This McEnroe: More and more the word applied to this McEnroe is "genius." Of course, that's most unusual with an athlete, with a physical sort, but then, the thunderous, gee-whiz appellations that usually adorn champions seem out of place in his case. What, for instance, do you see first? A body pasty-white if not beet-red and chestless; a forehead high and scholarly, the better to furrow; and above it the curly hair he fretfully pokes at as if fleas were sequestered there. Certainly there is no immediate sense of command, no fear of his squashing anyone, no intimation of the dashing eminence his racket transforms him into. In a world full of sleek, sententious heroes who jog and lift and meditate on the body-as-temple, this McEnroe's tabernacle is a carry-out shop, a body to go.
"Have you tried the Haas diet?" a lady with a note pad and bronzed muscle tone asked him the other day, referring to a regimen prescribed by Martina Navratilova's nutritionist, Robert Haas. "No, I prefer the H√§agen-Dazs diet," McEnroe smirked back. He's so tight-jointed he can barely reach below his knees, yet he hardly bothers to stretch before a match. Boring. Practice, too, is for mortals; a nice dreadnought doubles final breaks more of a fun sweat. A few years ago, for something to do, he developed a monster serve and a classic serve-and-volley style, just like that, as you would slip on a fresh jockstrap.
"Wizard," perhaps, would be even better, suggesting as it does conjurers in pointy black hats with wands. After all, to isolate this McEnroe from his racket is to imagine Annie Oakley without her gun, Captain Kidd without his plank. But then, the other appeal of "genius" is that it goes so naturally with "mad," which all too often is what McEnroe appears to be—convinced, as he is, that he has eyes like an eagle and judgment the equal of his drop shot. One senses his woeful despair in the company of lesser beings who dare to err: Stop me before I kill again!
So, the raves of a cruel world: "John McEnroe...the worst advertisement for our system of values since Al Capone" (The New York Times). "Superbrat! McNasty!" (Fleet Street). "El Irascible!" (from our Spanish-speaking friends). Why don't you smile, John?
June 24, 1984
"All they write about is how I don't smile," he says.
So, why don't you smile?
"I never see Bernard King smile, but they never write about that. I keep waiting for them to write about that."
What's worse, too often a lot of people don't even see the best player play. Oh, they watch him, but only like those urban cretins who watch potential suicides, cheering for the jump. So many fail to see the esthetics, the elegance, the guts, the sovereignty, because all that will satisfy them is the blowup, the mad genius, Van Gogh cutting off his ear instead of Van Gogh merely painting a canvas.
As near as these things can be measured, John Patrick McEnroe Jr. is now exactly halfway through the meat of his tennis career. It has been a Biblical seven years since he burst upon our consciousness, reaching the semis of Wimbledon at age 18, an amateur only weeks out of high school. For a future benchmark, look seven years ahead and you see Jimmy Connors, just shy of his 32nd birthday, still a contender but succumbing to the dusk. McEnroe is approaching the summit. "I still think I can play better," he says. Perhaps, but chances are that, generations from now, when the old geezers look back at what was McEnroe, this is the time they will remember and relish.
After all, what more can there be? He can't get any faster; the legs go first, don't they? A slightly better overhead? Maybe a little more power off the forehand wing, but tighten the strings for that and you lose touch off that precious slice backhand. McEnroe can serve down the middle and in like a righthander, and he can do things wide that some lefthanded servers made whole careers out of.
To be sure, he suffered his only defeat of 1984, to Ivan Lendl, in five sets at the French Open two weeks ago, when he got cranky and tired after winning the first two sets. But in getting to the finals in Paris he showed at last that he has the patience—if not the stamina—to carve up those scroungy, dirty-socked clay-courters with their own dull knives. At 25 McEnroe's as healthy and durable as he's going to get training on pretzels and hangout. In doubles he's already a golden oldie, performing as players did when they knew how to use the whole court rather then just hammering away with looping ground strokes. "The best doubles team in the world is John McEnroe and whoever he plays with," Peter Fleming, his regular partner, has said. As if to prove this, this winter McEnroe took his baby brother, Patrick, 17, a top junior player, with him to a $500,000 WCT tournament. They won, walloping Kevin Curren and Steve Denton, the 1982 U.S. Open winners, in the finals.
Technically, McEnroe's backswing is so short, his strokes so correct, that Vic Braden, who has broken down McEnroe's game with videos and computers, says that "biomechanically he's so perfect it looks magic." His instincts have always been exquisite. He can't drop-shot any better, disguise lobs any better, intimidate any better, scheme any better. This is it. This is the time you want to pay good money to see him play.
Yes, but can he smile?
Well, everybody from the president of the United States Tennis Association to the captain of the Davis Cup team to his mother to his lawyer (who sleeps with his mother) to Exhibit A himself says that McEnroe's behavior is improving. Especially after his outbursts in Paris, the general public may not agree with that assessment, but then, nothing with McEnroe is quite the way the public perceives it. This is not because the public is a fool; it's just that McEnroe, on display, sends out all the worst signals.
