Punch-up that made press history

A scuffle between reporters after a John McEnroe match at Wimbledon in 1981 was a defining moment in the history of how the media became obsessed with the cult of celebrity. Simon O'Hagan was there

Wednesday 01 April 2009 16:30

The room was packed, the atmosphere tense. Every reporter wanted to be there, wondering if it would all kick off. Indeed, fervently hoping so. Sure enough it did, but in a way that none of us could ever have anticipated.

Twenty-five years on, the anniversary of the great Wimbledon press punch-up of 1981 is passing unacknowledged at the All England Club, where the 2006 tournament is in full swing. That is understandable. The storm it caused at the time might have been gripping for those who were caught up in it, and it's still looked back on with wry amusement. But it was, one must admit, a somewhat ignominious episode, and a plaque in its honour might not sit so easily at the institution where Kipling's "If" is quoted above the players' entrance to the Centre Court.

Yet what on one level amounted to just a couple of seriously riled hacks trading blows was on another about a great deal more. And it has needed the vantage point of history to discern its true significance. When academics get round to examining how newspapers in the late 20th century discovered and then peddled celebrity, they should take account of the events of that combustible July afternoon.

The occasion was a semi-final between John McEnroe and a little known unseeded Australian called Rod Frawley. McEnroe, then 22, was at the height of his brattish powers. The previous year, he had reached his first Wimbledon final, losing an epic five-setter to Bjorn Borg. The two great rivals were on course to meet in the final again, and this time McEnroe would win.

McEnroe's genius as a player combined with his volcanic temper to create one of the most compelling personalities tennis had ever known. Love him or loathe him, the public couldn't get enough of the young upstart from New York, and soon his private life was on the press's agenda. In particular, there was much speculation about his relationship with his girlfriend Stacey Margolin.

Reporters gathering for his semi-final were relishing the prospect. And what added to the potential for yet more great copy was the presence in the royal box for the first time of Lady Diana Spencer, only a few weeks away from her marriage to the Prince of Wales. Her preeminence as an object of obsession on the burgeoning tabloid scene was undisputed. But McEnroe was a terrific sideshow, and to have the two of them in the same story was a newsman's dream.

McEnroe did not disappoint. He snarled his way to victory in trademark fashion, throwing tantrums and abusing line judges, and when Lady Di departed with the match still in progress, there was only one interpretation. Our poor, virginal queen-to-be, driven from her seat, her innocent ears assailed! Send McEnroe to the Tower!

The match over, I was one of the tennis writers who flooded in to the small subterranean room set aside for press conferences. (A much larger, plusher space is in operation today.) It was chaos even before McEnroe showed up. In contravention of rules that kept broadcast interviews with players separate from press interviews, an American TV crew forced its way in and set up at the back of the room. Once there it was impossible to remove them. There were just too many people.

One reason why the numbers were so swollen was the presence, in addition to the tennis correspondents, of a large body of Fleet Street news reporters. The assignment of "rotters", as they became known, to cover Wimbledon was a new development which the McEnroe phenomenon demanded. The wholly incompatible interests of the two constituencies were about to conflict disastrously.

For two or three minutes, harmless tennis questions were lobbed in McEnroe's direction - about his backhand, about his footwork, about break points won and lost. Warily, moodily, McEnroe answered them.

Then, one of the awkward pauses between questions was broken by the unmistakable pompous drawl of the Mirror's legendary royal reporter, James Whittaker, "rotter" supreme. "John," he asked, affecting a familiarity with McEnroe that was wholly bogus, "have you and Stacey split up?"

The gas was in the air, and Whittaker had lit the match. In the explosion that followed, McEnroe told us what he thought of us, flung back his chair and stormed out. That was just the beginning. Rows erupted between reporters. There was pushing and shoving. Chairs were knocked over. The room divided along British-American lines, with the US writers - serious tennis people - complaining bitterly that our low-down dirty gossip-trawlers had ruined things for everyone else.

The fiercest argument was between the Mirror's tennis writer Nigel Clarke and Charlie Steiner of RKO radio. Clarke, who is still covering Wimbledon, takes up the story: "Everybody sort of gathered together, and the American guys were saying, why do you ask these kind of questions, and I said we don't preclude news reporters and they're entitled to ask what they want. Charlie was particularly abusive and I said if you want to talk like that about it, let's step outside. That's when it happened. I had the presence of mind to stand on a chair and punch downwards. But he wasn't hurt, just a bit bemused."

Steiner, who went on to work for the American sports channel ESPN, later recalled that "it became this international incident". That was in part thanks to the unauthorised TV crew, whose pictures turned up on the BBC news. "My daughter saw it," Clarke remembers with a shudder. "The BBC was describing it as disgraceful scenes. Oh dear."

Bud Collins, tennis writer for The Boston Globe, was in the press room and saw matters from an American perspective. "I felt that Charlie was trying to defend American honour. He was tired of hearing all this 'Superbrat' stuff with McEnroe. He felt that one of his countrymen was being unfairly criticised. Then again, I don't know quite why he was so incensed. I saw the two of them on the floor and I was goggle-eyed. We're generally so helpful to each other. That's why I was shocked."

Both Clarke and Steiner were summoned to the headmaster's study, the office of the All England Club chairman, in those days "Buzzer" Hadingham. Curiously, from their separate encounters with him, both men emerged feeling vindicated. Steiner said he was thanked and offered a cup of tea. "Wimbledon hated the tabloids as much as anyone else." Clarke says that Hadingham told him "he'd have done the same thing, but next time, old boy, do it in private". That's Wimbledon diplomacy for you.

Steiner and Clarke did not run across each other again for some 15 years. "I was in Las Vegas in 1996, covering boxing," Clarke recalls. "And across the room was Charlie. We dissolved into each other's arms and had a good laugh about it."

These days news reporters are a totally accepted presence at Wimbledon, the gossip surrounding players as important to their desks as the on-court action is to the sports department. In the same press conference, the specialist tennis writer who wants to know about Roger Federer's second serve might have to share time and space with the glossy magazine representative who has another set of concerns.

The arrangement still causes unease. "There's quite a bit of seething," says the veteran writer Ronald Atkin, who covers tennis for The Independent on Sunday. "The worst thing is when you get a player opening up on a subject in an interesting way and then someone jumps in and asks a question about something completely different, so a good story is throttled."

It was a rude awakening for the Royal Family when, in the 1980s, the press ceased to be deferential. Wimbledon, another great establishment institution, underwent a similar experience at the same time. And that day in 1981 now looks very much like the moment when it all began.

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