But Seriously: An Autobiography by John McEnroe review

The tennis hero looks back in middle-aged comfort at life since his punk sporting prime

John McEnroe:   There is a kind of restlessness and searching at the heart of the tennis firebrand’s second autobiography.  Photograph: Jonathan Ford

John McEnroe: There is a kind of restlessness and searching at the heart of the tennis firebrand’s second autobiography. Photograph: Jonathan Ford

Sat, Aug 12, 2017, 06:00


Book Title:
But Seriously: An Autobiography


John McEnroe

Weidenfield and Nicolson

Guideline Price:

In 1994, the Philadelphia Inquirer books editor asked David Foster Wallace to review the autobiography of one of his heroes. The subsequent essay gave rise to one of the most perfect titles in all of book reviewing – How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart – and despaired of the limitations and frustrations of the ghost-written genre. Wallace was a self-confessed junkie for the starry sports confessional because he yearned to know how it felt to be transcendently gifted at a given sport and so found himself constantly suckered and disappointed by the explanation within the pages.

The shallow introspection seemed to him wilful and because Austen was a prodigy of his generation, he felt wounded by her lack of revelation and was forced to confront the probability that in the moments when a top athlete exhibited his or her genius, what was going through their minds was probably nothing at all. “What if”, he asks himself, “when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, ‘I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,’ the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through?” In the twentysomething years since, the essay still stands alone as a poignant – and very funny – inquisition on the pointlessness of the vast majority of sports memoirs.

This summer’s Wimbledon was scarcely a day old when Austin, now a television commentator, got into a heated debate with John McEnroe over whether he could, at the age of 58, beat Serena Williams in a tennis match.

McEnroe’s annual appearances at Wimbledon are like a quixotic attempt to reverse time for those of us who were in thrall to the few years in the early 1980s when he stormed through SW19 as the first and last punk god of tennis. One of the themes of this book is how McEnroe himself has coped with the afterlife of tennis genius. The back page is striking. It features a photograph of McEnroe in his prime; a stark black-and-white framing him in midair at Wimbledon, poised to whip a backhand, the headband lost in a tangle of curls and the racket gloriously wooden. The scoreboard behind him reads 3-6 between JS Connors and JP McEnroe and they have played 1.52. Every man in the audience seems to be wearing a suit and tie. It’s a transportive sports photo. Beneath it are three terse observations on the book: Honest (It seems to be). Funny (Very occasionally). No bullshit (Depends on how much you value JP’s thoughts on 20th-century American art).

Art and entertainment

The inside flap blithely declares that “This is the sports book of the year” (It isn’t). Coming 15years after Serious, his first autobiography, it sets out to reveal the turbulence of McEnroe’s life since his athletic prime. The clue is in the inside covers; a collage of tickets to chi-chi New York events (an evening for Sidney Poitier here, Dylan at the Beacon there, VIP stubs to Knicks play-offs all the time). Broadcasting, the cut-throat world of art collecting and trying to branch into mainstream entertainment takes up a vast amount of his time. He knows he has been materially blessed. Sentences like “I keep it at our house at the Hamptons” are delivered unselfconsciously. He gets to play guest spots with Chrissy Hynde, watch Keith and Ronnie of the Rolling Stones not-eat dinner when they have him around to their white mansions and he hustles in true New York fashion to convince movie land of his potential, with limited success.

“The funny thing is, along with Adam Sandler’s Mr Deeds, that episode of the ‘Curb’ remains one of the things that most people know me for,” he notes wryly on page 108. “Not the tennis. Not the commentary. Just those two short moments on the screen. Go figure.”

That isn’t true, though. The impression McEnroe made as a tennis player from 1980-1985 was electrifying and it went far beyond the game. There is something saddening reading here about the apparent gratitude and excitement he feels at brushing shoulders with workaday names from movie and television land as he moves from project to project. Deep down, he knows he is a tennis man.

Family tale

The McEnroe we know from television – that mordant and sometimes self-deprecating wit – is occasionally present here. He is sharp on the annoyances of fame: there is a terrific passage where he recounts a transatlantic flight in which the passenger next to him didn’t utter a single word to him for the entire journey but then demanded a selfie as they disembarked. McEnroe declined. “I always knew you were an asshole,” the erstwhile fan shouted after him.

Somewhere in this book, there is a vital story about the McEnroe family which is struggling to get out. He talks about his conflicting emotions towards his rambunctious father without ever fully going there. And nothing on these pages matches the verbal energy of his daughter Anna, whose terrific essay on what it is to be a McEnroe is included. “The benefits of it are almost embarrassingly clear,” she writes.

It’s when talking about his family and revealing how his wife, the musician Patty Smyth, saves him from his tendencies towards gaucheness, that McEnroe feels fully engaged. The yarns about gliding through the corridors of celebrity life read like just that: McEnroe two-love up in an exhibition match and cruising. Among the people he thanks are Bjorn Borg, Dave Grohl and Mick Jagger: it’s a gilded world. He also salutes “Michi” Kakutani, the New York Times literary critic for her “valuable insight and advice” and a further group of people who “helped get this book to the finish line”. It’s instructive, that acknowledgment, because the autobiography reads like it was one of many balls McEnroe keeps juggling with his peerless dexterity as he rushes through the tennis afterlife. It reads like a book he sort-of wanted to do rather than absolutely needed to. And maybe that’s the point. There’s a kind of restlessness and searching at the heart as this wealthy, affectionate, brash 58 year old looks in the mirror held before him by the 23-year-old loudmouth fireball with a touch like you wouldn’t believe.