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.


The “You cannot be serious!” outburst

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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.

McEnroe became the first player to be disqualified from the Australian Open for misconduct

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At the 1990 Australian Open, McEnroe’s lack of restraint on the court got the better of him, with his behaviour ultimately seeing him asked to leave the competition. In a fourth-round match against Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors, McEnroe was given two conduct code violations, for staring down a line judge and smashing his racket, before he was finally disqualified for hurling abuse at umpire Gerry Armstrong.

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

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 This resulted in an angry, expletive-ridden outburst which saw McEnroe’s membership rescinded.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.

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.”

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.

He argued with a spectator at the 1990 US Open

During a televised match at the US Open in 1990, McEnroe (using uncharacteristically polite language to an umpire) asked if there was “any possibility” a female spectator on the front row could be made to quiet down, complaining, “she’s yelling right in the middle of my serve.”

McEnroe paused the match, proceeded to march over to the woman in question and verbally berated her from the sidelines. Then, as McEnroe walked away, the TV camera clearly made out the woman mouthing the word “a***ole” in his direction. We’ll call this McEnroe vs Spectator match a draw.

He 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.”

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.”

His marriage to Tatum O’Neal ended in allegations of abuse

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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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

He was fined $10,000 after telling a TV crew member to “stick that mic 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 mic 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.

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 my question! 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.)

He had a bitter rivalry with Jimmy Connors

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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.”

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.

He was denied membership in the All England Tennis Club over his behaviour

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London’s Queen’s club was not the only place to refuse McEnroe membership and entry throughout his controversial tennis career. Owing to his bad behaviour on the court, McEnroe was also prevented from joining the All England Tennis club in 1982, becoming the first singles winner in over 100 years to not be afforded automatic membership.

When asked how he felt about the refusal, McEnroe only doubled down, saying: “I wanted to spend the evening with my family and friends and the people who had supported me, not a bunch of stiffs who are 70, 80 years old, telling you that you’re acting like a jerk.”

His legendary 1981 Wimbledon “vultures” speech

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It may be lesser known than the “You cannot be serious!” line, but McEnroe actually had more to say at his 1981 Wimbledon match against Tom Gullikson. McEnroe went on to tell umpire Edward James: “That ball was on the line, chalk flew up! It was clearly in, how can you possibly call that out? How many are you going to miss?”

“He’s walking over, everyone knows it’s in, this whole stadium and you call it out?” he added. “Explain that to me, will you? You guys are the absolute pits of the world! Vultures. Trash!” Although McEnroe lost a point and was fined $1,500 for this tirade, reportedly some spectators applauded him in agreement.

He admitted to using weed, cocaine and steroids at the height of his career

Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Tribeca FestivalMcEnroe has been open about the fact that, over the course of his tennis career, he indulged in both weed and cocaine, saying: “These days they take performance-enhancing drugs. We were taking performance-detracting drugs. Putting smoke in your mouth isn’t the best thing.”

McEnroe has also claimed publicly that for six years he was given steroids without knowing it, saying in a recent interview: “For six years I was unaware I was being given a form of steroid of the legal kind they used to give horses until they decided it was too strong even for horses.”

He was the only player capable of sending the ‘icy’ Björn Borg into a rage

McEnroe’s own bad behaviour is well documented, but he was a bad influence on others, too. McEnroe’s legendary rivalry with Björn Borg saw the pair dubbed ‘Fire and Ice’, with McEnroe’s fiery temper contrasted by Borg’s cool and unflappable calm.

McEnroe’s intensity did eventually rub off on Borg, however. Borg picked up penalties for arguing with the umpire for the first time in his career when playing against McEnroe in 1980, and the Swede finished the match by storming off the court without acknowledging either the umpire or his rival. Remarkably, McEnroe and Borg have since become good friends.

He fired his own father as his manager

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John McEnroe had a troubled relationship with his alcoholic father John Patrick McEnroe. Though the John Jr said his dad was “mostly a happy drunk”, John’s younger brother Patrick once claimed that John got his temper from his father, saying: “They were both very driven. They both had a tendency to lash out.”

Father and son’s clashing personalities led to the low point of their relationship in 1986, when John fired the senior McEnroe as his long-term manager. This caused a feud that endured without being resolved before John Patrick McEnroe’s death in 2017. John Jr said of the firing: “He took that terribly. It was like I had stabbed him in the back.”

He fought his own Davis Cup captain

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In 1981, John McEnroe and his partner were facing Guillermo Vilas and José-Luis Clerc, from Argentina, in the Davis Cup doubles final. The odds were both figuratively and literally in the Americans’ favour, but that didn’t stop the tense, five-set battle from getting the best of McEnroe.

Throughout the final, McEnroe yelled at his opposition for taking too long between points, yelled at the crowd for cheering too loudly, and even forced his captain Arthur Ashe to walk out onto the court twice to break up fights. At his lowest point, McEnroe even threatened to fire his captain on the spot, although Ashe stuck it out until 1995, when he resigned due to McEnroe’s attitude.

His rivalry with ‘talentless’ Ivan Lendl lasted 36 games over 12 years

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In many sports, professional athletes get less than a decade of playing at their prime before having to retire. The battle between John McEnroe and Czech player Ivan ‘The Terrible’ Lendl, however, was able to rage for over a decade.

The pair played 36 games together over 12 years, with McEnroe dominating in the early years and Lendl triumphing in the latter. Lendl was famous for responding to McEnroe’s explosive remarks with cool indifference, such as when McEnroe said of Lendl: “I have more talent in my little finger than he has in his entire body.”

He thinks the Royal Family should bow to players, not vice versa

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In his third autobiography, released in 2022, McEnroe explains why he resents the tradition of players bowing to royal guests at tennis matches. “As for all the bowing and curtsying ‒ and we’re not just talking about the Queen here, we’re talking about some pretty minor royals ‒ what was all that about?” he wrote.

“This was the class system gone mad, the opposite of a meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded and people are respected because they’ve actually done something, not because they’ve been born on the right side of the tracks,” he elaborated. “Who were the performers here? The players, right? So why were they bowing to someone else when they were about to provide the entertainment? Those people in the Royal Box should think about bowing to them.”

He accused Bernard Tomic of ‘tanking’

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In the 2012 US Open, 19-year-old Australian star Bernard Tomic was abruptly defeated by Andy Roddick. Earlier that same year, McEnroe was full of praise for the rising star: “He’s a very savvy player for a young kid. He’s going to get stronger.” But after Tomic’s defeat, McEnroe changed his tune and accused him of ‘tanking’ (intentionally losing a game).

While commentating for ESPN, McEnroe stated that Tomic appeared to show “concentration problems”, adding: “Tomic is teeing it up. It looks like the tank job.” This embarrassing allegation stuck with Tomic over the years, and he later earned the nickname Tomic the Tank Engine. However, at the 2012 event, Tomic was cleared of tanking by officials and he angrily rejected McEnroe’s claims.