John McEnroe: ‘I saw myself as part of punk’
The former champion on women’s tennis, his recurring nightmare and who will win Wimbledon 2017
John McEnroe: He does valuable work for the Wimbledon tournament each year by saying something ‘controversial’. Photograph: Jonathan Ford
The short, sharp shock of the punk rock squalling its way out from CBGB, the New York music club, in the mid-1970s carried all the way to London SW19.
“I had come from a city where punk rock was really shaking things up, and I saw myself as a part of that,” the former Wimbledon tennis champion John McEnroe says. “I was 18 when I first played this tournament, and I had that punk attitude which so upset people. So you need to see me in the context of the time.”
The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, with its colonial-era atmosphere, was looking across the net at the grandson of poor Irish immigrants who had grown up in the meritocratic surroundings of the working-class borough of Queens.
“I made it to the semi-finals here on my first visit, in 1977, and that was the summer that punk rock was really hitting big in the UK as well, so I was the punk kid, the brat, the superbrat,” he says.
Such was the theatricality of his petulant, expletive-ridden outbursts that the actor Ian McKellen studied his on-court behaviour for his interpretation of Coriolanus for a Royal Shakespeare Company production.
Everything about Wimbledon triggered McEnroe’s anti-authoritarian impulses. You had to wear whites, you had to bow to the royal box on Centre Court, you didn’t question the line calls.
“They are expecting us to curtsy and bow to the royal box,” he says. “It was hardly ever the queen herself in the royal box; it was usually just some pretty minor royals. I thought this was the class system gone mad. This was the opposite of a meritocracy.”
Forty years later Wimbledon now embraces McEnroe. He does valuable work for the tournament each year by saying something “controversial” just before play starts, to get the presses rolling.
This year it was an observation that Serena Williams would be ranked only 700th in the world if she played on the men’s circuit. Oddly, he seems embarrassed when you bring it up.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he says. “I really didn’t realise it would create all this fuss. Look, we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing the men’s game with the women’s game. Serena Williams is without question the best women’s player of all time.
I wake up in a sweat. My pillow’s damp and I don’t know what day it is. Did I miss the match?"
“But this has been going on for a long time in tennis. Back in 2000 Donald Trump put $1 million on the table for a winner-takes-all match between me and Serena. She declined the offer.”
The new US president is still under the illusion that McEnroe is one of his biggest supporters. “What happened was, my father, who is also called John McEnroe, once sent him a letter of support,” he says. “Last year I bumped into Trump at the US Open, and he said to me, ‘Thanks, John, for your letter of support. I’ve got it up on the wall of my office.’ So now anybody who goes through Trump’s office thinks I’m a supporter.”
French Open final
For many tennis fans McEnroe is synonymous with his five-set Wimbledon final against Björn Borg in 1980, which included a 34-point fourth-set tiebreak.
“I lost that match because I won the first set 6-1 and got overconfident. Next thing I know he’s won the next two sets and I’m facing match point in the fourth.”
The hurt of that loss was assuaged by his taking the Wimbledon title the following year and again in 1983 and 1984.
But it’s another match, on the red clay of Roland-Garros, in Paris, that he says defines not just his career but him as a person.
He opens his new memoir, But Seriously, with a potent description of that encounter, 33 years ago in the French Open final, against Ivan Lendl, and the nightmares it still gives him. “I wake up in a sweat. My pillow’s damp and I don’t know what day it is. Did I miss the match? Am I playing later? For a few seconds I don’t even know where I am. Then it hits me. I already played the match. I already lost it. Jesus. It was back in 1984 and I’m still haunted by it.
“Even now, more than 30 years later, I’m as hot as I was in the fifth set, and I can taste the red clay on my tongue. It was a match I should have won and it turned into the worst loss of my career.”
He was two sets up against Lendl in that final but slumped to a five-set defeat. It was the biggest match of McEnroe’s career, as it would have set him up for a calendar slam, which is to say winning all four grand slams in the one year. He went on to win Wimbledon and the US Open that year, and the Australian Open, which was then played in December.
