Books

Always the Superbrat

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

John McEnroe’s father calls. In fact, he calls McEnroe’s manager’s phone, presumably because dad doesn’t have a direct line to the great man himself. John Sr, who is tennis-mad, has a request: can he come with his son to a veterans’ tournament in Belgium? McEnroe is horrified. Having dad around is a major drag. ‘I was about to say absolutely not,’ he writes — when his old rival Björn Borg, who happens to be dining with him, interjects: ‘Let me speak to him.’ Borg, who had lost his own father three years earlier, tells McEnroe Sr: ‘Don’t worry, JP, if John doesn’t bring you to Knokke-Heist, I will.’

The story nicely summarises McEnroe’s current existence: celebrity company, low-stakes pleasure-seeking and indifference to others. Judging by his banal thoughts on modern tennis, he doesn’t seem very interested in the game anymore either. His memoir Serious was a bestseller, but this sequel is a book too far, written for a payday he doesn’t need. Still, it works as an unintentional anthropology of celebrity life.

A star of the 1980s, McEnroe then faced the eternal ex-athlete’s question: how to fill the rest of his life? An articulate lawyer’s son, an enduring legend thanks chiefly to his on-court temper tantrums, he was better placed than most. He has proved an excellent commentator during big tournaments, as he’ll remind us this fortnight at Wimbledon.

However, that only fills a few weeks a year. Nothing else has quite stuck. He has done a spot of art-dealing, hosted unsuccessful talk shows, raised six children, and coached Milos Raonic to last year’s men’s Wimbledon final. He still circles the world playing veterans’ tennis, shoots commercials (often enacting temper tantrums), performs cameos in his friends’ films or as a semi-skilled guitarist at their concerts, or just hangs out. None of this makes for a gripping narrative, unless you count the drama of missing a scheduled on-camera appearance at the US Open because he got chatting to a friend.


McEnroe was always drawn to the celebrity scene. Just as thrilling as winning his first Grand Slam aged 20 was to be asked afterwards by his defeated opponent, Vitas Gerulaitis: ‘What are you doing later?’ Gerulaitis was a noted playboy, whereas McEnroe hadn’t even been invited to parties at high school. McEnroe replied, ‘What are you doing?’, and the nightclub doors swung open. Marrying the singer Patty Smyth guaranteed his access to A-listers in his native New York.

The book is stuffed with celebrity encounters. Many (such as the obligatory photo-op with Nelson Mandela) read like briefs from People magazine, but
McEnroe does have some decent stories. Aged 18, waiting to play his first ever Wimbledon semifinal, he goes to greet his opponent Jimmy Connors in the changing room. ‘He literally did not even acknowledge my existence.’ McEnroe gets a note from Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone, asking: ‘What would have been the average height of a tennis player when they settled on the size and shape of a court?’ He meets Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and realises: ‘Man, this guy’s really angry — I’m nothing compared to him.’ He memorialises Andy Warhol as a pest at 1980s’ parties, ‘taking your picture late at night even when you were super fucked up. I remember thinking, “Who is this weirdo with the fake hair?”’

Speaking of which, when Donald Trump began running for president, McEnroe’s dad sent Trump ‘a letter of support’, offering his help. Soon afterwards McEnroe himself runs into Trump at the US Open. They hug (the celeb equivalent of a handshake) and Trump says, ‘John, thank you so much for the letter you wrote. I’ve already got it up on the wall in my office!’

But none of these figures is penetratingly described. McEnroe does not seem interested in other people (guests on his talk show bore him with their answers) or even particularly in himself. He admits to lacking empathy, but lazily leaves it there. He recounts his children’s struggles with affluenza with some impatience. His wife points out in an essay in the book that he has been spoiled since childhood by everybody focussing on him: ‘When I first met John, his immediate instinct was always to think about himself, and that’s been a hard habit to break.’

Occasionally, though, McEnroe shows he is capable of emotion. His account of being forced to pose for fans’ selfies seems to inspire him to genuine anger. The book’s most touching passages are devoted to his dog Lulu (he weeps when she dies, an honour apparently denied to his father) and to Borg:

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, in later years I understood that we have a unique and special connection that a lot of people would define as love, pure and simple.

Presumably that’s partly because Borg connects him to a time of intensity. McEnroe reflects, ‘The highs of playing are so high, you feel like Superman.’ And then you spend decades meandering through the long flat plains of the celebrity afterlife.

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