JOHN McENROE lost his rag with the umpire 40 years ago this week and one of sport’s most iconic catchphrases was born.
The four words “You cannot be serious” have transcended tennis and become synonymous with questioning authority.
John McEnroe lashed out at an umpire 40 years ago at WimbledonCredit: Sports Illustrated – Getty
They are also probably what McEnroe, 62, is best known for, despite a legendary career that saw him win seven Grand Slam singles titles, including three at Wimbledon.
It was in the lead-up to his maiden triumph at SW19 that he launched that blistering tirade.
On June 22, 1981, the American — already dubbed Superbrat for his short fuse — let rip at man-in-the-chair Edward James for ruling a serve to be out in his first-round match against compatriot Tom Gullikson.
In front of a stunned crowd, McEnroe ranted: “You can’t be serious, man, you cannot be serious! That ball was on the line, the chalk flew up! It was clearly in, how can you possibly call that out?”
McEnroe then went on to label the officials “the absolute pits of the world”.
John McEnroe received a bonus every time he said the legendary catchphrase after his meltdownCredit: Times Newspapers Ltd
He had no idea at the time, but it would go on to define how the public viewed him and McEnroe even cashed in on that persona after his professional career was over.
So, four decades on, how does he feel about it?
McEnroe said: “I’d call it a mixed blessing but more positive than negative, ironically.
“It was the only time I said it in my 15-year career and then all of a sudden when I played on the seniors tour, I got paid a bonus if I said it.
“It’s amazing that the comment which was made in the first round in 1981 has stuck with me 40 years later.
“I don’t know if it is beautiful or sad but I suppose it’s beautiful then sad, ultimately.
“It’s nice in a way to be remembered at all.
“Obviously, you want to be remembered for what you accomplished. In conjunction with that, you remember the stuff with the antics.
“So I guess it’s a net positive, although at the time it seemed like a negative.”
McEnroe was fined £750 and almost chucked out of the tournament for his umpire bust-up.
He went on to beat arch-rival Bjorn Borg in a superb final, before conquering the All England Club again in 1983 and 1984.
Players today have Hawk-Eye technology and the challenge system to review line decisions.
McEnroe reckons it will not be too long before tennis does away with line judges altogether.
The BBC pundit added: “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you guys today had it not been for people remembering that I had issues with umpires.
“But I sort of wish I’d had the challenge system so that I could have used the energy in more effective ways.
“I believe we’re heading towards where there are not going to be any linesmen at all. It’s already happened in Australia.
“Some of it was brought on by the pandemic but I think you are going to see all of them.
“The players seem perfectly happy and I think they prefer it, to have the electronic equipment and have no linesman at all.”
John McEnroe is part of the BBC’s Wimbledon 2021 line-up. Catch all the action across BBC TV, radio and online from Monday.