• Rewind to 1984

The day McEnroe's invincible streak died

Ben Blackmore June 2, 2011
John McEnroe gave everything to win the French Open © Getty Images
Enlarge

As Novak Djokovic stands on the cusp of setting a new landmark for the best start to an ATP Tour calendar year, we cast our minds back to the moment that John McEnroe's record streak came to an end.

If there is one facet of tennis, one factor guiltier than any other for the mentally torturous nature of arguably sport's sternest individual examination, it is personality. Personality that distinguishes one racket-wielding gladiator from another, and personality that dictates whether a man takes flight or implodes when the stakes are at their highest.

Former British No. 1 Tim Henman's biggest criticism often was that he never showed enough character on court, while fellow Brit, Greg Rusedski, frequently allowed emotions to get the better of him. The British public wanted more than a robotic fist-pump from Henman, while one wonders if Rusedski's career was destined for more than a solitary US Open final appearance had it not been for moments like his 2003 Wimbledon clash with Andy Roddick, when a rogue line call from a spectator saw him completely lose the plot.

For one man, by the name of Novak Djokovic, the stakes have never been higher. The Serbian star enters into his French Open semi-final with Roger Federer this week knowing victory would equal John McEnroe's record for the best ever start to an ATP Tour season - currently standing at 42 matches. And if he ends the week lifting a trophy above his head at Roland Garros, he'll break a 27-year landmark.

Fittingly Djokovic, like McEnroe, is a man who allows his personality to join him on court more than most. While semi-final rival Federer is a serene, balletic figure of professionalism and world No. 1 Rafael Nadal is a thunderstorm founded on the platform of a win-at-all-costs attitude, Djokovic acts as the joker of the pack. The 24-year-old mimics his rivals, he fools around in interviews, and most recently he spun a few discs as pre-tournament DJ in Paris.

Djokovic will surely have allowed himself a wry smile this week when it dawned on him exactly how cunningly the sporting Gods have worked to mirror his streak to that of McEnroe. Sport always throws up quirky moments of destiny: Barcelona and Manchester United both won their first European Cups at Wembley before returning for their recent Champions League final - at Wembley; Liverpool have won all five of their European Cups playing in red against a team in white.

For Djokovic, the parallels with McEnroe are fascinating. If he loses in Sunday's French Open final, the Serb will have followed his predecessor to the letter. His undefeated record will stop at 42, level with McEnroe, and it will end in Paris, just like McEnroe. The American only ever reached one French Open final; for Djokovic Sunday would be his first.

If there is a difference, it is that McEnroe skipped a great deal of the unfavoured clay-court season during his record sequence. Whereas Djokovic has beaten arguably the greatest clay-court player of all time in Nadal to win the Madrid and Rome Masters, McEnroe played in just two clay tournaments throughout his phenomenal year of 1984.

John McEnroe looks on enviously © Getty Images
Enlarge

Fuelled by a simmering fire that often spilled over into a volcanic explosion on court, McEnroe mixed anger and grace in a volatile cocktail as he cut and carved his way past opponents with that defining left-handed grip. But in the French Open final of '84, it was his character trait of self-destruction that cost him his winning streak against Ivan Lendl, a man who had never won a major tournament.

After two sets, a 43rd victory of McEnroe's year seemed a formality. He was quicker, cleverer and slicker than Lendl, taking a 2-0 lead 6-3 6-2 in just over an hour.

McEnroe was a personality though, heavily flawed by his own self-admission at times, and the French crowd knew it. When the whirring of a cameraman's headset prompted the American into one of his trademark explosions, the crowd leapt firmly into Lendl's corner as he battled through the third set, taking it 6-4 to rip the momentum away from the favourite.

McEnroe had berated the guilty cameraman for causing him a lack of focus in that set, yelling into his earpiece, but the truth was that his demons were all self-imposed.

The American needed the self-control and class displayed in the first two sets to negate Lendl's power advantage, but that disappeared with his loss of composure in the third, and Lendl went on to become only the fourth man in French Open history to win the final from two sets down. McEnroe did everything to turn the tide, but an inaccurate volley sealed his fate.

The undefeated streak was over, and the crowd got the blame. McEnroe would not address them, so he exited the court to a chorus of boos, when his previous five months' work surely deserved the exact opposite reaction.

McEnroe only lost three times in 1984, but it was the Lendl defeat that haunts him to this day. If Djokovic gets past Federer he will find himself living McEnroe's past, whilst knowing victory in Sunday's final will leave him as the unparalleled author of the future.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Feeds Feeds: Ben Blackmore

Ben Blackmore Close
Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk