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March 3, 1991: The day John McEnroe won his final singles title, against brother Patrick

On this day in tennis history, John McEnroe won his final ATP title – by defeating his younger brother Patrick, of all people. Find out how it happened

John & Patrick McEnroe, On This Day John & Patrick McEnroe, On This Day

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, March 3, 1991, John McEnroe faced his younger brother, Patrick, in the final of the Volvo Tennis, in Chicago. The more famous of the two brothers, John, prevailed in three sets, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, to claim the 77th and last title of his career. They were the first siblings to compete against each other in an ATP final since Emilio and Javier Sanchez in 1987.

The players involved: John McEnroe and Patrick McEnroe

  • John McEnroe: Former world No 1 and seven-time Grand Slam singles champion

John McEnroe, born in 1959, was world No 1 for 170 weeks between 1980 and 1985. “Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve. He was also known for his outrageous on-court behaviour in the good-old-mannered world of tennis.  He was sometimes vulgar and his constant quarrelling with the officials did not go unnoticed in this gentleman’s sport. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3), and in 1980, he played his most famous match in the Wimbledon final, where he lost in five sets against Bjorn Borg, after winning an outstanding tiebreak in the fourth set (18-16). All in all, the American left-hander had claimed seven Grand Slam singles titles: three at Wimbledon (1981, 1983, 1984), and four in New York (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984).

His peak season was 1984, when, after a heart-breaking loss in the French Open final, he triumphed not only at both Wimbledon and the US Open, but also at the Masters and the Davis Cup, finishing the year as the undisputed world No 1, holding an 82-3 record. After 1984, McEnroe’s dominance came to an end. In 1986, mentally worn out, he even took a break from the tour during which he married actress Tatum O’Neal. After he came back, “Mac” was not the champion he used to be. He did not reach the semi-finals in any Major until Wimbledon 1989, where he was defeated by Stefan Edberg (7-5, 7-6, 7-6). At the 1990 Australian Open, still ranked No 5 in the world, he made himself even more famous by becoming the first player of the Open Era to be defaulted in a Grand Slam tournament. A few months later, he made his way to the US Open semi-finals (defeated by Pete Sampras, 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3), and in March 1991, he was ranked No 19 in the world.

  • Patrick McEnroe: Younger brother, Top doubles player

Patrick McEnroe, who, unlike his famous brother John, was right-handed, was born in 1966. A great junior player, he only turned pro in 1988, after having played for Stanford University and graduated with a degree in political science. He obtained his first breathrough result in doubles, when, partnering Jim Grabb, he won the 1989 Roland-Garros men’s doubles title, but his singles career only took off at the start of 1991. That year, at the Australian Open, where he arrived as the world’s 120th ranked player, he made his way into the semi-finals, where he was defeated by the eventual champion, Boris Becker (6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4). Thanks to this result, he entered the top 100 for the first time, and in March 1991, he was ranked No 51 in the world.

The place: Volvo Tennis, Chicago

The Volvo Chicago Open, a tournament played on indoor carpet, was first held in 1985. Held originally at the end of March, the event disappeared from the ATP schedule in 1988, only to reappear in 1991, four years after its last edition. 

The facts: John McEnroe comes from a set down to win the title

In 1991, the Volvo Chicago Open was held for the first time in four years, and for this special occasion, the spectators were treated with a rare event: two siblings facing each other in an ATP final. Not just any brothers: they were John and Patrick McEnroe.

At the time, John was not the dominant player he was in the early 1980s, but he was still ranked in the top 20, and he had recently reached the US Open semi-finals. On the other hand, Patrick, who had decided not to start a career before graduating from university, had just obtained his first breakthrough singles result, reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open. This result propelled him into the top 100 for the first time. They had won one tournament in doubles together and had warmed up together before the Chicago semi-finals. Their father came to witness this all-McEnroe final.

“I’ve played with John a long time, we’ve practised together — I still don’t know where his serve is going,” said Patrick before the final, according to upi.com

Despite this claim, Patrick, who was playing his first ATP final, was the first to break his brother’s serve and he took the first set, 6-3. However, John’s reaction was swift: he broke early in the second set, and soon after, he levelled the match (6-2). In the deciding set, the younger McEnroe brother took a 2-0 lead but his older sibling, unusually keeping his cool, clawed his way back.

“I felt it was very important in this situation not to take away from either my victory or my defeat by getting into some of the emotional outbursts I usually do,” John said, according to The Chicago Tribune. 

Finally, at the end of a tight deciding set, the seven-time Grand Slam champion obtained a match point on his serve. Just after he tossed the ball, a phone rang in the audience, and John stopped his motion. This unexpected interruption created a funny moment, as, looking towards his father, he said: “Dad, it’s mom calling.” Patrick took the opportunity to relax a little bit before facing a match point, and added, “Tell her I’ll be home soon.” “She said to make sure you miss this return,” said John to end this short break.

Patrick didn’t miss his return, but, thanks to a final volley, John prevailed (3-6, 6-2, 6-4), claiming his 77th ATP title. Both players explained later how hard it was to compete against his own brother.

”Every emotion you can imagine is there, every single one,” said John. “You’re always worried about trying to win, yet you know it’s your brother. You’re proud of the way he’s playing, and yet you don’t want him to beat you. You’re nervous because there’s an innate pressure there that’s just a competitive thing with brothers. And also, there’s the finals of a tournament you have to think about… I was aging by the minute out there.”

”It was just kind of a weird feeling,” said Patrick. ”I never felt really comfortable. I never felt like, ‘Oh, I want to win this match so badly.’ That wasn’t really my feeling out there, which it is any other time I play.”

As for their father, John Sr, he seemed to be satisfied with the outcome.

‘It’s hard to describe how I felt but I don`t think the match could have come out any better. ‘The seedings held, the rankings held, the obvious result that everyone expected held, and yet Patrick clearly demonstrated that he belongs.”

What next? John McEnroe retires in 1992

His 77th title, claimed against his own brother, would remain the final singles tournament ever won by John McEnroe. He would struggle in singles until his retirement, at the end of 1992. His last big result would be reaching the 1992 Wimbledon semi-finals where he lost to Andre Agassi 6-4 6-2 6-3. He did, however, win the doubles title at Wimbledon that year, partnering Michael Stich to victory.

His brother Patrick would remain a top 100 player until the end of 1996. He would claim his only singles title in 1995, in Sydney, defeating Richard Fromberg in the final (6-2, 7-6). That same year, he would also make his way into the US Open quarter-finals (defeated by Boris Becker, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6) and reach his highest ranking of world No 28.

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