LONDON (Reuters) - Watching a gray-haired, smart-suited 56-year-old John McEnroe speak with mature insight about all-things tennis it seems odd to think that many feel that what the sport needs is a dose of the “superbrat” attitude of the brash New Yorker’s youth.
McEnroe is still the number one off-court draw at the All England club which, as a “bunch of 70-year stiffs”, once snubbed him by refusing to award him the usual honorary membership after his maiden singles victory in 1981.
That was the year when “you are the pits of the world” and “you cannot be serious” entered the sporting lexicon as McEnroe mixed sublime tennis with boiling frustration en route to eventually dethroning Bjorn Borg as Wimbledon champion.
At the time, McEnroe’s behavior, as well as the sharp tongue of fellow American loudmouth Jimmy Connors and Romania’s Ilie Nastase, was considered an outrageous affront to an event where players were, and still are, termed “gentlemen” and “ladies”.
Off the court too, the antics of the likes of Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Boris Becker, Henri Leconte and Andre Agassi ensured there was never a dull moment.
Three decades on, despite the superlative tennis being served up by the game’s “big four”, there is something of a yearning for that attitude to make a re-appearance.
The development of the Hawk-Eye system has just about eliminated the always entertaining rows with line judges while on-court microphones and fines seem to have deterred players from letting off steam.
Not that it ever seemed to stop McEnroe.
In his autobiography “Serious”, McEnroe recalled going out on the town with Borg and tennis’s ultimate party animal Gerulaitis for the first time.
“I marked the occasion by indulging in something I’d never tried before (never mind what) -- and the next thing I knew Vitas and Bjorn were carrying me back into the hotel. I felt sick but wonderful: I had passed the initiation,” he wrote.
It is hard to imagine Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal carrying Andy Murray home after a wild night out.
Becker is another who has matured into a sensible pundit and coach but laments some of the changes in the game.
“When I was playing you could be a little bit more emotional on the court and in your private life,” he said this week.
The German, who blasted into Wimbledon history by winning the event as a 17-year-old qualifier in 1985, is also widely remembered for the London restaurant broom cupboard encounter with a model during which his daughter was conceived.
”We have great characters, but it’s true they don’t show it as much because they can’t,” the German wrote in his recent book “Wimbledon: My Life and Career at the All England Club.”
“They get fined and there are microphones on the court that pick up every curse or utterance in frustration.”
The stars of the modern game each have their own distinct personalities and there are great swathes of tennis fans who adore Federer for his polite, respectful demeanor in victory and defeat.
World number one Novak Djokovic is widely admired for his iron will and incredible fitness, Nadal for his power and talent and Murray for his single-minded commitment to force his way to the top table.
But though fans can appreciate that ability to keep calm during the most intense moments of a contest, they also crave the occasional “Tarango moment”.
American Jeff Tarango earned his special place in Wimbledon folklore when he stormed off court after calling the umpire “the most corrupt official in the game” during a singles match in 1995 and his wife waded in to slap the umpire for good measure.
Earlier in the tournament, Tarango had been the beneficiary of a default when he and doubles partner Henrik Holm advanced when the opposing pair were disqualified after one of them smashed a ball in anger which accidentally hit a ball girl.
The purveyor of this piece of outrageous and unforgivable act was that famous British hothead and scourge of the establishment -- Tim Henman.
Editing by Ed Osmond