Seriously, John

 

This week John McEnroe coolly dismissed allegations of steroid taking, to retain his status as the lovable elder statesman of tennis. But Eileen Battersby believes behind all the feel good candour that years of therapy may have bestowed, here's a guy who remains very angry at heart.

SOME stories just grow and grow. Inside many of us lurks a big mouth dying to parade our desires and fears; our rage, frustration and betrayals at everyone. Few of us will ever get the chance and, if we did, probably wouldn't dare.

The life and times of tennis champion John McEnroe reveal as much about human capacity, or rather incapacity, to absorb life and its chaos, as it does about the temperamental serve and volley maestro. He created some of his sport's finest moments as well as, behaviourally, some of its tackiest interludes.

Blame it on TV. Blame it on promoters anxious to keep the big names to appease the crowds. Blame it on too many umpires afraid to call "match default". Blame it on the crazy money - but somebody apparently decided in the 1970s that life was far too polite, that good manners were an old-fashioned concept and it was high time we let people know what we really felt. Tennis players - two athletes on either end of a court that filled the television screen - made verbal abuse and bad sportsmanship the stuff of entertainment. Shame on us.

Playing was no longer enough, we needed the sideshow. The weird thing is that for most voyeuristic viewers, tennis and its antics receive adequate coverage only during the Wimbledon fortnight, with the odd bit of the French Open thrown in and snippets of the US Open and maybe the Masters on Eurosport. But the professional circuit and hundreds of tournaments slog on all year across the world, with a full array of tantrums, sulks and gamesmanship capable of making professional fighters blush.

Having read Serious, old "Chalk Dust" McEnroe's version of what happened, told through his familiar grating voice (if written by James Kaplan), the full impact is akin to having gone five sets with our hero, the Bart Simpson of his time.

At his best, on court, he was a tormented artist capable of magic, if also a self-styled gladiator who never quite got the hang of enjoying his sport, or even liking it. He never figured out losing either. It was never about the other guy simply being better on the day - there had to be a crisis, a nervous breakdown at the net, another tidal wave of self-hatred invariably misinterpreted by some "stupid official" as an attack on an opponent, the ball (the real enemy) or merely the world at large.

His book is true to that patent lack of enjoyment. McEnroe, however, loves fame, his own and everyone else's; his fascination with it took him to Hollywood parties and first wife, Tatum O'Neal. Of course, he was drawn to the "seen-it-all" young girl, an Oscar winner at 10, who never had a childhood and at 21 was still waiting for her career to resume. It never has. It will probably be impossible for her to recover anything, even her three children of whom McEnroe has custody, following his horrific portrait of their eight years together. In response to her telling him she was pregnant for the second time, he replied "there goes 1987", before suggesting an abortion. What a guy.Small wonder then O'Neal's backlash to the autobiography earlier this week with allegations that McEnroe used steroids when he rejoined the circuit in 1988. In response to these claims, he has denied taking performance enhancing drugs, although admits having used marijuana.

Even now, at 43, as a long-established veteran of the Seniors Tour - a kind of travelling circus of ageing but indestructible tennis greats who circumnavigate the world taking part in celebrity matches staged for the adoringly nostalgic fans - he remains fiercely competitive and reckons he is playing at 60 per cent of the player he was at his peak.

And his was some career: including 17 Grand Slam titles, seven singles - three Wimbledon titles and four US opens. Winner of 77 tournament singles and 77 tournament doubles, he was world number one for four years. And his rise and rise did not happen during a lull, it coincided with some great players such as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, Ivan Lendl and the boy wonder Boris Becker of whom McEnroe recalls: "For someone that young, it was incredible how big his legs were. That's what amazed me. He still hadn't turned 18. I was getting old, and the future was moving in fast."

Public opinion is perverse; people began to love McEnroe once he became vulnerable while still producing flashes of genius. A year after being demolished at Wimbledon by Stefan Edberg, he was back at the All England club and won match after match. In defiance of everything, he reached the semi-finals. It was July 4th, 1992, and we all prayed McEnroe, by then 33, would keep on winning, get to the final and take it. But newcomer Andre Agassi burst the bubble in three sets.

Still, in defeat McEnroe had become a hero and went on to take the doubles title home again. Many would agree that even at his most badly behaved, which was appalling, he was never as nasty as the sneering Connors, who to my mind conveyed true menace.

But McEnroe's brittle personality and let's be blunt, the face and the voice, were hardly those of a modern knight. Whereas Borg, to quote McEnroe, "like some kind of Viking god who'd landed on a tennis court" had an allure, McEnroe was frizzy haired and untannable.

Now everyone, well, at least the British media, appears to love John McEnroe (he's now a fixture as a BBC expert for the Wimbledon fortnight), Superbrat turned Superdad, father of six, art gallery owner, tennis commentator. My theory is the British are nervous of his caustic abandon and embarrassed by their continuing shortage of true tennis genius. McEnroe's career is now seen as a Shakespearean drama and journalists worship at his feet. It's a bit like the way Roy Keane's departure from the World Cup was treated like a re-enactment of Edward VIII's abdication crisis.

