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McEnroe - a seriously good film

Blog | By Harry Mount | Jul 25, 2022

John McEnroe by Robbiesaurus

The Superbrat has grown up to become a super-intriguing subject in a new documentary. By Harry Mount

McEnroe (PG)

Don’t worry if you aren’t a tennis fan. This terrific documentary about John McEnroe, aka Superbrat, may feature lots of glorious tennis – including his epic Wimbledon finals with Björn Borg in 1980 and 1981.

But the film is really about what a troubled soul McEnroe, now 63, is – or was – largely thanks to the King of Competitive Dads, also called John McEnroe.

In one revealing clip, his elderly father, battered by a lifetime of drinking, gets angry with the director for calling him John McEnroe Senior.

“I’m not John McEnroe Senior,” he barks, with the same 10,000-yard angry-toddler stare as his son. “He’s John McEnroe Junior.”

Junior was brought up in middle-class comfort in Douglaston on Long Island, not far from Great Neck, where The Great Gatsby is set.

McEnroe Senior, son of Irish immigrants, was a lawyer but fought his way to prosperity after a spell in the American Air Force.

Junior inherited his anger and his perfectionism. Little John McEnroe was incensed when he only got an A minus aged six. He was a clever boy, good at maths and chess. It later helped him to mentally divide the opponent’s court into percentiles and work out the best spot to target his shots.

The perfectionism continued on the tennis court at a young age – he got to the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1977, aged only 18. So did the intense presence of his father, who was McEnroe’s business manager. And so, famously, did the anger.

My God, he’s terrifyingly nasty when he’s angry. How you feel for the umpires as he launches into the ‘You cannot be serious’ tirades.

McEnroe is much calmer today but he’s still scary when he’s angry, says his second wife, singer Patty Smyth – who calmed him down after his disastrous marriage to child star Tatum O’Neal, later a heroin addict.

Still, the anger made for compulsive viewing. And it was useful for putting off opponents (‘It’s great to be a bit of a prick,’ he says), as long as he wasn’t being docked points, which he often was. Like a lot of angry people, McEnroe could calm down instantly and get back on the rails on court. The rage also helped with endorsements.

The film intersperses original footage with interviews – there’s no voiceover, as in all the best documentaries. In his own interview, McEnroe cuts a sympathetic, intelligent, funny, slightly shy figure – as he has in the Wimbledon commentary box in recent weeks.

Full of regret for the way he behaved, he is a strange mixture of arrogant (with some justification) and diffident. ‘I’m the greatest player who ever played at this point [in the early 1980s],’ he says but, at the same time, he felt doomed and ‘did a shitty job of it’.

The perfectionism drove him on remorselessly. Drinks and drugs only detracted from his performance but they acted as a pressure valve.

And Competitive Dad was always there. Even after McEnroe sacked him as his business manager – it can’t be easy to sack your Dad – Senior was always lurking in his son’s psyche. Until the day he died in 2017, aged 81, McEnroe’s father never apologised to his boy for giving him a hard time – and he was pretty hard on McEnroe’s mother in her dying days, too.

What a tough game tennis is. Björn Borg – still as handsome a Viking god as ever – says what an extremely lonely game it is. Billie Jean King suggests it was McEnroe’s victory over Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final, after five straight Championships for the icy-calm Swede, that broke Borg’s spirit and led to his retirement, aged only 26, a year later.

McEnroe became friends with Borg and tried to get him back on the circuit: the cliché about tennis is true – you play better with better opponents.

Borg refused, saying that McEnroe, three years his junior, would one day know why he quit. The pressure was just too much.

In fact, McEnroe was so resilient that he went on and on. He retired in 1992, aged 33, after 77 singles titles and 78 doubles titles – still a record.

The film has a slightly annoying thread of having McEnroe walk through New York at night. But it does have one compensation. At one moment, he steps onto a deserted court, alone, and launches into that unique, alarmingly side-on serve – and the years melt away.