What Is It Like Playing Doubles With John McEnroe?

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Facing McEnroe takes an inside look at one of the most unique champions in modern tennis, John McEnroe.  Written and compiled by Mark “Scoop” Malinowski, the book is composed of exclusive interviews with over 60 players who discuss their memories and experiences of what it's like to compete against the former Wimbledon, US Open and Davis Cup champion John McEnroe.   

Below is an excerpt from Malinowski’s discussion with Peter Fleming, McEnroe’s longtime doubles partner. Together, the pair won 52 titles including seven Grand Slams.


Peter Fleming: “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 [smiles]. 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 guys racquet was taller than he was. And yet he never missed a ball.”


He had 4-love and 30-love in each set?

Peter Fleming: “Yeah. And I never got close to winning one of those. That’s when I first met him. And when I got to know him a little bit from there you could tell the kid had something. Right from the word go.”


Was his style similar then? Did he serve and volley and come forward?

Peter Fleming: “No. He was about two-feet tall. You don’t serve and volley if you’re built like that. He’d just run around the back of the court and chase everything down. He was little.”


What was your most memorable match with John? With in doubles and singles?

Peter Fleming: “I suppose it had to be the Davis Cup final we played in the doubles. We played against (Guillermo) Vilas and (Jose Luis) Clerc in Cincinnati. They served for the match at 7-6 in the fifth and we ended up winning 11-9 in the fifth. And we went on to win the Davis Cup that year. It appeared to be a pivotal match.”


Peter Fleming and John McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles together. 


Describe the feeling of playing against John?

Peter Fleming: “It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy. The guy was intense. And physically it was a challenge. If he was playing his best, I virtually had no chance, or not a big chance, let’s put it that way. You had to hope that he was just a little bit below that, then maybe there was a shot.”


Did you ever get him in singles?

Peter Fleming: “Three times. Three times I beat him. In fact, the best match that we probably played was one that I didn’t win, in the final of San Francisco. I was up a set and a break three times. But just couldn’t finish him off. He took me out 6-2 in the third. But we both played well and it was a really good match.”


Was it enjoyable to play John? Or was it too frustrating to enjoy?

Peter Fleming: “Nah. It wasn’t enjoyable. It was just…it was intense. Think back and say, That was a good effort. Played hard, played well. But did I ever sit down and say ‘is this great?’ No.”


Lasting memory of John, on or off the court?

Peter Fleming: “I was his doubles partner for eight 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.”


Do you remember the last time you ever played doubles with him?

Peter Fleming: “It was about five years ago at Wimbledon, the seniors (vs. McNamara and McNamee). Yeah, that wasn’t one of the fun ones that we played. I think we both sort of decided, separately, that was the last time we’ll do that.”


Do you remember the first time you played with John McEnroe?

Peter Fleming: “I do, yeah. We played a tournament in 1977 in Los Angeles at the LA Tennis Club. We got to the quarterfinal, we lost to Roscoe Tanner and Marty Reissen in three sets. We felt we should have won. But you always do, don’t you [smiles].”