New York, and one of the coaches was telling me about this amazing kid. I was like: ‘Come on, he’s 12, how good can he be?’ I was a typical arrogant teen. More than that, I was an imbecile, because without having seen what this John McEnroe could do, I demanded a match. ‘I’ll give him four games and 30-luv of a start,’ I said, and the next Saturday at noon he whipped my ass. After Vitas GeruIaitis I was probably the best kid in the junior programme but John was like a dog with a bone, a terrier that bit your ankles and wouldn’t let go. He never missed a shot and beat me five sets in a row. I slunk off the court, tail firmly between my legs.”
It says something about Fleming, not yet a man, that after such a humiliation he didn’t try and avoid McEnroe for the rest of the summer. “John just had something about him. He wasn’t a snotty-nose. I liked hanging out with him. There were no TVs in the academy and they didn’t allow you to play cards but there were chess tables and that’s how we bonded. Then I went to university and didn’t see him for four years until the 1977 Wimbledon. He was due to play the German, Karl Meiler. ‘That’ll be no walkover,’ I said because Meiler was probably 60th in the world. John, who was still a junior, said: ‘If I lose to a guy like that I’m quitting the game.’ He made my ears pop. Then he destroyed Meiler and reached the semi-finals. McEnroe had arrived – with his horrible hair. I tried to console myself about mine looking better.”
With his all-American appearance, I assumed Fleming had always lived in the States; in fact tracking him down was easy because he’s been in Britain since 1981. “I met an Englishwoman and we got married,” he explains, and although he and Jennifer, a former model and daughter of the mayor of Leeds, are no longer together, he’s continued to be based in London to be near their three children.
“Jen and I have stayed good friends. We just didn’t manage to work out the living-together bit. But, you know, I don’t think I would have even contemplated marrying someone from here if I hadn’t had such a big attraction to the culture. All the music I listened to when I was growing up was British: the Beatles, of course, who once held all of the top-five positions in the charts at my favourite radio station, and also the Dave Clarke Five and the Animals. The first record I bought was by Herman’s Hermits.
“My first trip to the UK, aged 18, was my first anywhere, if you don’t count Bermuda. It was the BP Cup in Torquay and Vitas was in the team, too.” Fleming pauses to think of his friend, poisoned in his sleep at 40 by carbon monoxide from a faulty pool heater. “Vitas had an electric personality, a great sense of humour and everybody loved him from the start.” That must have been a memorable trip for such an anglophile, I say. “Well, it was Torquay. Much as I wanted to, I can’t say I felt like I was inhabiting the Britain of all those songs I loved. The thing I remember most was the thick fog, like something out of an old ghost movie.”
There was nothing clouding Fleming’s judgement in 1978 when possibly the meanest gunslinger act in doubles was founded. “When John joined the men’s tour I was the only guy he knew. Soon we were practising every day, then going out for a few beers. He was playing doubles with other guys, as was I, and I remember him saying to me: ‘Maybe we should try and play together because if we’re decent it would be fun.’”
Second tournament into the arrangement, fun maybe wasn’t the word they would have chosen. “I thought I got a bad call in San Francisco and complained about it. Then John took up the cause. Honestly, it was bedlam. If we’d had a chainsaw we would have cut through the umpire’s chair. We were out of control and ended up losing the match. I knew that couldn’t happen again. Someone was going to have to be the emotional anchor, or the one who didn’t go completely mad, and it would have to be me.”
Their fifth tourney was Wimbledon where the crowds love to watch the old stagers year after year, especially in doubles, only for one such twosome, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, to be blitzed by the new team. Then a few months later they did the same thing to Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan. One bald and the other flat-capped, this was the most revered duo of them all.
Young and impetuous, Fleming was unimpressed by Wimbledon’s history and even more so its stuffiness. “Tradition wasn’t a big thing for John and I. If Wimbledon was seen as being representative of your culture, then it bore absolutely no relation to ours in America. We just didn’t get it. But then John and I were rebels. That was why we hit it off.”
Fleming and McEnroe – a truly frustrated rock star, who later formed his own band – would cement their sullen association at David Bowie, Elvis Costello and Pretenders concerts. They attended many gigs but never a punk-rock one, which is ironic since McEnroe would be labelled tennis’s punk for his rants at line-judges and destruction of drinks-stands under a cloud of chalkdust.
Most of his legendary blow-ups happened in singles when his big buddy wasn’t around. Fleming, though, is keen I don’t portray him as the sensible one in their relationship. “I never told John to count to ten or anything. He would probably have rammed a racquet down on my head. Sometimes I wouldn’t back him up over a bad call, even though I knew it to be bad. We’d need to have been winning easily. ‘Let it go,’ I’d tell him. ‘We’re killing these guys.’”
