On the 21st of January 1990, exactly 25 years ago, John McEnroe was boot out of the Australian Open for insulting a supervisor. That day remains in history as the end of an era. As if from that day, the tennis planet had started to rotate in the other direction.
Tennis authorities may rejoice. With less than a disqualification per year on average since the beginning of the century: Tennis players have become really well behaved. During the hottest Nastase/Connors years (8 disqualifications between them), this average was much higher and would have been even higher if John McEnroe had not always miraculously passed through the cracks. Miraculously? "Tournament directors needed him, so he was allowed to do whatever he wanted," once argued his Czech colleague Tomas Smid, witness and victim on numerous occasions of his famous misconduct. The legend will remember that the American of Irish descent managed the feat of spitting on a spectator (Boston 1978), of giving someone the finger in the New York public (US Open 1979), or even to tell the umpire to use his microphone as a suppository (US Open 1987) without ever being caught by the patrol. An undeniable sense of entertainment on one side, but a very bad example on the other. So what could be done?
« The insults were too serious! »
It was in 1990 that an initial response started to appear. The decade change had clearly and symbolically marked a breaking point from the seventies and eighties which were probably too permissive: the professional tour just had a makeover, becoming the ATP Tour and for its executives, there was no way to let the discipline look bad. Coincidence or fate, it was the main instigator of the code of conduct reinforcement, John McEnroe himself, who served as a guinea pig. On the 21st of January the former world No. 1 - looking like a Sioux with his face covered in sunscreen - had the bad idea to loose his temper on the supervisor of the Australian Open. Called to the rescue to try and calm the beast that had just received a warning for intimidating a lineman and a penalty point for having thrown his racquet, Ken Farrar got hauled over the coals. "The insults were too serious. I have never been insulted me like that on a tennis court. Nor ever outside for that matter!" Those sweet words that perhaps wouldn't have bothered a man like Patrick Flodrops weren't acceptable anymore. His "f..." got him sent back directly to the locker room while the American was leading 6-1 4-6 7-5 2-4 against Mikael Pernfors. The end of immunity. Curtain.
Marat Safin in underwear
In the very short term, this decision - real thunderclap at the time - mostly benefited the French Yannick Noah, who quietly defeated Pernfors in the quarterfinals before reaching a last semi-final, in the twilight of his career. And long-term? During the Australian Open 90, most players showed their support for McEnroe, Pete Sampras, 18 at the time, said that it was "regrettable and very bad for the game." A month later in Toronto, even his archenemy Ivan Lendl, then about to be naturalized American, seemed to approve his "freak out": "We no longer have the right to express our opinion. 10 years ago, I left an eastern European country and today I find myself in a communist system called the ATP Tour." One only has to see how the eccentric behaviour of Fabio Fognini is perceived today, only player in the top 20 to have narrowly escaped disqualification in 2014, to understand that moderation has replaced immoderation since the year 01 of the ATP Tour. « McEnroe should probably have been disqualified, but since then, we fell into the other extreme. After the Melbourne episode, regulations tightened even further » notes Rodolphe Gilbert, former 61st in the World and TV consultant today. « Even when Marat Safin pulled his shorts down in 2004 to celebrate an incredible point at Roland Garros, which was pretty funny, he got punished! It is often said that the tour has became too strict. There may be less refereeing mistakes than before, but most players totally control their nerves. But for the show, it was probably more entertaining in the 80s! » The arrival of the video has completed in 2006 to police the whole tour. The recently retired Andy Roddick was maybe one of the last specimens raised to the rascal seed, to regret the growing importance of the Hawk-Eye, "I would love to reduce the number of video challenges. With this technology, we’re losing a lot of our personality. Back in the days, when a guy was going to talk to the umpire, you couldn’t change the channel. Impossible" he said late December on American TV. Not sure that it would be so easy to reverse...