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Sports Articles: Great Teams Part 5 The Big Goon & Superbrat: Fleming & McEnroe

Great Teams Part 5 The Big Goon & Superbrat: Fleming & McEnroe
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John McEnroe And Peter Fleming


In the days when doubles in tennis was not just for those players who were not quite good enough at singles to compete at the top end, there was just one team that stood out as head and shoulders above the rest. That team was John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, who really played doubles to avoid having to practice singles in between their matches!

Fleming was the elder of the pair by four years, one of four sons born to a successful Wall Street portfolio manager who had once been a ranked tennis player himself. With his father's encouragement, Peter began playing early, at the age of 5, and they won the National Father-Son Grasscourt Championship together in 1974 when Peter was 19.

McEnroe was born in 1959 in Germany to American parents who were stationed out there with the USAF. A year later they moved back to the US and his father, John Sr., worked as an advertising agent by day and attended night classes at Fordham Law School. He had two younger brothers, the youngest, Patrick, also became a professional tennis player. Growing up in Queens, New York City, McEnroe first picked up a tennis racket at that age of 8 at the nearby Douglaston Tennis Club.

After just a year, McEnroe was already impressing enough for his parents to enrol him in the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association to play in regional tournaments, before moving up to national junior level. Fleming had moved on to Chatham High School before the pair's first meeting. McEnroe was ranked 7 in his age group and Fleming tells the story best: "We first met when we were kids, he was twelve and I was sixteen. And we were playing at the Port Washington Tennis Academy. And one of the pros set up a little challenge match between the two of us. The pro was talking about how good this twelve year old kid was and I was sixteen at the time. I thought, 'How good can he be?' The pro said he's pretty good. One thing led to another and I stupidly said okay, 'I'll give him 4-love, 30-love and I'll kick his ass.' He said, 'you're on.' A week later we showed up and there was like five kids on the sidelines watching this big challenge match. And I lost five sets in a row to him. I couldn't even win that 30-love game. Because I was sort of a wild player. So I would always miss, make a few errors. The guy's racquet was taller than he was and yet he never missed a ball."

While Fleming was completing high school and then moved on to university, where he won the NCAA doubles title in 76 before turning professional, McEnroe was still an amateur and graduated high school in 1977. Even so, McEnroe was already making a name for himself as an 18 year old and won his first doubles tournament, the mixed doubles at the French Open playing with Mary Carillo. He also made it all the way through the Wimbledon qualifying tournament to reach the main draw before eventually losing in the semi-finals to Jimmy Connors. It was only after Wimbledon that he enrolled in university.

It was 1977 that the partnership began, though it was not an auspicious start as they flopped in their first tournament together. It was the Pacific Southwest in LA smog and the pair struggled for breath as Peter Fleming recalled: "Both of us were embarrassed by our play. By the end of the match, I couldn't even breathe. I was afraid to say anything to John, but then he told me he was sucking wind too. That was our first taste of the severe LA smog."

They continued to compete in doubles competition mainly because McEnroe preferred playing doubles rather than practising between his singles matches. Renowned tennis coach Harry Hopman had once told McEnroe that playing a match under pressure was better than practice. Judging by how exceptional a career he had, plus how well Fleming did in singles reaching a highest rank of 8 and winning three titles, Hopman may well have had a point.

Their second year of doubles saw a moment that lifted Fleming's confidence, when they faced a pair of his heroes in Wimbledon's second round, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz. After leading 2 sets to 1, Fleming and McEnroe lost a 4th set tie-break which levelled the match and McEnroe responded by saying to Fleming: "Come on, these guys stink. How can we lose to these guys?" Fleming said of that moment: "I realised right then we were not in over our heads. Everything was relative. We had become as good as them. We won in 5. My self-worth changed for all time."

1978 was a learning year for the partnership as they lost the final 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, the worst defeat since 1911 as the pair played into their opponent's, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, hands. Fleming says of that defeat: "A sickening psych-out. We were so impressed with them, so worried about their touch and angled stuff, we tried to hit impossible shots they couldn't reach. We played into their hands rather than playing our own game. We have too much power to piddle about. We should have just hit straight through them. We never forgot that."

They took that lesson into their rematch with Hewitt and McMillan, with McEnroe smashing a volley inches from Hewitt's face early in the match in the final at Cologne. "You want to die?" Hewitt growled at him. "What? You want some more, old man? Next time I won't miss," replied an angry McEnroe. McEnroe and Fleming won 6-3, 6-2 and never lost to them again. Another lesson was learnt that year as they lost in the quarter-finals of the US Open to Mark Edmondson and Geoff Marks. "Ham Richardson told us we were terrific return men and volleyers but that we didn't take advantage of it," said Fleming. "We were hanging too far back from the net. I moved up 5 feet. Junior practically climbed on top of the tape. We won 7 of our next 8 tournaments."

The pair began the following year on fire, going on to win 12 of the 15 tournaments they entered with a win-loss record of 69-3, but September very nearly saw the end of the partnership just as it was beginning to assert its dominance. At that point Fleming was on a great run in the singles, winning 22 of 25 matches and had reached the Jack Kramer final in LA, where McEnroe was to be his opponent. First the pair had to play together in the semi-finals of the doubles and it went badly. They were both busy thinking of their match the next day against each other and were not fully focused on their doubles game and the feeling between them was awkward.

After losing in the doubles the final between them was fraught and Fleming beat McEnroe, despite his usual antics, disputing line calls and stalling tactics, 6-4, 6-4. At one point Fleming lost his cool too and screamed at the umpire: "How much longer before you give this guy a point penalty?" After the game Fleming made a point of publicly praising and thanking McEnroe for his and inspiration but also made joking references to "the brat".

