John McEnroe’s Most Controversial Moments

Sports writer George Plimpton once said of John McEnroe, “He’s the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis. What’s the incentive to behave if that’s how you play your best?” True enough, tennis superstar John McEnroe has never been one to mind his Ps and Qs, on or off the court. Here are some of his most eyebrow-raising moments.

16. “You cannot be serious!”

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To this day, John McEnroe is synonymous with his angry outburst, “You cannot be serious!” The tennis champ first yelled these four words at a line judge whilst competing against Tom Gullikson at Wimbledon in 1981, and it quickly became his catchphrase.

McEnroe would go on to yell “You cannot be serious” at a number of tennis officials. It would also be the title of his 2002 autobiography.

15. He was the first player to be disqualified from the Australian Open for misconduct

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McEnroe’s ferocious temper and lack of restraint on the court was finally deemed to have gone too far at the 1990 Australian Open. After some decisions McEnroe did not agree with, he intimidated a line judge, smashed his racket, hurled abuse at the umpire and told another official to “go f*** your mother.”

McEnroe’s series of outbursts contravened newly-introduced misconduct rules, and he became the first player at the event to be disqualified on those grounds.

14. He was barred from the Queen’s Club after swearing at the club chairman’s wife

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McEnroe was set on practising at London’s historic Queen’s Club in July 1985 when he was told by the wife of the club’s chairman that his desired court was reserved. This resulted in an angry, expletive-ridden outburst which saw McEnroe’s membership rescinded.

Years later, McEnroe issued a formal apology for this and had his membership reinstated.

13. He told Brad Gilbert, “You don’t deserve to be on the same court as me!” before losing and retiring

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Before his initial retirement in 1986, McEnroe’s ego was at full force. Facing Brad Gilbert at the Masters Cup that year, McEnroe spat, “Gilbert, you don’t deserve to be on the same court as me! You are the worst. The worst!” Nonetheless, Gilbert won the match.

McEnroe announced his retirement afterwards, sourly grumbling, “When I start losing to players like him, I’ve got to reconsider what I’m doing even playing this game.”

12. He was kicked out of a tournament for making an obscene gesture at spectators aged almost 50

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Not everyone mellows with age, as McEnroe demonstrated in 2008 when, aged 49, he was ejected from the Hall of Fame Champions Cup in Rhode Island for misconduct.

It was all fairly standard McEnroe behaviour: first he swore on the court, then argued with an official. Finally, he made a crude gesture at spectators who complained at him to get on with the game, and this was enough to see him lose by default.

11. He’s disparaged all women tennis players

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McEnroe has been widely blasted as sexist for his outspoken dismissal of the entire field of women’s tennis. Infamously, he remarked during the 2010 US Open that female tennis players “shouldn’t be playing as many events as the men.”

McEnroe continued, “The women have it better in tennis than in any other sport, thanks to Billie Jean King. But you shouldn’t push them to play more than they’re capable of.”

10. His Serena Williams comments caused outrage

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In a 2017 interview, McEnroe had some strong words to say when his interviewer suggested Serena Williams was the best tennis player in the world. While McEnroe said Williams was the “best female player ever, no question,” he argued “if she played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world.”

Once again, McEnroe was widely accused of sexism, but he has repeatedly refused to apologise for his statement. Williams later remarked that McEnroe’s comments were “not factually based.”

9. His marriage to Tatum O’Neal ended badly

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In the mid-80s, McEnroe became half of a major celebrity couple when he dated and then married actress Tatum O’Neal. Reports claim it was a tempestuous union, one which ended in divorce in 1994, by which time they had three children.

McEnroe stated in his autobiography that he was granted sole custody of the children as O’Neal was a drug addict. In response, O’Neal accused McEnroe of spousal abuse and steroid use.

8. He said that Wimbledon was “too much” for Emma Raducanu

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When British teenage tennis sensation Emma Raducanu pulled out of Wimbledon 2021 after struggling with breathing difficulties, McEnroe offended many by stating the event was “a bit too much for her.”

McEnroe dismissed complaints about his remarks: “Compared to a lot of other things I’ve said in the past, I mean that was to me as vanilla… the papers over in England. Sometimes they, like, make a big deal out of, to me, nothing.” He also praised Raducanu’s subsequent victory at the US Open.

