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Volume 21 No. 43
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‘You cannot be serious’

Nearly four decades ago at Wimbledon, John McEnroe solidified his role as the bad boy of tennis by uttering a now-familiar phrase while arguing a line call. Now an analyst, McEnroe looks back on the moment that would help define his career and how the phrase has followed him each step of the way.
John McEnroe pleads his case on a line call at Wimbledon in 1981.
Photo: Getty Images

John McEnroe did what he had done countless times: Argue a line call. This time, at Wimbledon, some magic escaped his lips, the phrase, “You cannot be serious.” As famous as those words have become, McEnroe said it was the only time in his ATP touring days he used the phrase.


“Since then, as you can imagine, if I don’t say it people seem to get upset.”


McEnroe had no idea the line would become intertwined with his persona, uttered in television commercials, and that someday he would use it to title his autobiography. “On the senior’s tour, the champions tour, I could hit a great shot but it’s more important to say that pretty much. My wife has told me she doesn’t want me to say it again, it’s over the expiration date.”


People still come up to McEnroe and utter the famous expression of annoyance, which remains a part of the cultural zeitgeist. And instead of challenging calls, McEnroe today is more likely to challenge current players to show more of their personalities in his role as an opinionated TV analyst for ESPN, NBC and the BBC.


My wife has told me she doesn’t want me to say it again, it’s over the expiration date.
John McEnroe
Retired professional tennis player

Has he had any strange requests to utter the famous phrase? Not really.


“I don’t recall anything like super strange where they have asked me to mediate a divorce settlement or say something to someone when they didn’t want two people to get married. It hasn’t gotten to that point. It’s more them liking to hear themselves say it.


“A lot of times they say it before I even have a chance to say it.”


So, what was the call that triggered the famous outburst in 1981? McEnroe’s serve was ruled out, despite his contention that the ball was on the line and “chalk flew up.” For the record, it didn’t alter the match: Mac won in straight sets over fellow American Tim Gullikson. Later he would reach the final and defeat his nemesis, Bjorn Borg, and win his first Wimbledon.