John McEnroe thought he had simply signed on for another small cameo role. But as he continued to read through the script, he grew more and more bewildered.
“How the hell did this happen?” he said to himself.
The 62-year-old, seven-time Grand Slam singles winner had casually agreed to narrate Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series, Never Have I Ever, in a passing conversation with the executive producer at a Vanity Fair Oscars party. As McEnroe dove into the script, however, he realized his assignment had nothing to do with the sport that garnered him fame. The tennis legend and commentator, who is currently calling the U.S. Open on ESPN, was to play himself as the voiceover for a young high schooler named Devi desperately trying to climb the social ladder and lose her virginity.
McEnroe was surprised by Kaling’s interest, but the show’s first-generation Indian-American protagonist, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and the now much calmer narrator have eerily similar personality types.
McEnroe and Devi share hair-trigger tempers. McEnroe, once dubbed “Superbrat”, was known for his on-court outbursts, most famously when he screamed, “You cannot be serious,” at a Wimbledon umpire for blowing a line call in 1981. Devi has a similar outburst, slamming a beaker on the ground after finding out her classmate received a better test grade.
Throughout the series, McEnroe seamlessly transitions from sage recapping of the escapades of Devi to personal quips poking fun at himself and his tennis career. His role as the narrator is made even more poignant in a season one flashback scene where Devi’s late father, Mohan, watches an old tennis match with his daughter and tells her about McEnroe being his all-time favorite. (The match the pair watched together is from the 1984 Swedish Open, where McEnroe yells, “Answer my question. The question, jerk!” at the chair umpire.)
Never Have I Ever has aired 20 episodes since it premiered in April 2020. During production for the second season, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, McEnroe worked by himself, recording his scenes, which premiered on July 15, alone in a Universal Studios lot.
The former world No. 1’s voice, of course, is recognizable to almost any tennis fan. Since retiring in ‘94, McEnroe has called matches on television for CBS, NBC, Tennis Channel and ESPN. He has also periodically re-entered the spotlight with various Hollywood cameo roles, including but not limited to Curb Your Enthusiasm, multiple appearances on 30 Rock and even a short stint hosting a game show, The Chair, on CNBC in 2004.
“The process of narration is more appreciated, at least from my end, when you see the end product,” McEnroe said. “It’s not like while you’re doing it (you’re saying), ‘Oh my God! This is amazing!’ Or that you know it’s going to work—you don’t really know. That sort of depends on Mindy and her team, what’s going to end up happening.”
Now, seizing momentum from the critical success of Never Have I Ever, which was renewed for a third season, McEnroe recently teamed up with Netflix and Squarespace to create his own website promoting his narration work. The site contains a humorous highlight reel of McEnroe’s best one-liners from Kaling’s series, a faux audition in which he valiantly attempts a British accent reading for the role of Lady Whisteldown in the Netflix show Bridgerton, and even a work-for-hire service to record your voicemail greeting. The website also contains a mockumentary that comically chronicles his rise as a voiceover artist.
“I like doing things that have that sort of sense of fun in it and you can be (like), ‘Is he serious or is he not serious?’” McEnroe said. “So this whole thing came out of this which I felt like hopefully was a win-win-win for everybody, for Squarespace as well as Netflix as well as Never Have I Ever, and then finally, myself. It’s nice when you feel like you’re on the same page with people.”
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