January 21, 1990: John McEnroe defaulted at the Australian Open
On January 21, 1990, at the Australian Open, John McEnroe becomes the first player since 1963 to be disqualified from a Grand Slam tournament for misconduct. Leading Mikael Pernfors 6-1 4-6 7-5 2-4, McEnroe is disqualified by chair umpire Gerry Armstrong after breaking a racquet and insulting the supervisor.
The last player to be disqualified from a Grand Slam for misconduct had been Willie Alvarez of Spain, in the 1963 French Open, 17 years earlier.
From John McEnroe’s autobiography Serious:
“In January 1990, I was playing Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round of the Australian Open. At one set all, I disagreed with a call a lineswoman had made, and I walked over to her. I didn’t say anything; I just stood in front of her and stared at her, bouncing a ball up and down on my strings. ‘Code of conduct warning, Mr McEnroe’, the umpire announced. That seemed debatable to me, and so I debated for a few moments. The umpire prevailed, and I calmed down and won the third set.
Then, serving at 2-3 in the fourth, I hit a forehand approach wide. Suddenly, on that very hot Australian afternoon – it was 135 degrees on the court – I saw red. I slammed my racket to the ground. The frame cracked. ‘Racket abuse, Mr McEnroe’, announced the umpire. ‘Point penalty’ My anger did not subside. I went up to the umpire, let him know how I was feeling for a minute or two, then demanded to see the tournament supervisor. The supervisor materialized and calmly said that a cracked racket frame was an automatic penalty. That was when I broke some new ground. As the supervisor turned away, I made an extremely rude suggestion, in a very loud voice. Thee was a gasp in the stands – McEnroe had topped himself.
‘Verbal abuse, audible obscenity, Mr McEnroe’, the umpire said.
Default. Game, set and match, Mr Pernfors
It was the only other time in my career, besides the doubles at the 1986 US Open, that I had been defaulted. I had also made history by becoming the first player defaulted out of a Grand Slam event in the Open era.
I plead idiocy – but I also plead ignorance. If you look at my career, you’ll see that in dozens of matches, I took matters to that edge where if I incurred one more penalty, I was gone. However, the one ond only time that I went over the edge, I literally didn’t realize that the default rule had been changed, from four steps to three.
At the moment the words flew out of my mouth, I thought, OK, I’ve lost the game. I thought that it was going to be four games to two in the fourth, but that I was still up two sets to one. I still felt certain I’d win the match. But when the umpire said, ‘Game, set and match’ the first thing I thought was that my agent, Sergio Palmieri, had forgotten to tell me about the rule change.
Obviously, I can’t just say, ‘It happened because my agent forgot to tell me about the change.’ Of course I have to take the responsibility for the whole incident. I truly believe, though, that if I had known the new rule, I would have contained myself. I sometimes went off the rails, but I always knew where I stood.