McEnroe's Rise From Child Prodigy To No. 1… 40 Years On
With exclusive insight from John McEnroe’s former coach and friends, James Buddell of ATPTour.com recounts how the American quickly rose from junior to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Forty years since first becoming No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, John McEnroe remains inimitable, iconic, and fiercely relevant in the sport for which he transcended. Aged 21 years and 16 days, the American found himself following in the footsteps of four previous World No. 1s — Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg — on 3 March 1980, when he also became the sport’s first dual No. 1, having been at the top of the doubles game for 49 weeks since 23 April 1979.
“To look and go, ‘Oh my God, there’s not one person above me is not something when I was growing up that I was expecting to happen," said McEnroe, 40 years to the day that he got to No. 1. "It was quite surprising to look at my name and below it be like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors." The 1981-84 year-end ATP Tour No. 1 added, "It depends on the player, but the most important thing when I was playing was who's No. 1 at the end of the year. That was the most important. You were the best overall. Your 12-month results were the best of anyone."
It was a remarkably quick rise for a player who turned pro in June 1978 at The Queen’s Club, one year after reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals as a No. 270th-ranked qualifier. Arthur Ashe, that same year, commented, famously, “Against Connors and Borg you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer. But this guy is a stiletto. ‘Junior’ has great balance and hands, and he just slices people up. He's got a ton of shots. It's slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you've got blood all over you, even though the wounds aren't deep. Soon after that, you've bled to death."
By January 1979, McEnroe, whose game was based on precision, touch and versatility, was among the world’s Top 5 after beating Ashe at the 1978 year-end championships at Madison Square Garden, a 30-minute journey from his childhood home of Douglaston, NY, where he’d first picked up a racquet. Always speedy around the court, in his first few years as a pro, McEnroe continued to develop his fast left-handed serve, laced with deadly spin and worked on his stunning, feathery volleys. “On the court, he only concerned himself about winning the next point,” Peter Fleming, his long-time friend and doubles partner, tells ATPTour.com. “Early on, you could see that John was willing to have a bigger game and try to win points. His awareness of the court, of the game, of everything, was so elevated.”
McEnroe, who would go on to lift the 1979 US Open title over his great friend Vitas Gerulaitis before first becoming No. 1, would spend a total of 170 weeks across a record 14 different stints as the top-ranked singles player until 8 September 1985. “Arguably, the most fun years of my career were when I was moving up,” said McEnroe, who finished 1981-84 as the world’s premier player. “I put a lot more emphasis on finishing the year as high as possible. I was more into the idea that tennis wasn’t about two or three tournaments, it was about a full season. It was about consistency.” His partnership with Fleming, which reaped 54 team titles, ensured three concurrent years as both the singles and doubles No. 1 (1981-83). McEnroe, who used doubles matches as a way to practise his exceptional touch and sharpen up his singles game, would ultimately register a total of 269 weeks, over eight periods, in top spot of the FedEx ATP Doubles Rankings until 24 September 1989.
McEnroe was ear-marked for great deeds from a young age, once his parents, lawyer John Sr. and powerful matriarch Kay, moved from Flushing, Queens, to the small town of Douglaston, 30 minutes from Manhattan, in 1963. Both were terrifically supportive — and ambitious — for their three sons, John, Mark and Patrick McEnroe, who also became a pro, future Davis Cup captain and broadcaster. “John McEnroe Sr. was absolutely fundamental to being the best at something, but it’s underestimated how much of an influence his mother, Kay, had on John,” McEnroe’s childhood friend, Mary Carillo, tells ATPTour.com. “John tells the story about if he trotted home from school with a 98 on his test, she’d say ‘Where are the other two points?’ If you listen to John and Patrick, it was Kay who wanted John McEnroe Sr. to be a great lawyer at a big firm and was very ambitious for her sons, too. It is a family brimming with ambition and the bar was set very high. No wonder, memorable tales are legion.
Summer 1969: The Douglaston Club, Douglaston, NY. The McEnroe household is a block away from the cement backboards that everybody uses to practise on at a Club that has three clay courts and two hard courts. An 11-year-old Carillo can hang with John, aged nine, giving him a decent game, but not today on Court No. 4. “He absolutely dismissed everything I had that day,” remembers Carillo, 40 years on. “We stopped to get water and I said to John, ‘You are a great player and you’ll be No. 1 in the world one day.” McEnroe’s reply is swift, ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Carillo, who has forged a career as a successful broadcaster, adds, "I consider that to be my first tennis commentary and my first review.
