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John McEnroe: ‘It was a hell of a ride’

The tennis legend says we cannot be serious if we judge him by his on-court outbursts. He was always pretty shy, but it was his destiny to play tennis

John McEnroe is a New Yorker who revolutionised men’s tennis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning Wimbledon three times and the US Open four times. He became world number one in both singles and doubles – and was renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve on the tennis court.

McEnroe played in the most glamorous era for men’s tennis, when players regularly hung out at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub and were renowned for playing hard and partying harder. He was married to actor Tatum O’Neill in 1986, and they had three children together before divorcing in 1994. In 1997, he married musician Patty Smyth, with whom he has two daughters.

New documentary McEnroe is a stylish, smart, beautifully filmed look at one of the most exciting, compelling sporting greats of any era – a talented, complex, contradictory talent whose emotional outbursts on the tennis court made him a media bogeyman but won him millions of fans. In this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, the 63-year-old looks back on that incredible career.

1981: About to face Björn Borg for the second time in a Wimbledon final and claim his first title Photo: Colorsport/Shutterstock

As a teenager, I was passionate about sports. Tennis was the obvious one, but I love what you call football and we call soccer. I played highschool soccer for four years, I played basketball so my world, my friendships, was through sport. I was shy growing up. A lot of people wouldn’t think that, from the person I became or how I acted on the tennis court, but I was pretty shy. I couldn’t understand like why kids would be so mean to each other, it didn’t make sense to me. Being good at sport was an important way for me to be able to exist in school.

I felt like people didn’t realise how good a person I was. I thought people didn’t understand me – I’m a good guy, you know? I’m a good friend. My first girlfriend or two got it, which was huge, because you’re at that awkward stage. That’s a tough time. But thank god I was able to develop friendships through sport because I commuted an hour each way to school in Manhattan, and was the only kid from Queens. So I was a bit of an outsider there, and my friends I grew up with were all in schools where we lived. I felt like I was not on the in with either side. I was in purgatory, in a way. That was difficult to navigate as a kid.

If you believe in something up above, it was my destiny to play tennis. I would have never thought that as a kid. But my parents moved to a part of Queens that was literally a block and a half from a tennis club. I started playing against the wall. And later the pro noticed something. So, because of some great coaching and being around great tennis people, I made it.

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You need to ramp down expectations as much as possible when you’re young. You’ve got plenty of time to worry about it later. When I was 12 and my dad started to see I had potential and would say, I want you to get a college scholarship and play Davis Cup. The best thing I ever did was remind him: “I’m, like, 12. Hang on!” So I took some pressure off. Kids in that position now feel overwhelming pressure, maybe because there is so much money in tennis. Too often parents live vicariously through their kids. I was lucky that my mom was a nurse, my dad worked full time as a lawyer, and I had two brothers, so it didn’t feel like everything depended on me. A lot of kids feel that weight on their shoulders, which is too much to handle.

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My life totally changed in 1977 when I went to Europe for the first time and played at Wimbledon. I was only planning to play the junior event, but because I had a couple of points from a tournament in New Jersey, it allowed me into qualifying. The next thing I know, I’m in the semi-finals. I am not sure anything could have prepared me. My legs were shaking the first time I set foot on Centre Court. I walked into the hotel – and in those days it was legal to bet on site at Wimbledon – and they had [Björn] Borg 2-1, [Jimmy] Connors 5-1, [Vitas] Gerulaitis 25-1 and McEnroe 150-1. I couldn’t believe I was even on the same page as these guys. It was unbelievable. These are the guys I looked up to, these are the guys you dream about playing. And here I am playing them when I was only 18.

There were numerous times when I went overboard and went too far. But I felt I was unfairly treated in London. I couldn’t believe the extent to which they would make up stuff – how do you prepare for that? I don’t know what I could tell my younger self to prepare because it was so overwhelmingly different. I’d just say try to be true to yourself as much as possible.

Playing Jimmy Connors in the 1977 Wimbledon Men’s Semi Final at just 18 years old Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

I grew up in New York where there’s this intense energy. You saw guys yelling everywhere. And I had
a loud dinner table. My parents were Irish-Americans and they raised their voices. Then, all of a sudden, I go to Wimbledon and they’re so polite, so quiet, they want to do things a certain way. It felt really bizarre. Whoa, this really is a foreign country! It was a culture shock – and I’m sure it was for them also. This brash American, who the hell does he think he is? I didn’t understand why people cared. I found it funny the first year. It got less funny as time went on and I realised they’re coming after me.

I was someone who believed in flying under the radar, but it happened that my ex-wife [Tatum O’Neal, whom he was married to from 1986 to 1994] was very famous at a young age. I thought it made total sense. I was thinking that this person has been through a lot and that may help me navigate some of this. But it turned out the two of us together were bigger than us individually, at least to the paparazzi. There was a whole new level I suppose I should have anticipated. Then I dug my heels in, like, how dare they do this?

With (l-r) wife Patty Smyth and kids Emily, Anna and Kevin at the NYC McEnroe premiere, 2022 Photo: Lev Radin/Sipa USA

Becoming a parent didn’t necessarily help my tennis, but it helped me as a person. At that point in my life, I felt I was missing something. I was living in a bubble and it did feel empty. The idea of being a parent felt incredible. I thought I’d be able to handle that and still win the big ones. Roger Federer has won a bunch of major titles as a parent, but I wasn’t able to juggle it, to be the best and hopefully a good father and husband at the same time. I never could quite figure it out.

If you were to ask me what my passions are now, I’d say I love music and playing guitar. But I didn’t play as a kid. Art’s a passion now, but I never went to museums as a kid. It’s like using a different side of your brain. I was just using one side for my teenage years but it was the beginning of an exploration that, in the long run, helped me expand my horizons.

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Some of the lifestyle as a tennis player was just too good. But let’s get this straight, we were training really hard too. Björn Borg was one of the fittest guys in the history of sports, so was Vitas Gerulaitis. I don’t know how he did it – he burned the candle at both ends, and I felt it was important to see that lifestyle. My parents were pretty strict, especially for the first kid. I was the oldest of three. It got me afraid of getting in trouble or doing drugs, so I was pretty strait-laced. But this was a different era – certain drugs were legal back in the day. You would love to find that perfect line between the lifestyle and the sport, but it is almost impossible. We got to go to Studio 54 and meet Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. I mean, this was unbelievable. Would I have changed certain things? Of course. But all in all, it was a hell of a ride.

If I could relive one day, from a career perspective, it would be the loss I had in the French Open final in 1984. [He won the first two sets, but ultimately Ivan Lendl triumphed.] Everything pointed to me winning and I absolutely should have won. Then I would have been regarded, at least in tennis circles, as higher on the totem pole, shall we say. But my head was getting too big. And it forever humbled me. One lesson to be learned is that if I am sitting dwelling on it, what message am I giving to my kids? I’ve gotta dwell on the positive. The glass is half full.

A new documentary, McEnroe, is in cinemas from July 15

I’m proud of where I’ve gotten to. Each year, as a father and a husband and as far as work, I’m hoping I learn from past experiences and will be better for it in the end. The most important thing is that I feel like I’m going in that direction. Ironically, this crazy pandemic helped me get to better places with all my kids. And if your kids are happy, it automatically makes you happier. So this doesn’t mean I don’t screw things up every day, but generally I feel proud of the direction I’ve been trying to go.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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