7. He defended Novak Djokovic

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The biggest tennis scandal in many years came when Novak Djokovic was barred from the 2022 Australian Open over his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19. True to form, McEnroe had some provocative words to say on the subject.

McEnroe dismissed Djokovic’s dismissal as “total BS… He’s got very strong beliefs; he’s entitled to those beliefs.” McEnroe later backtracked on this slightly, but called the situation “really unfortunate for a guy who had worked so hard.”

6. He called Tomáš Šmíd a ‘Communist b***ard’

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Another opponent whom McEnroe delighted in talking trash about was Tomáš Šmíd, a Czech player (from what was then Czechoslovakia). At a 1983 event in Forest Hills, New York, McEnroe offended his opponent and just about everyone in Czechoslovakia by calling him a “Communist b***ard.”

McEnroe was hit with a $1,000 fine for the remark. When the two men next met on the court, there was unsurprisingly massive tension between them. McEnroe almost hit Šmíd in the face with the ball and both men talked a lot of trash at one another, although McEnroe ultimately emerged victorious.

5. He was massively racist at a Boris Becker match

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In 1987, McEnroe was playing a Davis Cup match against Boris Becker when he was openly racist towards a number of people. When he didn’t like the call of a black linesman, McEnroe yelled, “I didn’t know they had black Germans,” and when an American spectator yelled “you can’t trust a frog” at a French umpire, McEnroe replied, “you’d better believe it.”

Other racist outbursts from McEnroe during the event included complaining to a German official, “What the hell country are you in? …Hey, sprechen Sie English?”, as well as yelling, “Go eat some more sauerkraut.”

4. He was fined $10,000 after telling a TV crew member to “stick that mike up your a**”

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McEnroe was his usual powder keg of rage at a 1987 US open match against Slobodan Zivojinovicn. He got into a heated debate (not that there’s any other kind with McEnroe) with the umpire, then told a TV crew member holding a microphone, “do me a favour and stick that mike up your a**.”

This comment was caught in the recording, and this (combined with his expletives against the umpire and other officials) saw McEnroe hit with a $10,000 fine and suspended from play for two months.

3. He yelled “answer the question, jerk” before smashing up glasses with his racket in Stockholm

Another of McEnroe’s most infamous meltdowns occurred in Stockholm in 1984. During one of his signature arguments with an official, McEnroe failed to get the response he wanted, leading him to yell “answer the question, jerk.” On top of all this, he proceeded to hit a ball directly into the crowd then used his racket to destroy a nearby tray of drinks.

McEnroe was subsequently suspended from play for three weeks and hit with a $7,500 fine. (In case you were wondering just how much McEnroe has had to pay for his misbehaviour, his career fines amount to a total of $69,500, according to Deseret News.)

2. He had a bitter rivalry with Jimmy Connors

Lest we accuse McEnroe of being the one and only ‘bad boy’ of tennis, we can hardly fail to mention Jimmy Connors. Breaking through in the sport in the mid-70s, Connors was also known for his fiery temperament, so it’s hardly surprising the two had an antagonistic relationship. McEnroe and Connors faced one another 34 times between 1977 and 1991, and the matches were rarely without incident.

When McEnroe beat Connors at Wimbledon in 1980, things got so rough that the crowd later booed McEnroe at his next match against Björn Borg. Later, at a 1982 match Connors marched over to McEnroe, and the men appeared close to blows. McEnroe has since stated that he “always respected” Connors, but considers him a “complete a**hole.”

1. He performed an unexpected Nirvana cover at one of his wife’s gigs

This one wasn’t exactly a controversial moment, but it certainly raised a few eyebrows. Since 1997, McEnroe has been married to Patty Smyth, the American rock singer who made her name with the band Scandal in the 80s. At a 2015 concert in New York, Smyth surprised the audience by inviting her husband on stage.

A video of this went viral, and many were surprised by the song McEnroe performed, Nirvana’s Territorial P***ings. If anything, it came as a surprise to see the angriest man in sport performing such an angry song in a comparatively sedate manner.