“You just had to look at him, his strokes were tidy and tight and homemade. The spacing between his body and ball was remarkable, even when he was seven years old. My game was taught; coaches really had to teach me about my strokes and grips, but every time John went after a ball, he was doing something different with it: harder, flatter, cutting it, rolling over it. And this was in wooden tennis days. If you wanted to be imaginative, you had to work really hard.”
Summer 1971: The Port Washington Tennis Academy, Port Washington, NY. Director Harry Hopman, the captain and coach of 22 Davis Cup winning teams for Australia, is giving Slazenger's executive John Barrett a tour. Mr Hopman points into the distance and says, ‘Look over there, that kid will be No. 1 in the world one day.’ The same year, a 16-year-old Fleming, who also trains at the indoor facility located on Long Island, fancies his chances against the player he’d nickname ‘Junior’. “How good can he be?” says Fleming, eyeing up the confident-looking 12-year-old McEnroe from the confines of the café. “I’ll give him a 4-0, 30/0 lead. I was a big powerful guy. His racquet was bigger than him... I lost five sets in a row and I couldn’t even win the 30/0 game. He bunted the ball back and I made mistakes. I was just a kid, but he was a 12-year-old that Mr Hopman had already identified. There was obviously something that was far more advanced than the rest of us. All I saw was he was a precocious little kid, who was happy to hang around older kids and compete against them.”
Fleming, who hadn’t yet started to dream about becoming a touring pro as a 16-year-old, adds, “His Mum always said he was special. He was mature from a young age. I don’t know where he learned it, or where he developed it, but a lot of us panicked in the face of greatness, saying, ‘I have to do this, or I have to do that, or no chance!’ He never had that conversation with himself, I don’t think. A lot of players beat themselves before they walk onto the court. He never did. It was more like, ‘We’ll see what happens’.”
Summer 1972: The Douglaston Club Championship, Douglaston, NY. “We had some pretty good players at the Club,” recalls Carillo. “John was barely a teenager when he won the Men’s Open title. He had to beat a very accomplished player in Mr Stine, Brendan Stine, who was in his 60s and had already won the club title a bunch of times. On the day of the club final, here was this little kid, who had the nickname ‘Runt’, going up against the club champion. Everyone assumed that Mr Stine would win again, but I said, ‘No, John’s going to win easily, and quickly’. The way he was able to go after the ball, all of his weight was going into the ball... I’d never seen anything like it.
Summer 1977: Roland Garros, Paris, and Wimbledon, London. McEnroe, who has now grown to almost six-feet tall, is in Paris to play the junior event, but he qualifies for his first Grand Slam singles championship main draw, where he loses to Phil Dent 4-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the second round. Carillo and McEnroe go onto capture the Roland Garros mixed trophy over Florenta Mihai and Ivan Molina 7-6, 6-4. Three weeks later at the All England Club, 18-year-old McEnroe qualifies once more and reaches the quarter-finals, where he faces Dent, who is the No. 13 seed. “We went out for chicken pizza, as we ate every night that fortnight,” says Carillo. “John said to me, ‘If I lose to this guy again, I’m hanging it up.’” Dent was one of the seeds at Wimbledon in 1977, but McEnroe was serious. He beat Dent [in five sets], which included kicking his racquet across the hallowed turf and crying out, 'No way I'm losing to this *** guy," and "Jesus, how much longer before I get a *** call in this *** place.'" Top seed Connors finally shuts McEnroe down [6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4] in the semi-finals.