Maybe they helped each other for Fleming’s worst excesses would also happen in singles where he managed to reach No 8 in the world. Ask him to describe his behaviour on court and he gives it to you straight: “I was idiotic. I had a terrible temper which cost me a lot of matches. I think, ‘Whoa, how stoopid were you?’, but really I don’t like to dwell on that period. I’m in a slightly more enlightened phase of my life right now and don’t want to re-live what an obnoxious jerk I was. And this is the stoopidest bit: the match, trying to win, would get forgotten about. The really important thing was me, out there, being angry.
“It’s been interesting watching Andy Murray because there have been times in his career when getting angry seemed more important to him. I failed to deal with the black cloud, the red mist, whatever you want to call it. Andy’s managed to overcome the problem or maybe he thinks he’s using those moments to his advantage.
“John believed his outbursts made him play better but I’m not sure I agree with that theory. If you analyse Andy’s wins at Wimbledon, the US Open and in the Olympics, I don’t think he lost his temper at all. He’s really holding everything together at the moment and seeing if he can maintain that over the next fortnight is going to be fascinating. But there’s never been anyone better than John for snapping right back into a game. He’d have the blow-up and then his auto-focus mechanism would kick in. The other guy would still be dealing with the argument.”
Fleming believes that the golden era of men’s doubles, which included John Newcombe/Tony Roche and Rod Laver/Roy Emerson, ended with McEnroe. “He was the last big superstar to play them. [Bjorn] Borg decided he was making enough money anyway and didn’t need doubles and then Jimmy [Connors] followed suit, even though he and [Ilie] Nastase had been a good pairing.” McEnroe has criticised the state of doubles recently, describing it as being “the slow guys not quick enough for singles”. Fleming, who reckons his pal was even better at doubles than singles, has long held the view that doubles improves your all-round game, committing you to volleying, although he’s noticed a trend among the current generation to be more aggressive at the net and that includes Murray.
So: can our man win Wimbledon again? “He’s got a lot of things working for him right now. He’s moving well and striking the ball really confidently.” One of these things would seem to be wedded bliss. McEnroe reckoned that when he married first wife Tatum O’Neal he had to “unlearn the ferocity” of tennis to try to become a good husband and father – where does Fleming stand on an issue much debated right now? “There are marriages and marriages. It’s clear that Kim is dedicated to Andy’s career, at least in the short-term. She’s part of his team.
“She’s involved in every match, every point. I think marriage sometimes works. And if it doesn’t work for a guy’s career, well, you know, it might still turn him into a more well-rounded human being.” And what about the man blocking the road to glory, Novak Djokovic? “Well, how many times has Andy lost to him in the final of Wimbledon?”
It’s been said of Fleming that he was so committed to doubles with McEnroe that his singles career suffered. “When my ranking slipped to three hundred and something horrible I stopped doubles for a while but it actually got worse. I didn’t know what it was that got me as high as eight and so didn’t know how to retrieve it. I just flew by the seat of my pants. Blaming doubles was just an excuse but I did feel obligated to the partnership.”
The partnership didn’t last. He wishes these two uptight Americans had managed to have more laughs on court. “We fell out. The chemistry between us had gone and we became just a business arrangement. Once or twice we came close to blows. But John was best man at my wedding and he’s godfather to one of my kids and down the years we’ve managed to patch up our friendship. It’s good again.” Fleming insists he was never jealous of McEnroe’s success without him. That, he says, would have been stoopid. When McEnroe contested the 1980 Wimbledon final with Borg – maybe tennis’s greatest match, certainly producing the greatest tie-break, which Nelson Mandela revealed he followed on radio while imprisoned on Robben Island – Fleming remembers where he was, too: “I watched it with Jen and was rooting for my guy.”
It’s difficult to reconcile the urbane, polite, witty fellow I’ve met today with his former hotheaded self. Where did – his description – that jerk come from? “I’ve been wondering this a lot recently,” he says. “My dad Alan worked on Wall Street and played seniors – we actually won a father-and-son tournament together – but he was a real laid-back fella. I must have met a hundred people in my career who’ve told me what a nice guy he was, which proved to me you can make an impression on people by being low-key. I wish I could have been more considered in my behaviour.
“But then there was my mum, Sally. She just died two weeks ago, aged 93, and my brothers and I have been reminiscing about her. She was a rebel so that must be where I got it from. The tennis academy I was telling you about weren’t going to enrol me. Mum demanded to speak to the owner and was on the phone to him for almost an hour. ‘Whaddya mean you don’t take kids from New Jersey?’ she was shouting, while I sat on the floor at home wondering how this was going to pan out. Well, she got me in. Like a dog with a bone, she was. Just like that guy McEnroe … ”