LONDON -- This was before John McEnroe made headlines and big noise about Serena Williams, and people reacted as if he'd tried to crash her baby shower. This was when Johnny Mac made his first big headlines and noise in tennis, when he was 18 and came out of the qualifying and made it all the way to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1977. When he walks through the gates of the All England Club this week, Wimbledon beginning around the time it used to end, it will be as if the 40 years between then and now will suddenly clear away for him. And he will remember better than anyone on the grounds what it was like when it was all just beginning for him.
It was an important moment at the time and in time, for him and tennis and American tennis, even at a moment on the men's side when the rivalry everybody wanted to talk about and see was Jimmy Connors against Bjorn Borg. McEnroe would end up playing Connors that year in the semifinals. Before long, the rivalry everybody wanted to talk about was McEnroe against Borg, and one match in particular -- the 1980 Wimbledon final -- that will be remembered for as long as tennis is played, at the All England Club or anywhere else.
But that would be later.
This was the Wimbledon of 1977, when McEnroe was still a teenager and still an amateur. Nobody outside of American junior tennis really knew about him when the tournament began. But everybody knew about him when it was over, after he had won three matches in the qualifying tournament at Roehampton and then five more in the main draw before he lost to Connors in four sets and Wimbledon '77 was finally over for him.
"It's starting to dawn on me that it was actually 40 years ago," McEnroe, who will be on television at Wimbledon for both ESPN and the BBC, says now.
The United States Tennis Association had given him $500, total, for a month in Europe that year, room and board and food and walking-around money. He went to the French Open and played the juniors and even won the mixed doubles in the main draw with Mary Carillo, a childhood friend from Douglaston, N.Y., and from the Port Washington Tennis Academy. The late Vitas Gerulaitis came out of the academy, too, and would also make the semis at Wimbledon in '77, where he would play the match of his life before losing to Borg in five sets. Vitas was pretty big news himself that year. Just not as big as an 18-year-old who'd come to Europe with no money in his pocket and no real prospects outside the juniors and proceeded to shock the tennis world.
"You want to know one of the things I remember?" McEnroe says. "I remember I almost lost in the second round of the qualifying, and that the third round was played in the rain. They don't treat qualifiers too well, or at least they didn't in those days. The conditions on grass were wretched."
But it turned out that grass was made for all the touch and feel and quickness and art and left-handed magic of McEnroe's tennis game, even at 18, in the first real grass-court tennis of his life.
"He was so great at improv," Carillo, now one of the best broadcasters on the planet, says. "He had that amazing first step. As soon as I saw him on grass, I remember thinking to myself, 'This could go very well.' I just didn't know how well."
McEnroe remembers how quickly he burned through the expense money the USTA had given him. He remembers staying at what he calls "sub-par places." At one point during the qualifying, he was rooming with three other guys. He remembers spending 17 pounds for his share of the room that week and thinking that was a lot. When he made it out of Roehampton and into the main draw at Wimbledon, he roomed with a couple of other young American players, Eliot Teltscher and Robert Van't Hof, at the Cunard Hotel.
"Three of us," John McEnroe says. "One room. One of the reasons we picked the hotel is because we found out it had ice machines."
I went over there to find him one day, as his story started to get bigger -- and not just in New York -- and even now I remember him talking about that, about the Cunard having ice.
He beat an Egyptian player, Izzy El Shafei, in the first round. Then Colin Dowdeswell in the second. Then Karl Meiler in the third round. Finally, he beat another American, Sandy Mayer, in the Round of 16, and the kid from Douglaston, on his way to Stanford that fall, had made it to the second week at Wimbledon. No one knew it at the time, but things would never be the same, for him or the most famous tennis tournament in this world.
"It was like my life was changing in front of my eyes," he says. "All I can say is that when it was finally over and I came back home, people knew me a lot better than they did when I'd left."
He had played Phil Dent, a big Aussie, in the French Open, and had lost in five sets. It was different in the Wimbledon quarters, though. He lost the second set in a tiebreaker. He got behind two sets to one that day at Court 1 and got to thinking that if he lost, he would end up playing in the juniors, which is all he had expected to do in the first place.
"I didn't want to be a guy who made it to the quarters of Wimbledon and then maybe lost in the juniors," he says.
He came back and won the Dent match. He laughs now when he remembers a moment earlier in the match, after he'd lost that tiebreaker, when he tried to break his racket in half. Some of the people at Court 1 booed him. "I actually thought it was kind of funny," McEnroe says. Then he kicked his racket over to the chair where he sat for the changeovers, and got booed a little more.
"I thought, 'Man, these people are uppity,'" he says now. "You have to say, though, compared to some of the stuff I did later at Wimbledon, it was nothing. Let's face it, things would get way worse. But when I think back, maybe that was the day that Pandora's box first opened, at least at Wimbledon."
