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When I realised I needed Big W more than it needed me...
- Icon of yesteryear reflects on his experience at the greatest tennis tournament
ChampionSpeak / John McEnroe
John McEnroe

Of all the championships I have won, Wimbledon is the tournament to which I owe most. Two weeks there in 1977, as an 18-year-old, changed my life completely. But I remember a time when I thought I was bigger than Wimbledon; that it needed me more than I needed it. How wrong could I have been.

On May 23, 1986, my son Kevin was born and there was a new focus in my life. I skipped both the French and Wimbledon that year but it was not until the following year, when I also avoided Wimbledon, that it suddenly came home to me what I had been missing.

It was the moment when Pat Cash celebrated his victory by climbing into the crowd to hug his father and supporters. Nowadays that sort of thing is almost commonplace, but at that time no one had let their emotions run free like that. It was totally unexpected. A wonderful moment. I thought: I’ve got to get back there.

Even in the early years I had flirted with the idea of dodging Wimbledon. In 1981, the year after I lost to Bjorn Borg in the final, I had a tough time in the early rounds. In the first round, I played Tom Gullikson, a good server and a guy who knew how to play on grass. It was when some of my more infamous outbursts first came to the attention of a wider public, remarks like “You’re the pits of the world” and “You cannot be serious”.

I really put myself in the firing line with some of that stuff and deserved to get nailed by the media, although not to the extent that I was. For that whole two weeks, I just felt like I had to get to the end of it and it was only when I eventually reached the final and faced Borg, I could concentrate on the tennis. I decided that, if I won, I wasn’t coming back.

It was like, ‘I can’t take any more of this, it’s too much to bear’ that sort of thing. And the moment I won, I thought, ‘I’m going to come back’. There was this incredible sense of relief and, at the same time, this sense that I wanted to taste it again.

Wimbledon does that to you. It also has this way of being able to inspire you. One of my favourite moments there involved a doubles match. After I had lost to Andre Agassi in the semi-final of the singles in 1992 — the last year I played there —Michael Stich and I had got to 13-13 in the fifth set of the men’s doubles final against Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg, when the match had to be stopped because of bad light.

When we came back the next day I was still thinking how we should have got the job finished. I felt stiff after two weeks of competition and I wasn’t at all sure I could play well. Then, as I was walking out to the court, I heard all this chanting going on — not for the last time Wimbledon had done a great thing by letting spectators in free for the day. There was never more energy in a crowd than there was that day and it was not even a full house. It brought me straight out of my lethargy. I actually felt that they won us the match.

For the most part at Wimbledon, you are talking about a knowledgeable crowd. They are also a very forgiving crowd as I think it’s only been in the last few years, they have had a refund or the opportunity to watch some tennis the following day if their day has been washed out. As a player, it made you feel that you automatically had a couple of things going for you.

OK, there would be a few who would be looking to you for some sort of emotional outburst, but most of them were there to enjoy the tennis. Obviously the combination of its beauty and tradition has great appeal but, for someone like myself, the added appeal was that it was so far away.

People may have regarded me as a bit of a rebel as a young man but I also had a great respect for tradition and history. It probably came from growing up in the company of people like the great Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, who moved to Long Island where I lived and played a part in my formative years as a player.

I could not have chosen a better year than 1977 — the centenary year and also the year of Virginia Wade’s singles success — to make my first appearance at Wimbledon, although it took me a while to actually confirm it. I had to play through the qualifying rounds in the rain at Roehampton to get there. Finally, I remember walking through the gates at Wimbledon and thinking ‘Wow, I’ve actually made it inside this place’. In a very short space of time I had gone from being a ball boy for Borg at Forest Hills to earning the right to play at Wimbledon. The fortnight that was to follow was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, not just because I reached the semi-finals as a qualifier but because I had total anonymity and was therefore able to play without any pressure whatsoever.

There are all these protocols at Wimbledon and I was in locker room B until the quarter finals. Then I made it to the semis and played Centre Court for the first time — and there is no better centre court anywhere in the world. I remember walking through the players’ hotel and they had gambling going on all over the place — they had Borg at 2-1, Jimmy Connors at 4-1, Vitas Gerulaitis at 8-1 and me at 250-1. I thought to myself, I’m actually being bracketed with these three people, never mind my odds.

Wimbledon also gave me the opportunity to utilise my natural attacking game properly for the very first time. Grasscourt tennis is actually fun as well as being aesthetically beautiful to look at. Boris Becker did it better than anyone, but on grass you can dive at the ball and try to make every shot count, which was my style. It got the competitive juices flowing and it made me realise that I could compete at that level, either because I was better than I thought I was or because the opposition were not as good as I thought.

It can humble you, too, this place. There are an awful lot of emotions running through you at a tournament like Wimbledon, which may explain why some players, even players of great potential — like Roger Federer — have frozen, as he did last year. Even the most experienced can be found wanting. Look at the seven-time champion Pete Sampras: he didn’t look as if he knew what he was doing when he went out to a lucky loser, Federer’s little-known fellow Swiss, George Bastl, in the second round last year.

It can also be an infuriating place because of the weather, which only adds to the difficulty of winning the thing. The French Open may be more of a physical battle and at the Australian Open you have to contend with the heat, but Wimbledon can be the toughest mentally, particularly when it’s raining, as it usually does. There’s a stress level which is often exceeded with all this stop-start, stop-start play.

And on top of all that, playing conditions can change dramatically from one moment to the next. But you know what' I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

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