McEnroe: Engaging chronicle of the softening of a superbrat

The liveliest archive footage dates from McEnroe’s early punkish appearances on court

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Director: Barney Douglas
Cert: None
Genre: Documentary
Starring: John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Patty Smyth, Keith Richards
Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins

Barney Douglas, who has previously directed two feature documentaries on cricket, sets his sights on John McEnroe, the former record-breaking tennis player and one-time “Superbrat”. There’s plenty to mull over, even within a rather conventional and chronological framework, and the film-maker hits an ace with a supporting cast that includes the reclusive Björn Borg and McEnroe’s sometime drinking buddy Keith Richards.

Inevitably the liveliest archive footage dates from McEnroe’s early punkish appearances on court, when, taking cues from his bad boy idols Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis, his outbursts were almost as compelling and headline-making as his great rivalry with Borg. Almost. The Swede’s early retirement remains a source of regret for McEnroe. They made each other better players, he notes.

By the mid-1980s McEnroe was the world’s No 1 seed and “the greatest player that ever played”. Simultaneously, he wondered: “Why does it not feel that amazing?”

“Thirty-seven psychiatrists and psychologists” over the years — some of whom were court-mandated — have failed to provide a comprehensive answer. His equally perfectionist father, Patrick, the ambitious self-made son of Irish immigrants, certainly added to the edge that made McEnroe a champion. The tabloid frenzy surrounding his marriage to Tatum O’Neal and years of what McEnroe calls “performance-detracting” drugs — as collaborated by Chrissie Hynde and expert Richards — can’t have helped his state of mind.


Patty Smyth, the tennis legend’s wife of some 25 years, speculates that he may be on the spectrum, a condition the film unwisely illustrates with animated grids and lonely nocturnal walks around Long Island.

McEnroe expresses regret for lapses in parenting and a late rift with his father, John snr, who felt “stabbed in the back” when John jnr sought alternative management.

These laments are entirely eclipsed by the optimistic final third of Douglas’s film, in which the iconoclast settles into family life and retirement, a rather fuzzier denouement than the one that rounds off In the Realm of Perfection, the 2018 account of the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Tatum O’Neal is a notable (and missed) absentee, although her children are among the interviewees. It might have been interesting, too, to ponder McEnroe’s transformation from being a thorn in the side of the British tennis establishment to a warm and familiar BBC presence. An engaging chronicle, nonetheless.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic