John McEnroe reflects on life as tennis’ bad boy in documentary

The streets of New York City are deserted as John McEnroe passes familiar landmarks and back alleys on a journey that spans a few miles and many decades.

With every step he weaves into the nightly scenes that connect the revealing documentary McEnroe, the man whose foul-mouthed tirades were as famous as his extraordinary tennis skills finds peace in life’s imperfections. His journey continues, although at the age of 63 he is well established as a television commentator and has been in a relationship and second marriage to singer/songwriter Patty Smyth for almost three decades.

“Every year that has passed in my life, I feel like I’m getting closer to the promised land,” he said in a recent conversation. “I’m not sure anyone ever gets all the way there. I doubt I’ll ever get all the way there.”

He hasn’t forgotten his grudge against the chair umpires and linesmen who heard his anger while calling the games that catapulted him to No. 1 in the world for 170 weeks and 155 men’s Tour titles, still a record. His children, too young to have seen him in his boisterous glory, caught these tirades on YouTube long before the sequences appeared in the documentary, which will stream on Showtime Friday.

He cringes when he sees these outbursts, but he hasn’t denied them. His famous statement to an official at Wimbledon in 1981, “You can’t be serious,” became the title of his 2002 autobiography. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell someone. It’s his trademark. It’s also a reminder of how badly he sometimes reacted to life in an alien adult world and the pressures that made him feel doomed, even as he dominated the men’s tour.

“I think I was right most of the time. It doesn’t mean I did it right,” he said of his behavior towards officials.

“Knock on wood, I feel like I’m in a pretty good place now. The effort I went through to get there was like a roller coaster ride in many ways, but it was one hell of a ride. So I look at it that way and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life right now.”

John McEnroe, the defending champion, flies through the air for a shot.

John McEnroe, the defending champion, chases a return during a match against Wally Masur at Wimbledon in 1984.

(Bob Dear / Associated Press)

Tennis’s current bad boy, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, differs from McEnroe in one key area: McEnroe has always given it his all.

“Every time he does something, I’m like, ‘Did I do that?'” McEnroe said. “I like Nick as a person. I think he’s a smart kid. He moves the needle. I think the players like him. Many fans like him. There’s a lot of talk about him. He’s an incredible talent.

“Almost all athletes have this fear of failure and it’s not a question of whether you have it or not. That’s how you deal with it. Can you go out there and consistently put in the effort that is expected of a professional athlete and be handsomely rewarded for their service? That’s the only problem I’ve had with Nick over the years. I’ve tried to live up to that [Jimmy] Connors trying so hard. How hard did I try? Did I do my best? And I think for the most part I feel like I did, and too often I feel like Nick just sends it in. And that’s just not good for him or good for the sport.

Pushed by his father John, who was his manager and billed him for these services by the hour, McEnroe grew up in a family of perfectionists. By his count, he has seen 37 psychologists and psychiatrists “by court orders and my own free will” to understand himself and his behavior.

Jamming with the Rolling Stones, partying at Studio 54 with rival Vitas Gerulaitis, and trying recreational drugs and heavier stuff, all of which contributed to the bitter and public end of his 1994 marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal, mother of his three eldest children. He knew he was sabotaging his career. But he couldn’t stop.

“Nowadays, athletes take performance-enhancing drugs. We took performance-impairing drugs,” he says in the documentary. “That’s the difference for me. Criticize me if you want to do that. Maybe it’s good for you to appreciate your life a little more for a while.”

“I feel like I’m in a pretty good place now. The effort I put in to get there was like a roller coaster ride in many ways, but it was a ride from hell.”

– John McEnroe

The documentary, which has been postponed due to COVID-related reasons, includes some match footage but is most effective when it comes to voicing observations from McEnroe’s brothers Patrick and Mark, his former doubles partner Peter Fleming, tennis great Billie Jean King and Bjorn Borg bring to. who was McEnroe’s nemesis before becoming a friend. There’s also a performance from Rolling Stones co-founder and guitarist Keith Richards, because why not?

McEnroe seems genuinely pensive as he walks the streets near his home in Queens’ Douglaston. He’s your typical New Yorker who doesn’t make eye contact when someone recognizes him in Chinatown. The New York scenes work. But director Barney Douglas’ computer-generated elements are gimmicky, and driving the story forward with McEnroe answering a ringing phone in a phone booth — apparently the only two phone booths left in New York — feels artificial.

McEnroe’s honesty carries the film. Four of his five children appear on camera, plus Smyth’s daughter from her first marriage. He wanted to be more tender to his children than his father was to him. This could be his greatest achievement. “I married a bad boy who turned out to be a really good man,” says Smyth.

John McEnroe (left) and Patty Smyth arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday March 27, 2022

John McEnroe and Patty Smyth arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 27 in Beverly Hills.

(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)

That was McEnroe’s favorite moment. “I get goosebumps. It’s just a wonderful thing,” said McEnroe, who is based in New York and Malibu. “Twenty-eight years later, it’s nice to feel like I got this second chance. Thankfully, I was mature enough and smart enough to realize that I’ve had an opportunity here, that you’re an idiot if you screw this up.”

The film ends with him hugging Smyth as the sun rises over New York. Complete peace may elude him, but his journey was compelling and this documentary tells it well. John McEnroe reflects on life as tennis’ bad boy in documentary

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