When 'Mac the Mouth' reigned at Wimbledon

Books For Christmas: Revealing study of John McEnroe heads this year's tennis works
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The Independent Online

Tim Adams' On Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press, £10) is one of those good things that come in small packages: a hardback, mini-classic in 144 pages.

For those of us who had the opportunity to observe the turbulent New Yorker at close quarters at Wimbledon during the "pits of the world" early 1980s, when the headbanger in the headband was in full spate, the book is a pocketful of nostalgia.

The young Alastair Campbell was there for the Daily Mirror, asking McEnroe if he had any regrets about his behaviour. "McEnroe responded [prophetically, for a generation of parliamentary correspondents] that 'My only regret is that I have to deal with people like you'."

Setting out to explore what it might have meant to be McEnroe, at his best and at his worst, Adams knew from personal experience what a magnetic personality his subject could be, having "queued up for most of a drizzly night in south London" to watch him play.

Adams makes the valid point that "For the English, tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight". Unsurprisingly, the most engrossing passages recall McEnroe's fire- and-ice rivalry with Bjorn Borg, in particular their Wimbledon finals in 1980 and 1981.

Sensing that SW19 was McEnroe's perfect battleground, Adams writes: "It was not just the venerable history of the tournament, or the way in which the fast grass of Centre Court suited his sliced service - it was more the fact that he could always rely on Wimbledon to react to him ... with a mixture of purple outrage and curious nannying, and therefore always let him know that he and his anguish were, as the therapists liked to say, 'real'."

While following a path familiar to those who traced McEnroe's career, Adams detected and investigated some fascinating clues previously overlooked in the media's frenzy to analyse the tormented tennis genius.

The result is an insightful, thought-provoking and affectionate profile of a sports celebrity who divided public opinion.

The book's trendy-sounding title was inspired, in part, by a quote by McEnroe's former doubles partner, Peter Fleming, who said he had seen him win tournaments just by being there, "by being John McEnroe".

Now "Mac the Mouth" has become "Mac the Mentor," a respected, greying and omnipresent elder statesman in the commentary booth, whose role in the television coverage of the major championships brings him back to Wimbledon on a regular basis. He was there last summer, rejoicing in the consummate skills of Roger Federer as the young Swiss became the men's singles champion.

Federer's triumph, along with that of Serena Williams, the women's singles champion, is chronicled day-by-day in The Official Wimbledon Annual (Hazleton, £22), with text by John Parsons, and photography by Clive Brunskill, Phil Cole, Mike Hewitt and Alex Livesey. Every drama is recounted, including the 46-year-old Martina Navratilova's victory in the mixed doubles with Leander Paes, of India, which enabled Navratilova to share the record of 20 Wimbledon titles with Billie Jean King.

The Official Wimbledon Annual has found an ideal doubles partner in The 2003 Wimbledon Compendium, by Alan Little (The All England Club, £12). The beaverish Little, the honorary librarian of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, provides a fascinating record of The Championships from day one, in 1877, noting almost every drop of rain to have fallen on the courts.

"Rain delay" is to be found in The Language Of Tennis, by Ossian Shine (Carcanet Press, £12.95). Rain and Shine? What the deuce is this? It is a handy publication, that's what, explaining, where possible, the meanings and origins of tennis-speak. For example, "love", as in zero, is one of the most celebrated puzzles of tennis terminology. "The question of its origin," writes Shine, the tennis editor of Reuters, "is divided into two main camps." Your correspondent, respecting a colleague's research, is not prepared to reveal any more than that. Call me a "choker" if you like.

The Tournament (Robinson, £7.99) is a delightful fantasy by John Clarke, an Australian humorist whose fertile imagination has created a celebrity championships for an alternative universe. The setting is Paris. Jean Cocteau wants the lights cut. William Burroughs tests positive for 12 banned substances and is sent home. Franz Kafka is disorientated by the presence of his father in the stands. Marie Stopes is impregnable.

Clive James thoroughly enjoyed The Tournament, although he was not among the players. "At the beginning," James says, "the reader wonders how good Einstein would have been on his backhand side. By the end, the reader wonders whether Lleyton Hewitt would be any good at relativity."

In the real world, enthusiastic players at all levels may be able to raise their game with tips from Smart Tennis, by John F Murray (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, $19.95 [£11.50]). Murray, an American with an academic background in sport and clinical psychology, focuses on the mental part of the game.