Tennis: Man with a reputation to live down

Mark Winters talks to Jeff Tarango, the man who walked out on Wimbledon
Click to follow
Jeff Tarango's best Wimbledon was also his worst. He had not gone beyond the first round in six attempts but in 1995 he attracted some attention by beating Andrei Medvedev on his way to the third round. Then he drew a great deal more by launching a remarkable verbal attack on the chair umpire, Bruno Rebeuh, during his match against Alexander Mronz which he ended by walking off court.

Defaulted for his actions, he was fined his prize-money and banned from the lawns of the All England Club for a year. Now he is back, older and, apparently, wiser. "In some ways it made me tougher. In some ways it made me understand the world better," he says.

He certainly understands the impact his startling exit made on the watching Wimbledon public and knows he will carry a certain reputation on to court with his rackets when he returns for this year's championships, which begin next Monday.

"I think it's a big deal for England, but for me it's Wimbledon, the tournament I love to play," he says. "It's another opportunity to do well." Which only makes his behaviour last time, when he was doing well, all the more difficult to understand. "It's my cross to bear and it's a strange one," he says of the incident.

The match itself against Mronz is incidental. The day became significant once Tarango had words with Rebeuh, accusing him of favouritism. From there things went from bad to worse. Tarango stalked off court and his French wife, Benedicte, who had been watching the match, went after Rebeuh as he left and slapped him. She then followed her husband into the interview room where both pleaded his case to waiting journalists. Who remembers anything else about the match? What people remember is the fireworks and Tarango being defaulted for walking off court.

The Californian is disarmingly honest about his behaviour that day. "I was a bad boy and my mother told me I was a bad boy," he says. "I believe it was a mistake for me to walk off the court. It was a scary incident for me. The bad thing for me is that I have this stigma before my name." But then, as if by justification, he adds: "I really do feel the game misses John McEnroe and needed another bad boy."

A few people at the All England Club would beg to differ, as Tarango acknowledged with the quip: "I guess I have to win the tournament to be a member."

If Tarango is still paying for his behaviour in terms of reputation, he was made to pay financially straightaway. As well as having to hand back his pounds 17,500 in prize-money, he says: "I had to pay tax on it before they asked me to pay it back as the fine, so I lost money."

He is anxious to prove that he can play the game, that reaching the third round at Wimbledon after those six first-round defeats was not a freak performance. "It will be a challenge going to Wimbledon," he says. "There were a few things said about how I had done in 1995. People didn't think I was that good."

Since turning professional in 1989, Tarango has earned more than pounds 1m. His highest singles ranking is No 42, achieved in 1992. In doubles, he reached No 32 in the world last year. Tarango's script for Wimbledon reads: win in the first round, then take on a seed in the second or third and make a breakthrough. The draw handed him the chance to play out that scene as he will face a qualifier in his opening match with the seeded South African Wayne Ferreira likely to be his second-round opponent if he wins. "It's not going to be a big deal," he says of his first-round match. "It's going to be an anticlimax. There is going to be a crowd and they probably will be jeering. They will want me to do something, but I will not see anything but the ball.

It will be kind of boring. I have been wasting too much time on this."

Tarango, often his own worst enemy, can be intense and quick to take offence, but he can also be charming. "Other players say I am either crazy or I have a lot of character," Tarango admits. "I was introduced to my wife as `Crazy Man'. McEnroe was crazy. I have never been like that."

Then again... Only a couple of weeks ago at the French Open, Thomas Muster refused to shake hands after a 7-5, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Tarango, who, during the second-round match, had mimicked the way Muster walks and complained about his grunting. "He's grunting when I'm hitting the ball. He's grunting when he's hitting the ball. He's grunting when I'm tossing the ball in the air. I mean, he's grunting a lot," Tarango said after the match. "He has such a big ego that if you take a little of his limelight, he just doesn't like it."

That episode looked like Tarango being Tarango but he insists there was more to the story. He says Muster apologised to him later that day for not shaking hands. "He said he was tired and was caught up in the match," Tarango said.

Whatever the facts, none of this on-court melodrama does Tarango much good, and he admits to regretting the Wimbledon incident. "It was a tragedy. It was not good for sports. It was not good for anyone," he said. "I think everyone has the perception I'm making money on this. I'm going to be 29 in October and I'm not. I do not have a racket or clothing contract. Everyone I know gets bonuses. I'm on the Grandstand Court or the Centre Court and I'm not paid a thing. Television is making money. I go to the press conferences and they want to agitate me to get their sound bite. If I do not go, I'm fined. It's strange because I'm part of the promotion, but I'm not part of the business."

Wimbledon - the tournament, not just the 1995 row - is part of him. "People do not realise that I missed my high school graduation to come to Wimbledon and play the juniors," he says. "Playing there has always been a big deal to me. If you check the record, I have screwed around and done weird things at other tournaments, but I had never had a fine, never had a warning, at Wimbledon until 1995. There is no way I would want to hurt the tournament."

You didn't, Jeff. You hurt yourself.