“I wasn’t gonna be a pawn,” John McEnroe opens up on refusing to play against Bjorn Borg in South Africa despite offer of $1 million


“I wasn’t gonna be a pawn,” John McEnroe opens up on refusing to play against Bjorn Borg in South Africa despite offer of $1 million

John McEnroe (Image Credit: NPR)

John McEnroe is an idol and inspiration for many. He with his racquet weaved magic on the court and made the world crazy after him in the 1970s and 1980s. He is still fondly remembered for his dogged fighting spirit and ‘Never Give Up’ attitude. He won 77 singles titles throughout his career. This includes Grand Slam, ATP tournaments, etc. However, in court people still remember him for his firm stand against the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s.

The South African Government had in 1980 invited him and his rival Bjorn Borg to play an exhibition match in South Africa. The Government was also willing to pay $1 million to the American legend. However, he refused to play in South Africa as the land was at that time in the hands of an apartheid regime.

“I remember that it felt wrong and I remember thinking that I had just walked into a sport that was exploding, and it was thanks to the people I idolized. So I thought to myself, ‘Yea this is an unbelievable amount of money at the time but there’s a reason why they’re offering me an unbelievable amount of me. They’re going to take advantage of me and sort of use that propaganda in a way. So, I wasn’t gonna be the pawn in that whole thing. I took pride in that, it wasn’t that difficult a decision. I’m 21, I don’t need the money that bad yet. I think that was one of the better decisions I made in my career,” he said in a recent interview, recalling the incident after so many years.

Continuing his train of thought, he further added, “Lot of people over the years have come up to me and thanked me for not going to South Africa when I was offered a lot. A million dollars that time was like, at least 10 million or more, to play an exhibition against Bjorn. So I feel proud that I made that decision at the time. Had I done it, I don’t think it would have changed the world one way or the other but I’m proud I didn’t do it.”

John McEnroe with this move was able to bring the world’s attention to the apartheid Government in South Africa that was discriminating against Blacks and other communities based on race, gender, and color.

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John McEnroe recalls meeting with Nelson Mandela

John McEnroe and Nelson Mandela

John McEnroe is considered one of the greatest players of all time. His rivalries with former tennis players such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors are part of legendary tales. However, when the 3-time Wimbledon champion met former South African president Nelson Mandela, it changed his perspective on life.

“He said that it was an honor to meet me. That’s what I should be saying to him but he’s saying that to me. When he told me, ‘I listened to your match, you and Borg at Wimbledon’, I realized he was in Robben Island listening to my match on the prison radio. I’m like, ‘What a jerk you are, sitting there whining about everything’. So, you know, that was a serious jolt of perspective and a reality check there, but nonetheless, he was the most amazing person I ever met, I will say that” he said.

John McEnroe has many stories to tell. He even narrates them with great happiness, reminiscing about his glorious career.

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