Spring 1978: Trinity University vs. Stanford University, San Antonio, TX. McEnroe is feeling under the weather, but he’s a 1977 Wimbledon semi-finalist. Two thousand people have turned up to watch as No. 2-ranked Trinity take on top-ranked Stanford University in a two-day mixed match on 31 March and 1 April. “I was having a few confidence issues, as I wasn’t playing too well,” recalls Larry Gottfried, the younger brother of former World No. 3 Brian Gottfried, to ATPTour.com. “Our coach said, ‘Stanford is coming, someone has to play him. Are you afraid?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not afraid. I’ve known him since I was 12.’ Our coach said, ‘No one else knows him like you do, so even if you lose and everyone else wins, we can still win the match.’ With that vote of confidence, I said, ‘I can’t tell you that I will win or lose, but I’m not afraid.’ He said, ‘Alright, you’re on.’ I didn’t have any kind of game plan, but I kept the ball in play and won [6-3, 7-6]. He tired towards the end and I knew he wasn’t the McEnroe I knew.” McEnroe suffers only one other singles loss to South African Eddie Edwards that year, and finishes his college career with the NCAA singles title and team championship for Stanford University. “He had a lot of pressure on him all year every time he stepped out on court, because he was John McEnroe now,” says Gottfried. “Every match and every practice he played, he had pressure. I’m sure the match at Trinity was a microcosm of how he felt every match in his whole career.”
Fall 1978: Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, CA. McEnroe’s childhood idol, 1962 and 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam champion Rod Laver, watches courtside as the 19-year-old dismantles Briton John Lloyd 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. Laver comments in an interview, “It’s an honour to be compared to him.” McEnroe, making his singles debut in the competition, finishes the first of his five Davis Cup final victories (1978-79, 1981-82 and 1992) having lost only 10 games in six sets, breaking the 12-games record of games lost in a final tie, held by both Bill Tilden and Bjorn Borg. The United States, which included Stan Smith, has its first silver-gilt trophy since 1972.
It was Chuck McKinley, the 1963 Wimbledon champion, who assured John McEnroe Sr. that it was right to entrust the coaching of his 12-year-old son to Tony Palafox, who had moved to New York City in 1968. “One year later, in 1969, McEnroe’s father heard about my programme and asked McKinley, ‘How is Tony Palafox?’ Chuck said, ‘He is very good and honest’,” Palafox tells ATPTour.com. Palafox, who had won the 1962 US Nationals and 1963 Wimbledon doubles titles with fellow Mexican Rafael Osuna, grew tired after five years of competing and the international travel, so he relocated to study at college in Texas for four years. He later picked up work at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, 20 minutes from Douglaston.
“Within a year or two I had switched his grip to a Continental grip, then we worked like that every day,” remembers 83-year-old Palafox, who currently works at the Carl Sanders YMCA in Atlanta. “He would work and work until he got used to it. He learned very quickly, but he forgot very quickly too. He was never frustrating [to coach] and always listened to me about what I had to say. He always paid attention and he never said, ‘No’. He always tried. He might not have got it on the first shot, but on the third or fourth he’d make the shot. He may forget, but the next day he’d call me and we’d pick it up right away.
“He was always working for something. He would never tell you what he wanted to do, only to win and he would work and work. Sometimes he may lose a set, but he never got excited or lost his patience. He learnt to wait and go for the next stroke, how to hit the next shot. He always wanted to win with the right stroke production, not by luck.”
McEnroe came under the eagle eye of Hopman, who likened some of his stroke-play to Neale Fraser and even to Palafox’s slice backhand. Fleming says "John's game was like Tony's." Two one-hour sessions each week with Palafox, developed into an additional two, two-hour group lessons with future World No. 40 Peter Rennert and two other boys. “Even if I wasn’t directly with him, and he’d be in a group lesson, I’d still be watching him,” says Palafox, who also worked with Gerulaitis and, later, Greg Rusedski. The extra lessons didn’t deter McEnroe from excelling at school or on the basketball court, football pitch or track. Tennis was fun, not yet a full-time pursuit for McEnroe. When Palafox later moved his junior program to the Cove Racquet Club in Glen Cove, on Long Island, the Douglaston teenager followed.
Experience told as McEnroe started to match himself up against the pros, beginning with the 1974 US Open doubles tournament. Gottfried, who’d first played McEnroe in the 12-and-under US Nationals in Tennessee in 1971, believes the New Yorker's game came together significantly between August 1976 and May 1977. “I was in college that year and he was in high school,” recalls Gottfried. “I played him in August 1976 and won a match because he got tired. He never took great care of himself in the juniors, but we played again in May 1977, I played one of the best matches I ever played and I lost 6-2, 6-2. Something happened in that period where things started to come together, and he became more dedicated. That helped him to become a pro.”
