John McEnroe and Chess



Born in Wiesbaden in Germany in 1959, this most American of sports stars was the No 1 tennis player in the world four times (1981-4), and some would say the best ever. The statistics speak for themselves: Seventy-seven singles titles; seventy-seven doubles titles; seven times a Grand Slam champion; five times a Davis Cup winner; World number one for four consecutive years. And a performance in the 1984 Wimbledon final — the 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 destruction of Jimmy Connors — that is widely seen as the most flawless of the modern era. Equally renowned for his on-court temper and a turbulent marriage to actress Tatum O’Neill, in this extract from his autobiography Serious (Little, Brown; 2002) John McEnroe describes his affinity for the game of chess:


‘Port Washington wasn’t all just tennis. A player spent a lot of time on the court, but he also hung around a fair amount between coaching and matches. There was a lounge on the second floor, with windows that looked down on the courts: I remember staring in awe at Port Washington’s star, a blond sixteen-year-old named Vitas Gerulaitis — but you could only spend so much time watching tennis. There was no TV, and the owner, Hy Zausner, wouldn’t allow cards on the premises, so we’d amuse ourselves by playing chess. We’d have marathon games, some of them lasting an hour or more. I was never a great player, but I was pretty good: I liked the strategic element of the game, planning ahead a move or two.

Tony Palafox saw me thinking that way on the court — and getting everything back — and so he became my tennis teacher.’