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“YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS”
It was Sunday in Melbourne. Hot, breezy, humid. A typical late-January, Australian summer day. Day seven of the Australian Open was winding down to an uneventful conclusion. There had been some minor upsets but nothing that was going to knock the Melbourne trolley-car strike off the front page.
In the pressroom, the Australian tabloid writers glanced nervously at the clock again and again, hoping that John McEnroe would make short work of Mikael Pernfors. An easy McEnroe victory would get Rachel McQuillan, the country’s latest female hope, on court to play her match in time to make first edition deadlines. Rachel McQuillan was nineteen, blond, and ranked fortieth in the world. Headline stuff for the tabloid boys.
There was no reason for any of them to believe that McEnroe and Pernfors wouldn’t cooperate. McEnroe had been the talk of the tournament for three rounds, dropping just fifteen games in nine sets. He had looked very much like the old untouchable McEnroe, losing as many as three games in a set only once.
It wasn’t only the numbers that were impressive. McEnroe looked relaxed on court, happy with himself, his game, and the Australian public. Everyone was reveling in seeing him produce a brand of tennis that many, McEnroe included, had wondered if they would ever see again.
One of the people who had marveled at McEnroe during his secondround victory over Austrian Alex Antonitsch was Gerry Armstrong. He had umpired a match early that afternoon and, with the rest of the day off, had done something he almost never did: gone to watch a tennis match on his own time. “If there’s one player I’ll go out of my way to watch play tennis when I’m not working, it’s McEnroe,” Armstrong said. “The guy is an artist. There’s no one in the game quite like him.”
On this Sunday afternoon it was not McEnroe’s artistry that was on Armstrong’s mind as he walked to the umpire’s chair to work the match between the artiste and Pernfors. Armstrong had been a full-time professional umpire for a little more than three years. He had worked the men’s final at Wimbledon in 1988 and the women’s final in 1989. By any account, he was one of the top two or three umpires in the game—which is why he was in the chair for this match. In making the umpiring schedule, Ken Farrar, the supervisor of officiating at all Grand Slam tournaments, was keenly aware of which matches might be troublesome and, no matter how well he had been playing or how smoothly his previous matches had gone, any McEnroe match was worrisome. Armstrong, a thirty-four-year-old Englishman who had spent most of his adult life as a soccer goalie before a chronically separated shoulder had forced him to retire, had assumed he would get McEnroe in the fourth round or the quarterfinals, and that was fine with him. He had worked McEnroe matches often in the past, not without problems, but he’d never encountered a situation he couldn’t handle. As he walked onto court that afternoon, Armstrong had no reason to suspect this match would be any different.
“What you learn about the job, though, is that you can never predict what will happen,” he had said earlier that week. “The most innocuous, innocent match can blow up anytime, anywhere. You always have to concentrate totally because you never know where a problem is going to come from.”
Certainly, no McEnroe match was ever considered innocuous or innocent. In his ten years as a supervisor, Farrar had always made certain to be nearby whenever McEnroe was playing. He had assigned himself to center court that Sunday and, as the match began, he was seated across the court from the umpire’s chair, hoping he wouldn’t be needed. “To be honest,” he would say later, “the way things had been going, there was no reason to expect a problem.”
What Armstrong and Farrar couldn’t know was that McEnroe had awakened that morning feeling uneasy. He knew how well he was playing. He also knew that Ivan Lendl was not at the top of his game. He had spent enough time with Boris Becker during the week to know that Becker was still emotionally wiped out from the Davis Cup final and wanted to go home more than he wanted to play tennis. He respected Stefan Edberg, but he certainly didn’t fear him. And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he stayed at this level, those were the only players in the field who had any chance of beating him.
Once, McEnroe would have been so focused on winning the tournament that his mind’s eye could have seen only Pernfors that morning. He would have seen a combative, pesky ground-stroker, talented enough to have been a French Open finalist in 1986 but who, after various injuries and setbacks, had come into this tournament ranked sixty-third in the world. But McEnroe had let his thoughts wander into the future. “I got myself messed up,” he said later. “I knew how well I was hitting the ball. I wasn’t serving as well as I can, but I was hitting the ball as well as I ever have. But instead of thinking about winning the Australian, I started thinking about my schedule.
“I had already been on the road for almost four weeks. It hadn’t been so bad, because I had my family with me. But if I made the semifinals, which I was almost sure I would, it meant I would barely have a week at home before I had to leave for Milan. And then there was Toronto and Philadelphia right after that.
“That should have been the last thing in the world I was thinking about, especially in the middle of a Grand Slam tournament. But it was almost like I wasn’t prepared to play as well as I was playing. I had always had trouble getting ready that soon after Christmas. All of a sudden, there I was. I couldn’t handle it.”
Almost from the start of the match, it was apparent that this was a different McEnroe. He won the first set 6–1, but that was deceptive. Every game was close. Pernfors had all sorts of chances, starting with three break points in the first game of the match. McEnroe, however, kept coming up with the important shots, and there was every reason to believe that even this less-sharp McEnroe could wear his opponent down.
Pernfors’s reputation on tour was not exactly that of a blood-and-guts battler. He was Swedish born and American educated, having played tennis at the University of Georgia. Unlike most of the other top-rated Swedes, it had been in college, not as a junior in Sweden, that he had come of age as a player. He fit none of the Swedish stereotypes. He wasn’t blond or bland. He spoke perfect English—with a Southern accent—and was known as someone who enjoyed a good party at least as much as he might enjoy rolling in the dirt to win a five-setter.
He had come to Melbourne, however, with new resolve. He would turn twenty-seven in 1990, and he knew time was running out. He had been ranked as high as tenth in the world, in 1986, but had done little since then. So he had made the long trip to Australia ten weeks early to work and play himself back into top shape. This work had paid off for three rounds. Pernfors had lost just one set and came into the match with McEnroe convinced he was capable of winning.
The first set did little to change his mind. It had been closer than 6–1. Pernfors is the kind of player who chases down so many balls that no point is easy, and that made McEnroe uptight and nervous. He had complained about a couple of calls and had whined about photographers moving during points. To Armstrong, in the chair, and Farrar, sitting across the court, those weren’t good signs.
Early in the second set, Pernfors finally converted a break opportunity, aided by a close call on the baseline. When Pernfors then held serve to go up 4–1, McEnroe came out of his chair after the changeover and walked directly over to the lineswoman who had made the close call against him two games earlier. Standing a few feet from her, he repeatedly bounced a ball on his racquet strings and stared at her. The crowd began to hoot, but McEnroe never said a word, just stared balefully.
In the chair, Armstrong made a decision. He thought McEnroe might be headed for an explosion. “A lot of times when John is edgy early in a match, a warning will calm him down,” Armstrong said afterward. “It’s as if you’re saying to him, ‘Okay, John, you’ve had your say, now let’s just play tennis.’ I was hoping that would happen here. What he was doing was intimidation, there was no questioning that. So I gave him a warning.”