Laver, who played at his last major championship at 1977 Wimbledon, remembers a young McEnroe’s innate ability to play the right shot. “I was very impressed with the way he covered the court, his volleying ability and where to hit the ball at the right time. He just knew what to do when he was a junior and when he hit the Open ranks, that he had to adjust very quickly as pros hit the ball harder. He got to No. 1 aged 21, so it was a transition, but he was ready for it. He had all the strokes, but he had the game already, he just needed to speed it up. When you come from the juniors it takes time to understand the different speeds of strokes and what works. McEnroe was already doing that as a junior, so it was a great asset. He did so many different things well, including how he hit his heavily spun serve, which was a big weapon. He always seemed to be one stroke ahead of everybody and came up with different strokes.”
Carillo admits, “John understood early on that his game was world-class, even though he was a junior playing in the senior events. He understood how disruptive it was and how clever his serve and volley game was becoming. I don’t think he felt anything was terrible unexpected and immediately he felt like he belonged.”
As McEnroe’s star burned bright on his ascent into the Top 5 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, Palafox admits pre-match tactical discussions were infrequent. “I told him to never repeat a shot and always hit the ball opposite to where the ball came from,” says Palafox, who would coach McEnroe for 17 years. “After the third or fourth shot you can switch it, but then mix it up: forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand. I told him to remember that after the first three games of the match, you should know how your opponent plays and begin working against them.”
Fleming agrees, as his chemistry with McEnroe was almost instantaneous. “We virtually didn’t talk tactics at all, it was more about, ‘We’re going to do what we’re going to do’,” says Fleming, who won seven straight year-end championship titles with McEnroe at Madison Square Garden between 1978 and 1984. “Very quickly we became confident it was going to be enough. The fifth tournament we played together we got to the 1978 Wimbledon final. We’d only played three tournaments before we played Queen’s that year – which was the first tournament he played as a pro. Then we played straight through, and I think it was the 10th tournament that I thought we were No. 1 in the world, the best team.
“I am sure he was nervous before every big match, but you could never look at him and say, ‘Geez, he’s really tight’. He always started matches quickly. I always felt that when I played, I was always struggling the first four games and my goal was to get to 2-2, and then I would relax. But he was ‘boom’ from the first point, he relaxed into matches. Maybe he thought, ‘I’m going to play in myself, do nothing special and just run until I feel the shot. Then he would go for his shots. But he didn’t give much of anything away, which is the case with a lot of great players.” McEnroe and Fleming won 25 doubles titles through 1978 and 1979.
Ultimately, for Palafox, there was no surprise when 21-year-old McEnroe finally stood at the top of the FedEx ATP Rankings on 3 March 1980, 40 years ago today.
“No, because he was playing the way you should play against everybody, changing the pace on strokes,” says the Mexican, who still keeps a keen eye on the sport from his Atlanta base. “Most players don’t know how to hit a soft shot, they go for big, big shots, then change the pace. When he changed the pace on the shot, players didn’t know how to retrieve softer shots or with spin. He played a different game to everybody. He is still doing that at ATP Champions Tour events.
“A lot of people that I teach today want to imitate John, but there is only one John McEnroe. When I listen to his television commentary today, I can close my eyes and hear him telling the audience exactly what I taught him as a 15-year-old. It’s amazing!”
McEnroe today stands seventh in the list of most weeks spent at World No. 1 (since 1973) and his legacy endures. His 155 combined titles — 77 in singles and 78 in doubles — remains an ATP Tour record and so too does his astonishing 1984 season, when he compiled an 82-3 match record — a 96.5 winning percentage — for the best single-year winning percentage in singles in ATP Tour history. Twenty-six years after hanging up his racquets — not withstanding a mini comeback in doubles in 2006 — 61-year-old McEnroe is engaging as ever.
As Carillo says, “He was not just a remarkable No. 1, but also a glistening tennis player. He is intellectually curious about a lot of things. If he could have been any kind of artist, he would have been a musician. If he’d chosen any sport to be great in, it would have been basketball. He landed on tennis and he did justice to that.”