Such is the still-raw pain of that match that he notes how, when he goes back to Roland-Garros each year to commentate on the French Open, the nightmare increases in intensity and frequency.
McEnroe says his upbringing in Queens wasn’t as Irish-American as people think
“I began this book with what the effect of losing that match against Ivan still has on me, because the book is my attempt to deal with all the what-ifs? not just in my playing career but in my life,” he says.
“I peaked in my career at 26, and when it was over I was more than lost. I was going through a separation and divorce at the time” – from his first wife, the actor Tatum O’Neal – “and we had three kids together, so my head was all over the place”.
But Seriously is mainly a breezy romp through his subsequent careers as an art collector, television host and tennis commentator. “But no matter what I do I still have people shouting, ‘You cannot be serious,’ at me about 12 times a day.”
As the player with the best touch volley the game has seen, he wonders why players aren’t beating down his door to learn the shot from the master.
“I did do some coaching last year with Milos Raonic,” he says, referring to the Canadian player, “but if I had a choice of which player on the tour today I would like to coach, and who would benefit the most from it, it would be definitely be Nick Kyrgios. I look at him and I think we’re both cut from the same cloth. But I’m not sure if two nutcases should work together.”
Talk about his backhand volley sets him off on a rant: “It’s ridiculous how even on the grass the top players don’t serve and volley any more,” he says. “Even Roger Federer” – whom McEnroe believes will win this year’s Wimbledon men’s singles title – “doesn’t come into that net that much.”
As much as McEnroe laments his glory days’ having ended by the time he was 26, he has to be reminded that he holds a unique longevity record in tennis. He won his first grand slam, the mixed-doubles title at the French Open, when he was just 18, and his last ATP event, a doubles trophy, when he was 47.
“Hold on, is that an all-time record? I know Martina [Navratilova] was winning slams in the mixed when she was in her late 40s, and Ken Rosewall won a bunch of stuff when he was older. I’m going to have to check that.” As competitive as ever, if only for a place in the record books.
After a messy divorce from O’Neal he married the rock singer Patty Smyth (not to be confused with the other singer Patti Smith). He has three children from each marriage.
He still plays tennis to a very high standard for a 58-year-old.
He has only lately realised that great players can’t exist in isolation and that he was blessed by having Borg, Lendl and Jimmy Connors to bring out the best – and worst – in him.
Referring to how he was “pushed, pushed, pushed” as a child, he thinks that he should now start looking for some “inner peace”, but the way he almost spits the words out undermines his intent.
And how can you have inner peace when this is how you dream: you’re coiling up to serve on Court Philippe Chatrier in the 1984 French Open final. You’re two sets up and a break up in the fourth set. You’re serving at 4-3 and 40-30. You are just five points away from winning. You swerve a serve out wide. Lendl can only push it back over the net. It’s a put-away volley, but your famously soft hands go hard, and you push the ball millimetres over the baseline.
This is when you wake up in a sweat with the pillow damp. You can’t bear for the dream to go on and have Lendl take the fourth and the fifth and win the match.
You were two sets up, five points from the title, and you threw it away. You cannot be serious.
MCENROE IN IRELAND: ‘I ALWAYS PREFERRED BORG’
With grandparents from Co Westmeath and Co Cavan, and thus eligible to play Davis Cup tennis for Ireland, McEnroe says his upbringing in Queens wasn’t as Irish-American as people think.
“Our families were small, so the Irish thing never really seeped in that much, as there weren’t that many aunties or uncles from Ireland around. I do remember going to Dublin to play a Davis Cup match for the US against Ireland in the RDS in 1983. Someone in the family had found an aunt or maybe a grand-aunt who was still living there.
“All I remember is a 1½-hour car ride from the hotel in Dublin to where she lived, and when she opened the door she just looked at me and said, ‘I always preferred Borg to you.’ ”
But Seriously, by John McEnroe, is published by Orion Press