To hell with kings, great sportsmen are, in time, excused all stains. The BBC, desperate to change its "old world" Wimbledon coverage, has now gone for showbiz soundbits and hammy "up for the day" interviews. But McEnroe, as the US networks first discovered 10 years ago, knows his game and is an informed, natural commentator. So too is Boris Becker, whose genteel commentary style is far less intense but equally credible.

McEnroe's autobiography, which manages to be as deliberate as it is hasty, certainly has a behind-the-scenes feel about it, the problem is it is also heavy with the feel-good candour acquired through therapy. Perhaps I'm unsympathetic, but it also veers towards name-dropping self-justification.

And there's a coldness. Even behind the odd gags, "the demons crawling over my brain", he is serious, aware that by New York standards, he is hardly master of the one liner. He regrets in his book that he was never funny. Funny? He always had to win, even recalling the desire to "drive a stake through the heart" of one of his opponents, wanted to wear gear like Borg's, acquire long tanned legs, become a rock star - and be funny? He cannot be serious. . .

McEnroe never quite convinces as the benign, lovable elder statesman now casting an eye to politics. He wants us all to share in his newly embraced anger management, but judging from this book, here's a guy who may be officially happy yet remains very angry. He still dislikes Connors - most of it apparently justified according to the book - but is unfair to Lendl who is dismissed as a robotic, fitness-obsessed slogger.

There's a lot more than simply that 1984 French Open title McEnroe stupidly lost to Lendl still sticking in his throat, he is busy settling all sorts of scores. About the only people who come well out of Serious are Borg, McEnroe's brother Patrick and the great man's second wife, rock singer Patty (sic) Smyth.

I'm certainly not surprised. McEnroe was one of the icons of my youth and I saw him play on the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Before that, I remember watching at a friend's house the 1980 final when he lost to Borg, who won his fifth title. It was so exciting, we forgot to sit down. The next year, again in her parents' living room, we again stood to attention and this time McEnroe, by far the most exciting of the two, won. My friend was disappointed.

Suddenly I was apologising for my countryman, but I was delighted. McEnroe's artistry had triumphed over Borg's fitness and conditioning. McEnroe emerged about the same time as Seb Coe, they both had dramatic ups and dramatic downs. Athletics and tennis have always been my favourite non-horsey sports, I interviewed both Coe and McEnroe and far preferred the stilted, awkward Coe, despite his subsequent Toryism.

Even as recently as two years ago, McEnroe remained the same sullen, would-be smart alec, touchy and suspicious, all narrowed eyes and "are-you-for-real" snorts at the ready. I saw him in action during those always embarrassing post-match press conferences at Wimbledon and in a Dublin hotel in 2000, on February 16th, his 41st birthday, he was still looking for a fight.

There was no "hello"; he began the interview, staged to publicise the ATP Tournament of Champions with a curt: "Let's get this over with." He never seemed to grasp that I had waited for two hours in the lobby, and for three hours before that in the office, while his handlers told me he was on his way from Italy. He was in fact asleep in his room. Still, he resented the delay. It's not easy being famous; it's particularly difficult being John McEnroe.

Interviewing him isn't much fun either. He has a very loud voice; everyone in the lobby, perhaps even in the street outside, heard him that day. About the most interesting insights to emerge was McEnroe's speculations as to whether or not his sons would play tennis and, if so, would people expect them to yell. He also felt strongly about the excessive money in tennis and would welcome a return to wooden rackets, displacing graphite.

Apparently we love or hate him. Strange that. I have mixed feelings about sulky Mr McEnroe; he erupts and festers. The book may be outspoken but it is also ambivalent and relentless. There is no index and, stranger still, no detailed breakdown of his playing career. Instead there are his suggestions to improve tennis.

While he acknowledges the greatness of Becker, Sampras and Agassi, he knows big servers and heavy ground strokes deadened the men's game. McEnroe, whose hero is Rod Laver, possessed a lightness of touch, more speed around the court than he was given credit for.

Practice bored him. He used doubles as a way of getting match fit, but also enjoyed the team aspect. McEnroe has always made much of his loyalty to Davis Cup tennis and I often defended him on the basis of that. But when you read the book, his accounts of the Davis Cup campaigns, the arguments and the bitching, and particularly McEnroe's unfair attitude towards the late Arthur Ashe's gentlemanly captaincy, make you wonder. Even his doubles partnership with Peter Fleming now appears to have been laced with blood.

I once suggested that Mozart, had he been drawn to tennis, would probably have played like John McEnroe. Whatever about his new image, I suspect "Mac" remains a pain in the neck. There is a good deal about his tennis, in his words, in this book - including a wonderful early paragraph on hitting a ball. And enough about his private life and his rock music to send the reader crawling under the sofa.

Why doesn't someone write a serious book on world tennis since 1968, the end of innocence? Still, what a truly great, magical and mercurial player.

Serious by John McEnroe is published by Little, Brown (€29)