London | McEnroe’s journey explored in new documentary

The about-to-be-released documentary, ‘McEnroe’, is the definitive biopic about one of the most explosive and compelling sporting icons, John McEnroe, who looks down the lens of the camera and opens his soul, drawing audiences into his turbulent life, both as the player who won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, and his off-court success.

The compelling new movie about the tennis legend opens in cinemas this week, and is far from being a conventional sporting biopic as it tracks his life as a famous hothead, who scandalised the tennis world to becoming a cherished critic, and is now being revered by it.

In the film, McEnroe talks about his battle to feel accepted in the tennis world, and his attempts to control his notorious temper on the court, while reflecting on his greatest triumphs and tragedies on courts around the world.

He opens up about his personal trauma in dealing with his worldwide fame, his turbulent marriage to actress Tatum O’Neill, and how he often struggled to enjoy his success, and the wealth that came with it.

“I always try to be honest in my commentary, but when you are talking about your own life, it brings a few extra beads of sweat because you wonder if people want to hear about this,” McEnroe told Tennis365. “Why do people want to watch a documentary about me at this point in my life. Do people actually care?

“I do feel the journey is interesting and, hopefully, people understand what I went through as a human being and understand a little more what it was like at the time, and how I navigated back through.

“To do something like this, you have to be honest. There is no point in doing it otherwise.

“I don’t see this as revealing myself. It won’t be a complete shock but, hopefully, people appreciate honesty. I have always worn my emotions on my sleeve. I never want to be boring!”

McEnroe’s children play a big role in the movie, and also a key part in his life after tennis, as he admits his desire to set a good example for them is now a big part of his life.

“I have six kids of my own and if I’m going to sit there and tell them that the glass is half empty instead of half full, then what is the point,” he said.

“What type of message does that send to my kids, or other kids that I sit there and go ‘I should have won the French’ or ‘I should have won another Wimbledon’ or ‘I should have gone and played Australia more often’, considering what I did accomplish.

“I know it’s human nature to sort of wonder, what coulda-woulda-shoulda, but my life has been amazing in many ways.

“I do think it’s important to represent that I came out of this in a pretty darn good place overall, and my perspective is improved over time. That’s what I think is important.

“Now I feel like I’ve come to a place where I’m able to look at myself in the mirror more than maybe at any other point in my life and feel like ‘hey, at least this guy has improved as a human being over the years.

“You know, each year he tried to get a little bit better.”

From 'Super-brat' to co-presenting with Sue Barker on the BBC, John McEnroe's journey is the subject of a new documentary

© Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

McEnroe has become a household name in this country, synonymous with Wimbledon, as well as in his homeland, the United States, particularly at the US Open.

He co-hosted with Sue Barker for the BBC’s coverage of the Centre Court Centenary celebrations, and is now very much part of the establishment, yet he has never lost his penchant for straight talking.

His path from ‘Super-brat’ to revered commentator has taken him from his arrival on the scene in 1977 with a punk-rock glare and bird’s-nest hair-do, born to rival his antithesis Björn Borg, via his rock ‘n’ roll years with his best buddy, the gifted tennis player and Studio 54 habitué Vitas Gerulaitis, to loving family man.

McEnroe’s sharp wit comes to the fore as he describes enjoying smoking marijuana with Gerulaitis: “People today use performance-enhancing drugs. We used performance-detracting drugs.”

Along the way, his fractious relationship with the All England Club, where he won the singles title three times, much to its members’ dismay, has healed, and his misdemeanours absolved.

McEnroe recalls annoying The Club, who threatened he would not be made a member if he didn’t go to the Champions Ball and dance with ladies champion, Martina Navratilova.

“Big fucking deal!” he says, the thought still amusing him a few decades on.

There have been other films featuring McEnroe, including the documentaries Fire & Ice in 2011 and the French John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection in 2019, as well as the 2017 feature film Borg vs McEnroe, not to mention two McEnroe memoirs.

Director of this ‘McEnroe’, Barney Douglas, uses tricks to re-work old material, such as geometric computer graphics that turn the tennis court into a chessboard, or map Mac’s brain, while a lonely 63-year old McEnroe paces the streets of his native Douglaston in Queens, New York, joined by ghosts from the past.

Archive clips, such as McEnroe’s mother recalling an early school report card, and his attorney father demanding perfectionism, add colour while, back in the present, Borg turns up to mumble lovingly about his usurper as World No 1, and McEnroe’s second wife, rock singer Patty Smyth, drops in a mention of autism.

She suggests that McEnroe may well be on the spectrum, while he snaps: “Thirty-seven psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help.”

Absent, though, is any in-depth study of his technical brilliance, or the presence of first wife Tatum O’Neal and nemesis Jimmy Connors, for example, but McEnroe’s children offer new perspectives on his less documented off-court life, and prove every bit as candid as their outspoken father.

McEnroe’ is essentially a long-form interview with the great man, interspersed with generous archive footage, contributions from family and friends, including Billie Jean King, home movies and moody shots of the player-turned-commentator walking the streets, and it has clearly been produced by a fan.

Although Douglas doesn’t explore the ‘how’ or ‘why’ McEnroe has gone from ‘enfant terrible’ to elder statesman in the sport, reviewers suggest this a documentary worth seeing.

McEnroe’ is released in UK and Irish cinemas on 15th July.



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