Published on June 26th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
Wimbledon’s Bad Boys
In 2007, I interviewed Wimbledon’s most celebrated “bad boys” for Radio Times, including John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, plus a couple of “nice” players to comment on their naughty brethren.
Picture it; John McEnroe, standing by the umpire’s chair, berating the official, piling up the sarcasm, adding his own sense of victimhood. “It’s not that complicated!” he bellows, temperature rising. “You completely f***ked that thing up… to make matters worse, you call ME for a warning. Don’t sit there and tell me the ball was good!” It’s a classic scene. Except you didn’t watch it on TV back in the day; this was McEnroe playing Pat Cash on the seniors tour in March 2007, captured by a digital camera and posted on Youtube
When did you last see such behaviour on a tennis court? But like it or not, it’s what made the game so compulsive. Of course we love the dazzling artistry – bad behaviour alone would be boorish and boring – but what made tennis heroic was the never-say-die attitude and those heated rivalries – McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors versus Bjorn Borg. Don’t forget the game’s original hot-head Ilie Nastase, next-generation successors like Goran Ivanisevic and today’s Lleyton “C’mon!!” Hewitt and Marat ‘Break a Racket’ Safin. Yet nowadays umpires are safe from harm and the game’s sole rivalry, Federer vs Nadal, is far too gentlemanly to resemble the Shoot-out at the OK Corrals of yesteryear.
So where have all the bad boys gone? Into the commentary boxes, by all accounts, as RT talked exclusively to the racket-slinging gladiators of old.
“You didn’t like us when you had us, did you? Now you miss us, right? I knew it would come around; it just took time! You criticised us and disliked us, and almost to a fault wanted to get us out of the game at the beginning. Because it was new, you didn’t know what to expect. But it wasn’t by accident that all of a sudden 25,000 people started to come watch tennis. There had to be an appeal to the real sports fans, because all those, to coin your phrase, bad boys, is what the real sports fan wanted to see.
“Playing tennis, you always walked a fine line, and I’m sure I fell off that line a number of times. When I was bad, I was really bad, but when I was really bad, I was good! All my – I want to find the right word to say without getting myself into trouble –explosions were good, because it came from a passion for tennis. I wish that would be around a little bit more, that all that working and training hard and finding a payoff is worthwhile. Don’t bluff it because you can’t fool the real fan anyway. You also have to remember, winning was everything because if you didn’t win, you didn’t get anything. Now you’re rewarded for mediocrity, for losing in the first round. That’s all a part of the way tennis has become big business now, which is what everybody in our generation worked for, to make tennis on a par with all other sports. The modern game allows every advantage possible to players to be the best they can be, to have the best trainers, nutritionists, psychologists, equipment, which is a good thing. Back in the old days, you were lucky to find a girlfriend or a wife to travel with. But the characters and the fun that was always a part of the game, which drew attention to it whether you liked it or not, seems to be missing. Personally, I think Safin is good for the game, if they’d give him a chance to be. Obviously he’s not willing to let loose and be himself, which is what players are taught these days. But being yourself is as important as the way you play. Now I’m coaching Andy Roddick, I’m saying, just be himself. The interesting thing about Safin and Hewitt is you can see what they’re out there to do, whatever it takes to get them pumped up to play their best tennis, and all that does is bring the crowd into it more. Wimbledon was more traditional and subdued but at the US Open, the more passion you showed the crowd, the more they wanted it. They’re not just there to see two guys hitting a ball back and forth.”
“Perhaps you can blame Connors and myself, Nastase and a few others, because they tightened the rules after us to the point where you felt they would have preferred some robots out there. The last communist system in the world is North Korea and Cuba, and they don’t seem to be doing that well, but it seems the ATP hung on to that [mindset] so long, they’ve even realised that that was a big mistake. In a one-on-one game, you need to promote the personality and passion; that’s what fans relate to. When you make this amount of money in a sport, you’ve got to try and give these young kids perspective on how great tennis is, but it looks like the joy of the game has been taken out to a large degree, so it’s refreshing to see Nadal jump up and down, looking like he’s fired up to play. I admit that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, which is all the more reason I would tell someone like Andy Murray – who people say reminds them of me – that it’s all negative energy when he gets like that. The reason Nadal’s so great is that he plays harder and tries harder, and has a love of competition, if you unbridle that, you see the results. Most guys walk around like it’s a job. It doesn’t necessarily mean that because you don’t yell at an umpire that the days of personalities in tennis are over.”
“I wasn’t such a bad boy at Wimbledon, but that was my reputation in Australia. The media there made such a big deal every time something went on, it was all over the back pages sound like I was in the McEnroe category, spitting a dummy every other match. But I had my moments. There was so much gamesmanship when we were on the circuit; the constant sledging and banter between players, with stalling, calling the referee out, going off to the toilet, doing up your shoelaces.
