John McEnroe: The golden rage of Superbrat (retd.)

At 43, the BBC's star Wimbledon commentator also deals in art, has written a book, is a father of five – and still finds time to lose his temper

Ronald Atkin
Friday 20 December 2013 03:18

Nothing more graphically illustrates the transformation of John McEnroe from superbrat to superman than the Wimbledon promotional item currently being screened by the BBC. Immaculately suited, the 43-year-old New Yorker talks about coverage of the tournament, which starts tomorrow week, while appearing to smite tennis balls with his bare hands. Then, decreeing with a smile that a shot which sends chalk flying is on the line, McEnroe makes a dignified exit.

Thus is a career encapsulated. The genius who offered sublime tennis with a snarl, who shocked the All England Club and every other establishment member of this middle-class sport, is now the darling of that establishment, wearing a tie where he once flaunted a headband.

Just as he became the best tennis player of an enormously talented generation which also numbered Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl, McEnroe has rapidly established himself as its leading voice, an erudite and informed commentator. He is in demand as TV pundit and newspaper columnist, and is the most readily recognised personality in tennis. He owns an art gallery in New York's SoHo district, plays a dominant role on the Senior Tour for players over 35, and is the aggressive questioner on a new TV quiz show called The Chair, due for British screening in the autumn. And, not least, he is the father to five children and a stepdaughter – a clear indication that, marching into middle age, John Patrick McEnroe junior is no more able now to turn down a challenge than he ever was.

Not enough hours exist in a day to accommodate the McEnroe commitments. Last Saturday at the French Open was an example. He broke away from the commentary box to speak alongside Prince Albert of Monaco at a function announcing a forthcoming Seniors event in Monte Carlo, and on the way out gave an impromptu interview to the cameras.

Based at a luxury, multi-storey penthouse in Manhattan's most exclusive area, Central Park West, McEnroe was not remotely likely to settle for the multi-millionaire life at home with his second wife, the rock singer Patty Smyth, and their assorted offspring. He is as driven now as he was as a player, hurtling around the continents to hit a ball or describe how one is hit. That descriptive ability is supreme, combining the insight of a winner of 17 Grand Slam titles (seven singles, 10 doubles) with his wonderful ability to communicate with a lay audience. He can describe matches the way a player is seeing, and suffering, them and, like the greatest of the British tennis voices, the late Dan Maskell, he has the perception to know when to stay silent.

Though born, on 16 February 1959, in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was serving with the US Air Force, McEnroe was taken back to America at nine months and grew up with his parents, John and Kay, and his two younger brothers, Mark and Patrick, in the opulent New York dormitory community of Douglaston. John McEnroe senior, whose parents came from Cavan and County Westmeath, became partner in a top Manhattan law firm and was able to send his sons to the leading private school, Trinity, on the Upper West Side, where John junior became a left winger of promise and leading scorer in the school football team (he retains a keen interest in and high knowledge of the game). But tennis was what he excelled at from the start, honing his extraordinary skills at the Port Washington tennis academy under the legendary Australian, Harry Hopman.

In 1977 McEnroe and a New York neighbour, Mary Carillo – now also a distinguished TV tennis commentator – won the mixed doubles title at the French Open, a delighted teenage couple who hugged on court. That moment of his first title marked the end of McEnroe's innocence. "I went from being nobody to this young upstart questioning line calls," he recalled. He moved on to Wimbledon, blazed through the qualifying event and got as far as the semi-finals, the first qualifier ever to do so. The legend was born, the tantrums began and the superbrat label was soon coined.

In all, McEnroe was to win 77 singles and another 77 doubles titles. It could have been many more, he acknowledged, if he could have controlled his temper and what one biography called "the rage for perfection". But like a compulsive gambler or alcoholic, anger became a habit. Tennis is littered with McEnroe-isms and McEnroe incidents. Fury at a chalk-kicking shot being called out prompted the line "You cannot be serious", with which he will be forever associated. The McEnroe autobiography, published last week, was originally given that title, later shortened to Serious.

Serious was an apt description of many of the McEnroe transgressions and foul-mouthed outbursts, none worse than the occasion at the Masters tournament in Madison Square Garden, when a call by the baseline judge, Anita Shukow, a New York veteran who had officiated at many of his junior matches, so enraged McEnroe that he swished his racket inches from her nose and screamed, "You've been screwing me for years." Tennis's long-overdue code of conduct was in no small measure implemented with McEnroe in mind and it duly snared him at the Australian Open in 1990, when he became the first player in 21 years of open tennis to be disqualified at a Grand Slam. By then McEnroe was 30, on the wane and, strangely, gaining in public popularity. "The more I lose, the nicer the crowds get," he observed.

Though happy in his second marriage and content with life as an art dealer and commentator (he has recently given up professional musicianship with the comment "The world is now a safer place") McEnroe does not find it easy to keep the lid on the volcano as a competitor in senior tennis. Despite describing it as "the dinosaur tour" and joking that his playing contract stipulates at least two arguments a match, McEnroe still treats tennis as something in which he is fully involved, sometimes over-involved.

At a Seniors event in Chicago two years ago a water bottle hurled by McEnroe during a dispute with the umpire struck a boy, who was taken away in tears by his angry parents. At 41, McEnroe again found himself apologising. Then, last December, at the Albert Hall tournament, outplayed in the semi-finals by the younger, big-serving Frenchman, Guy Forget, McEnroe embarrassed the audience with the vehemence of his disputes. Not so much a rage for perfection, more a rage against the dying of the light.

McEnroe retains his distrust of tennis authority. He surprised many by accepting captaincy of the American Davis Cup team in September 1999 and then surprised them even more by lasting just 14 months before resigning, citing frustration. There was clearly frustration enough in his life because of the ongoing arguments with his first wife, the Oscar-winning film actress Tatum O'Neal, over finance and the custody of their children, Kevin, Sean and Emily.

Their eight-year marriage was an increasingly fragile and acrimonious one, which ended in divorce in 1994, with O'Neal losing the agreed joint custody of the children because of her drug addiction. The battle has escalated with McEnroe's autobiography, Tatum claiming it violates a confidentiality agreement between them, while she continues to seek official reunion with the children, now 16, 14 and 11.

Tatum is unimpressed by her former husband's enhanced fame. "He seems to think he's God now," she complained. "If you suggested that to him, I'm sure he'd go away and seriously consider it." Perhaps so. But McEnroe is unquestionably lord of most of what he surveys at the moment and who, apart from Tatum, is complaining? Certainly not the BBC.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments