Monday, January 19, 2009

McEnroe Plays at Bayfront, 1/20/84

In the days leading up to Super Bowl XVIII twenty-five years ago, some of the biggest names in sports came to the Tampa Bay area. One athlete in particular had nothing to do with football, but was more well-known than game participants Joe Theismann, John Riggins, or Marcus Allen combined.

Known just as much for his on-court temper tantrums as his serve-and-volley prowess, John McEnroe had no equal in all of tennis in terms of star power. McEnroe brought his larger-than-life personality to the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg as part of the “Tennis over America” tour for a match against Guillermo Villas on the evening of January 20, 1984.

Although he only captured six singles titles in 1983 -- including one Grand Slam (Wimbledon) -- McEnroe stormed into 1984 with a major victory over one of his biggest rivals. Earlier in the week, McEnroe officially claimed the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ivan Lendl in the final of the Volvo Masters championship at Madison Square Garden.

Vilas, in the meantime, spent the days prior to the event appealing his suspension by the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. The first South American male to win a Grand Slam title (the 1977 French Open), Vilas was charged with accepting an illegal $60,000 guarantee to play a tournament in the Netherlands. The council slapped Vilas with a $20,000 fine and a one-year suspension from the tour.

Vilas lost his appeal as the council review board found him guilty of soliciting and accepting guarantee money to play in the tournament, a violation of rules which only allowed players to compete for prize money. The council lifted his suspension, however, citing a career of “exemplary” conduct as part of their decision.

The words “exemplary” and “conduct” were two words rarely used together in any sentence written about McEnroe. As he neared his 25th birthday, the star sometimes known as the “Super Brat” hoped to shed his rambunctious reputation.

“My 1984 resolution is to get away from that (controversy) a little bit,” McEnroe said. “I have a hot temper and I know it. It’s really pretty difficult to turn it off and on at will, but I’m trying.”

McEnroe seemed to try pretty hard to control his temper and concentrate on his tennis during the match against Vilas. The two players had participated in the on-and-off traveling show together since 1981 and had faced off in over 40 such events. The evening, after all, was just as much about putting on a show for the crowd nearly 5,500-strong than anything else. To that end, disco lights and a fog machine provided the special effects as McEnroe and Vilas took the court to the song “Eye of the Tiger.”

Perhaps in a relaxed mood early on in the match, McEnroe played to the crowd throughout the first set. Ever the showman, he mixed an assortment of pantomimes and facial expressions with feigned outrage at line calls that went against him.

After jumping out to an early 3-1 lead, Vilas rallied to take five of the next six games to capture the first set. As if realizing he needed to shift to another gear, McEnroe broke Vilas’s serve twice in the second set en route to winning the set 6-2.

The third set proved to be a repeat as McEnroe held serve and again broke a worn-down Vilas twice to capture the set and win the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

The evening continued with a special celebrity doubles match with Tom Cousineau of the Cleveland Browns and, a slightly lesser known celebrity in Phil Scott, the manager of the Bayfront Center. Scott filled in at the last minute for Hugh Green of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the end, the crowd enjoyed the exhibition, got three quality sets from two of tennis’s best players, and saw McEnroe receive a wristwatch for winning the match.

After leaving St. Petersburg, McEnroe went on to have the most successful year of his career, compiling an 82-3 record. McEnroe won a career-high 13 singles titles in 1984, including Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships.

Towards the end of the year at a tournament in Stockholm, Sweden, McEnroe uttered the now infamous line directed at the chair umpire, “Answer my question, jerk!” before dramatically slamming his racket into a courtside juice cart. Despite an unprecedented run of success in 1984, alas, McEnroe could not keep his New Year’s resolution to shy away from controversy.

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