Between the quarters and the semis, he says he found himself at the Westbury Hotel. The Westbury was a hotel where the top American players stayed in those days. McEnroe remembers a blackboard there with the odds for the players in the Wimbledon semis.
"Borg was 2-to-1," McEnroe says. "Connors was, like, 4-to-1. Vitas might have been 25-to-1. And I think I was 250-to-1. I didn't care. I couldn't believe I was even on the same board with those guys."
On the same board. In the semis at Wimbledon. As an 18-year-old qualifier. The artist, as a really, really young man.
But even at 250-to-1, he was never overwhelmed by the circumstances. He was himself. After the semis I asked him if he had introduced himself to Connors in the waiting room just off Centre Court before they went out to play their match.
"Yeah," McEnroe said, "I got right down on my knees."
The Douglaston kid went for pizza the night before that match. He hung with Mary Carillo, and was happy to let her run interference for him with the media because, even at 20, people liked Mary Carillo. Barry Lorge wrote in the Washington Post about having lunch one day with John and watching him eat Wimbledon's traditional strawberries and cream without benefit of a "traditional spoon." But then, there would never be anything traditional about McEnroe and Wimbledon. Even after his Wimbledon was over and he was asked in the interview room about a respectable showing against Connors in the semis, McEnroe said, "I didn't come here to be respectable. I came here to win." Three years later, he would lose the final to Borg in five sets, what will always be known as the Tiebreaker Match because McEnroe won a 22-minute fourth-set tiebreaker, fighting off what felt like about 50 match points before finally winning the breaker, 18-16, and extending the match to five sets.
It was Borg's fifth straight Wimbledon title. The next year, McEnroe came back and beat him in four sets. By then, he was as famous there for his behavior as for his tennis, for calling chair umpires "pits of the world" and yelling "You CANNOT be serious" and all the rest of it. In the London tabloids, of course, they would take to calling him Superbrat. Or worse. But all that would come later, the way the No. 1 ranking in the world would.
"Over those two weeks," he says, "everything went to a whole new level."
He would win Wimbledon two other times, once against Connors, in 1984, not just beating Connors, but nearly throwing the equivalent of a perfect game at him, beating him 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. Four games for Connors. Wimbledon final. You have to go back to 1936, when Fred Perry beat Gottfried von Cramm and gave him just two games to find a beating any worse in a Wimbledon's men's final.
"That was my top-of-the-world moment," John McEnroe says now. "That was my proudest moment. The best time for me. That was the moment in my career when I honestly felt that I was better than everybody who had ever played. But even then, I was asking myself why I wasn't happier."
He pauses and says, "It was kind of all downhill after '84. Before long, I took some time off thinking I'd get better. Only I got worse. It's not supposed to work that way."
He watches Roger Federer now, playing the way he does as he approaches his 36th birthday, winning another major, the Australian in January, when nobody thought he could. McEnroe has always thrilled to Federer's own genius, his own artistry and magic, as much as anyone. But you listen to him talk and realize he is struck more by this one simple and surpassing fact about Federer:
How happy tennis makes him.
"I envy Roger," McEnroe says. "I envy the way he loves it. I was never able to love it in the same way."
He pauses again and says, "Maybe I was happiest in 1977 when it was all new and exciting."
He was a kid. He was the one who was new and exciting, with long hair and a headband and an ability, in a single point on the grass of Wimbledon, to come over balls and hit under them and feather them if he had to and sometimes hit them as hard as he could, use all of his crazy geometry and finally come to the net and finish off the point with a kind of touch that a handful of male tennis players have ever had. But somehow he never won the French (even though he had Ivan Lendl two sets to none in 1984, his top-of-the-world year, before he and his tennis game went off the rails and Lendl came all the way back). He never won the Australian. He won seven majors, but never won another after the age of 25.
He has written a new book, just out, called "But Seriously," his first book since "You Cannot Be Serious" became a huge bestseller 15 years ago. But he says he didn't write the book so he could rehash the '80 final against Borg one more time.
"This is about remaining somewhat relevant at my age," John McEnroe says. "I think about this a lot, because I think a lot of top athletes do: To peak in your job at the age of 25 and 26 is not the easiest thing to do. The span of an athlete, even the ones who last, is pretty short.
"You know what's kind of great? Playing tennis still makes me click as much as anything. It's important to me to keep myself in shape and work out. But I still love to get out and play. Sometimes I think I like to play more than I did 40 years ago."
I ask him again if that first Wimbledon seems like it happened to him and happened in tennis 40 years ago.
"Not at all," he says. "Not even close."
The place is so much about memories. John McEnroe will bring his own over the next two weeks after he walks through the gates on Church Road. This is where it began for him. This is where everything changed for him, forever. No one will have more memories at this Wimbledon than he will, 40 years after 1977. He was something to see -- and hear -- even then. He was happy then.