“My first game in the UK was playing Nastase in Bristol when I was 17. He was 35. I was fully aware that he was going to get up to tricks, but the officials were trying to calm him down before the match had even started! He was complaining about towels or something. And then he beat me! Six months later he tried the same stuff, but I was ready, and I beat him. I’ve seen a couple of players face off in the locker room but never saw Connors and McEnroe, except on the seniors tour, believe it or not! I don’t care what they say now; but they hated each other. They were very similar; passionate and obsessed. These days, you’d dream to have these guys in the tournament, but times have changed. You hardly ever see that kind of behaviour anymore, We do it on the seniors tour for a bit of fun! McEnroe was the king of all that. He brought a lot of that stuff in. There’s a fine line between cheating and not cheating, and he walked over the edge many times and got away with it. As an opponent, it was horrifying that he could get away with it and then suddenly nobody else could.
“But at the end of the McEnroe era, tennis’ governing body tightened everything up so much that we went from one extreme to another. McEnroe had got away with everything, so from now on, if I bounced my racket or expressed any anger, swore under my breath and the umpire heard it, then boom! A warning and a fine of $5000. It’s like playing the world cup final and saying, ‘OK guys, keep chilled and not get fired up’. It’s ridiculous.
Now you’d have to smash a racket over the umpire’s head to get a warning. I told the governing body, you’re going to make us all like Bjorn Borg; it’ll be a pretty boring circuit. And that’s what happened. Great player that he is, Pete Sampras wasn’t the greatest personality. Though at the end of the day, the steely, determined player is the sort of temperament that works for tennis. But I like seeing guys getting pumped up. If you’ve ever played Davis Cup tennis, the crowds are roaring, all that stuff. Players have to deal with it but it’s so exciting. Form my perspective, I like seeing, the fist pumping and the “C’mon!” stuff, it’s part of the game.”
“Tennis is the only sport now when you cannot scream, because of all the microphones around the court. If you go on to a football or rugby field, everyone screams and yell at each other, stuff you can’t believe. But because tennis is like it is, of course you cannot say things. But we are frustrated players like everybody else. But we didn’t think about the fines; we just played the way we played, if we were fined, then we paid. Today, players don’t think like that; they just want to make money and play the match and get off the court quick. Even though we played against each other, we used to stick around Wimbledon and have a beer and a chat. Whatever McEnroe did was nothing compared to the great tennis he played, so people forgave such actions, Connors the same. When they started doing crazy things on court, for me it was fantastic. If they didn’t win the matches, that would be bad, but they were crazy and they won.”
“In all sport, not just tennis, there is so much more media coverage, so all athletes are more careful with their comments in interviews and their lives in general. The prize money has gotten much higher, and they don’t want to ruin their image with scandals and stories. It used to be just about tennis, and whether you’re good or bad on the court, but nowadays it’s more about what you do after the court. Everybody knew back then that everybody – the McEnroes, Connors, Nastases and Beckers of tennis – knew how to have a good time off the court, but it wasn’t reported. Now, we admire Federer and Nadal but what do they do after their games? The players know that the public wants to know, so they’re more careful. On or off the court, you’re the same person, so if you’re a wild boy off the court, you’ll be wild on the court. And if you’re more careful off the court, it shows on the court. Of course I swore and lost my temper, for everyone to see and hear. I wouldn’t back off from a fight. Goran Ivanisevic was a pretty bad boy, and you had Pat Rafter, Richard Krajicek, Mats Wilander, they all knew how to throw a party and have fun off the court, including me. But I can’t imagine any of the players today being like that.”
“I don’t know if John played better when he got wound up but everyone else played worse. When he got angry, he could suspend himself in time, and then click his fingers and he was back. It didn’t distract him. I can’t say that I enjoyed those moments, but the one he had with Tom Gullikson, “the pits of the world”, outburst, it doesn’t get any better than that! Jimmy was another heated character. He was almost the forerunner to John in terms of being fiery out on the court. Then you’ve got someone like Marat Safin, who gets very self-destructive, like Nastase 30 years ago. As soon as Ilie lost it, you knew he’d lose the match or just scrape by. But in sports psychology, which has been around for years now, it’s pretty well accepted that if you talk down to yourself, your performance will suffer.
“Back then, Borg was about the only guy who had a full-time coach with him every week. Now everybody has a coach, physiotherapist, psychologist, whose job it is to make sure he plays better. They’re all on board from when players are 15 or 16. There’s any doubt that anger, in the short term, can give you a quick boost but in the long term, it just sucks it out of you, adds to injuries and loses matches. Most coaches will say you need to eradicate it. I know the game doesn’t have the same profile as it did 25 years ago, but I prefer this, to have two guys like Federer and Nadal who are just evolved human beings, enjoying watching them go about their business. In the larger context, we have lots of people, perhaps not just in tennis but in society in general, who are bashing paparazzi, and the paparazzi show no respect for stars, I think we need to find a place, as a culture, where we all show a little more respect for one another.”