The following week they were in San Francisco and reached both the singles and doubles finals, despite not speaking to each other all week. "Our girlfriends were with us that week," explained Fleming, "making the whole thing tolerable. But, before the singles, we sat down and had it out. It was resolved that our friendship, our doubles, was more important than winning or losing any individual tournament. We said no matter if we threw punches at each other in our singles match, there was no way we were losing the doubles again." After being a set and break up, Fleming lost the singles to McEnroe but they then won the doubles together and never lost again in doubles for the rest of 1979.

While there was never again a serious threat to the partnership, there were a few more difficult moments, such as when they won the WCT World Doubles and attended a very posh black-tie event in London honouring their achievement. Fleming's sense of humour upset McEnroe after he jokingly told the event that he would have enjoyed winning much more "if I didn't have to share it with such an asshole." There was another little bump on the road due to a singles match between the two of them, when McEnroe was angered by Fleming's acceptance of a point penalty levied against McEnroe. The pair argued long, loud and angrily before Fleming shouted: "Just because I'm your friend doesn't mean I'm the Salvation Army!" That particular little flare up was quickly resolved later that day with a quick poolside chat.

It seems they never forgot the lesson of using their power to just hit straight through people, at least if John Newcombe's tale of their doubles clash in the 1981 US Open is to be believed: "John was a, you know, a bully, no doubt about it. He tried to bully the umpires, the lines-people, his opponents....Uh, everyone. In the first game of the match, he hit me with.... He had a really easy volley and he nailed me with it. And I turned around and looked at him and he didn't apologise or anything, he just walked back. Anyway, we're two sets to love down, beginning of the third set and we have a volley exchange like that. And John swings full-blooded, a volley, and hits Fred in the throat and Fred went down. Uh, and that made me angrier than if he hit me, so anyway the... I served the next point. The crowd were going nuts. And it was a full house, there were 19,000 people there for a doubles match. And at the next point I finished up after a long point coming, and doing a little dink in front of John for a winner. And I ran in front of John and I've turned my racquet handle up..... I had the racquet handle and I shoved it right up his nose and I said: 'You da-da-da. I'm going to da-da-da kill you.' And he's just looking at me, like his eyes are popping out of his head."

Those lessons stood them in good stead though as the duo won 52 titles, including 4 Wimbledons and 3 US Opens, though oddly they never won the Australian or French Opens. They did help the USA to win the Davis Cup three times, winnning 14 of their 15 doubles matches in the competition and the World Team Cup twice. While Fleming once joked: "The best doubles pair in the world is John McEnroe and anyone." And he often feared being remembered as just the "big goon who played doubles with McEnroe", there was more to it than just McEnroe being brilliant. They complimented each other well, McEnroe's swagger and arrogance was offset by Fleming's lack of confidence in himself. Their styles of play meshed together nicely as well and the doubles games improved them as players.

McEnroe explained once: "Peter just got used to playing all week. When he lost in singles, he had to stay mentally tough for the doubs. He worked hard. It helped his concentration all round." But Fleming always gave the credit to his playing partner: "I learned from Junior. He was so into our doubles. Always. If he was beaten in singles, he'd try even harder in doubles. We would never tank just because one of us got beat. The doubs got to be 99% a lock if the other poor bastards had to play us after Junior lost."

They did not always get it right, even managing to destroy their own chances in the US Open by arriving late for their match. The pair always went to McEnroe's parents' home in Cove Neck, Long Island while competing in the US Open and would drive in from there each day. In 1986 it all went wrong when the match they were following was over much more quickly than anyone expected, with Guy Forget losing in straight sets to Miloslav Mecir. While they were stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, thinking they had plenty of time to spare, Jim Fannin, Fleming's coach, was desperately trying to get the tournament referee to wait for them to arrive. Fleming and McEnroe arrived just 6 minutes late but were disqualified and replaced by Rick Ruden and Derek Tarr. That did not go down well with the crowd, who immediately began booing when McEnroe and Fleming's names were taken down and then filed out in droves when the replacements were put in place!

This was at a time when McEnroe was at loggerheads with the US Tennis Association (USTA), who were no longer picking him or Jimmy Connors for their Davis Cup team due to their behaviour and it was Randy Gregson, the president of the USTA, that made the decision not to give the pair any leeway on time when they were late. Though in the past players have been allowed extra time, Gregson would hear none of it for McEnroe. It is probably no surprise that McEnroe took a 6 month break from the tour that year and went off to marry Tatum O'Neal, nor that he took a month longer break the following year after being hit with a 2 month suspension.

It was clear their time had come as a team on the tour and in 1988 Fleming retired from professional tennis. While everyone else might remember McEnroe as 'Superbrat', disputing calls and bickering constantly, Fleming remembers his partner with affection: "I was his doubles partner for 8 years and I couldn't imagine a better doubles partner to have I don't think there was one time that he ever got upset with me during a match. He had that knack of making his partners, whoever it was, play near their peak. Everybody remembers him as a guy who had a fiery temper and difficult to get along with but on the doubles court he was just the opposite. He's got a heart of gold, really. In a lot of scenarios."

What is undisputable is that for a long time they were, together, the best doubles team in the world and that, while McEnroe was ranked World Number 1 in doubles for 270 weeks, it was not just about John McEnroe. They were a great team that worked together brilliantly to dominate their arena for most of the early 1980s.

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To read the previous episode in the Great Teams series click HERE to read Part 4 - Joga Bonito - The 1970 Brazil World Cup Team.

Written by Tris Burke July 10 2020 11:38:32