Above the art deco desk in the inner sanctum of John McEnroe's by-appointment-only gallery is a word-as-art image by the Californian artist Edward Ruscha. It reads simply: 'An Invasion of Privacy'.

Painting and owner are a perfect fit. Since he opened his SoHo gallery on the second floor of a loft building at 41 Greene Street two months ago, the 35-year-old tennis star has been dodging the press. He runs from people who want the gory details of his broken marriage to the actress Tatum O'Neal and fends off reporters looking for the answer to the most commonly asked question in SoHo this season: just what does John McEnroe know about art?

'I'm sure people are asking questions,' McEnroe said with a shrug. 'Let them. I love art. It's something I enjoy. I see this as a learning process. After five years, if I could be at the level where I'm respected as someone who's trying to champion the idea of art, that's what I want to be. I want to try to help artists, especially younger artists.'

This is John McEnroe the grown-up: the father of three, the semi-retired tennis player, the emerging art dealer. The tantrum-throwing brat of the courts is leaner and seems sadly reflective.

Sitting behind the desk, wearing an olive-coloured suit and tie, he was clearly a man experiencing growing pains. It will take time before the clothes and the career fit.

McEnroe had just returned from playing in the Netherlands, where he lost to Magnus Gustafsson. While he was away, the art on the walls had changed. A show of paintings by Bruno Fonseca had come down. In its place was a selection of contemporary works from his own collection: Margaret Evans Pregnant, a 1978 portrait by Alice Neel; Neil Jenney's Stop and Spades, a late Seventies play on words; a recent image of a mother and daughter by Eric Fishl, and several drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The gallery is a typical white, sleek loft, but fancier. Corinthian columns march down its centre. It was originally designed as a getaway for McEnroe and his wife. 'It was supposed to be where we could escape from the kids on the weekends,' he said wistfully. 'I liked the idea. I also liked the idea of having a place for bigger pieces of art.' But now he uses it solely for his commercial venture and lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side, near the one occupied by his wife and children.

McEnroe's art ambitions evolved slowly. He began buying art about 15 years ago, when Vitas Gerulaitis took him to some SoHo galleries. At the Louis K Meisel Gallery on Prince Street he bought his first painting, by the Realist Audrey Flack.

'Eventually, tastes change,' he recalled. 'Next I got a Renoir, admittedly a second-rate one, but I enjoyed owning a Renoir for about five years. Then I got a Picasso. It was the first thing I bought at Sotheby's. Slowly, I began getting more interested in art.'

In those days, tennis was his life. But about five years ago, when he was playing in Los Angeles, he started going to art galleries there. 'That's how I really got started.'

When he talks it is easy to feel his pent-up energy. His speech is quick, his concentration intense. The demons that have exploded on the tennis court still lurk within, but age and experience seem to have taught him control.

'There are a couple of connections between art and tennis,' he said. 'Artists spend a great deal of time by themselves. Tennis players, when they're playing, are all by themselves. People in the art business have a tendency to one day tell you you're the greatest artist that ever lived and the next second make you wonder if you'll ever sell a piece of art again. So I think I have a knowledge of that, because you have a fear when you go on the court: fear of failure. Sometimes it propels you to greatness, and other times you fall on your face.

'I don't want to say that I was as much of a prima donna as many artists. I always felt like I was down to earth. I might have been a pain to deal with at times because I try to get the best out of myself and I expected that from other people. People took that as being a jerk, but that's not how I felt.'

As a dealer, McEnroe sees himself in a role not unlike that of his own managers in tennis. He feels this viewpoint makes him sympathetic to struggling artists. 'I understand these people are needy and insecure,' he said. 'That's why I always look for the positive.'

Each week he visits artists' studios. 'I struggle to see one good painting a day,' he said. 'It's unbelievable. It also makes me appreciate how difficult it is to make a good painting.'

While he eventually wants to handle the work of contemporary artists, for now he deals in the 'secondary market', meaning he is selling art that has been sold before rather than representing artists and their works as they are made.

'The idea has been to trade art for the first year or two, to try to understand the business side of things and to understand what type of artists I'd like to represent,' he said. 'I don't think it's my strong suit to spot the next Picasso.'

He would not discuss the size of his investment but said that in the first few years he would be happy if he just broke even. He emphasised the fact that he has low overheads.

Many dealers smirk at his inexperience and predict that he will be taken advantage of. But McEnroe himself is forthright about how much he still has to learn. In a profession where slick, fast-talking deal-makers get most of the attention, such candour is rare. And his emphatic tastes in art evoke the energy of his play on the tennis court.

'I'm not a minimalist fan, and I'm not a big pop art fan,' he said. 'I'm just beginning to learn about what the abstract movement was all about. It seems to me like someone in the art world suddenly makes a decision that something's a new idea and everyone follows. Andy Warhol is suddenly painting soup cans; Jasper Johns took the American flag and painted it, and now, all of a sudden, it's supposed to be a brand new thing. I've sort of missed that. I don't understand it.'

'John responds to art in an emotional way,' said Larry Gagosian, the New York dealer who has sold him art and has become a friend. 'He doesn't parrot other people's aesthetic.' Gagosian said he was surprised that McEnroe had opened a gallery. 'I think it's a good thing. John has a dealer's mentality,' he said. 'He's a good negotiator and understands value.'

For six months last year, McEnroe was apprenticed at a gallery in East 79th Street. 'It was very nice to have had the opportunity to spend some time there,' he said. 'It's not like I was sitting at a desk, saying: 'Hi, I'm John McEnroe. Buy a painting.' Basically, what I was doing was looking at their library every day, or going to their vault and looking at art.

'I was really down and out at the time. I had just been separated, and it was a godsend to be able to go to a place every day and keep my mind off what was going on. Because of that, I became more interested in the idea of doing something on my own.'

The gallery bears his name, and visits are by appointment only, to discourage people who are more interested in the celebrity owner than in the artworks. While McEnroe said he was semi-retired, tennis is clearly still part of his life. 'The only thing better for me was having children,' he said. 'That has really kept my feet on the ground forever. Having children made me realise that the world doesn't revolve around John McEnroe hitting a tennis ball. It didn't help my tennis career, but that's my fault.'

As McEnroe spoke, he was posing for a photographer - but not happily. He became restless. Time was up. His schedule was tight, he said. He had to pick up one of his children from school.

(Photograph omitted)

Copyright 1994, New York Times