For example, most folks would probably be shocked to learn that McEnroe isn't intense about tennis. Obviously, we assume that any athlete who explodes and carries on like a nincompoop must be kinda, sorta, involved. Ironically, however, it was Bjorn Borg—a young man who never twitched an earlobe—who was so emotionally intertwined with the sport that he was, for all practical purposes, driven from competition when McEnroe usurped him. As for McEnroe? "I don't love the game as much as I should, and I know that," he says.
Indeed, a theory held by some tennis insiders who know McEnroe well is that he explodes in ho-hum matches because he feels guilty and insecure that it all came so easy, and so maybe it will disappear—poof!—too. McEnroe says that's all a lot of hooey, but it's an intriguing hypothesis, for, goodness knows, it sure did come easy.
Harry Hopman, the expatriate Australian martinet who taught him at the Port Washington (N.Y.) Tennis Academy, was so buffaloed by the child McEnroe that, while everybody else did exercises, Hopman would permit the little boy to, in McEnroe's words, "bag it." Even as his promise grew more obvious, McEnroe became no more committed. "I've never spent more than a couple hours a day practicing in my life," he says. "I just can't get into that mentality."
More than that, at 12 or 13 McEnroe could stand back dispassionately from his contemporaries and view them as specimens, fascinated that they would devote themselves to tennis—to any sport. Not until 1978, a year after his Wimbledon debut, did he begin playing tennis full time. His father remembers going out to see him play soccer in the private school playoffs the fall before he walked onto Centre Court to face Connors in the semis. The family was beside itself that he had actually gotten into the Wimbledon draw. Just playing would be an experience, like the senior class trip to Washington. A few weeks earlier, in Paris, where he had played his last junior tournament, McEnroe stayed in a $3-a-night fleabag. And here he starts winning matches at Wimbledon. His father flies over, and his kid, whom he had kissed goodby a month before, is now the rage of London, holding court before journalists from the world over. He goes out to play Connors, "and I felt like a total jerk because I didn't belong." So, he says, he couldn't make himself try, he lost and went back home to start college at Stanford in September.
All the others, the Borgs and Connorses, the champions, grew up obeisant to the game. McEnroe is obeisant only to his talent. In the past he has mused on how pleasant it might be to be seventh or eighth in the world, a nice comfortable player. Even now he says, "I don't have to be Number One. I mean, if I'm three or four, no great tragedy. I can rationalize that I lost a couple times in the Wimbledon finals. I've always been a good loser. I guess what it is: I like winning more than I dislike losing. That's what I wanted to say, isn't it? Yeah, I like winning more than I dislike losing."
He remembers his first final on Centre Court, against Borg in 1980, the great five-setter with the 18-16 tiebreaker. When McEnroe ran through the opening set 6-1, he pulled in his horns some. "I mean, I was thinking, this is Bjorn Borg, playing in the finals, going for his fifth straight," he says. "This may not be the greatest thing for me to do."
"Well, I wanted most to play in a great match. It was only after I lost that I realized how much I wanted to win. I have to feel like it's right out there. Understand, it's not like I wasn't trying. The difference is 95 percent instead of 100 percent. But I'm always looking around. I don't have that killer killer instinct. I'm not into that Connors thing. If I hate someone, I play worse."
Inevitably, an athlete who displays manners as atrocious as McEnroe's is stamped not only as a bad sport but also as someone with no perspective on winning and losing. In fact—another contradiction—McEnroe is usually quite a good loser. In the juniors, in which the kids have to call their own lines, he was renowned for giving the benefit of the doubt—and more—to every opponent. An umpire who has crossed swords with McEnroe says, "A lot of players are advertised as wonderful sportsmen, and they're snakes, con artists. Then there's someone like [Ilie] Nastase, who disrupts matches intentionally to upset his opponents and swing the tempo his way. The crazy thing about John is that no matter how often he's wrong in protesting a call, I still always believe he believes he's right. He never cons."
He never alibis, either, and will graciously credit those who vanquish him. While Borg and Connors, ice and fire, were the people's choice whenever they played McEnroe, they would selectively cut and run after a defeat. McEnroe not only never fails to face the press, but—and this shocks journalists who have only seen him moan and whine on court—also can be a most intelligent analyst, even of his own failed strategy. So, why can't you smile, John?
"You can't act articulately on the court," he says.
Still, even when, as a junior, he was beginning to get a bad reputation for acting up and wising off, no one recalls his sulking in defeat. His mother, Kay, says that John's loss to Bill Scanlon at the U.S. Open last September was the only time she ever saw her son dwell on a defeat. "He drove around aimlessly for a while that night," she says. But that was all. McEnroe and Scanlon are scarcely the best of buddies (Scanlon: "He doesn't like me. Of course, he doesn't like much of anything"), and while the loss may have nettled McEnroe, what really upset him was that he had been eliminated so early in the tournament by someone he felt should never have beaten him. That, in its way, is as much an imperfection as a (supposedly) bad call.
Indeed, McEnrologists make a great deal out of the fact that his blue-chip temper tantrums invariably take place early in tournaments, against lesser opponents. Arthur Ashe, McEnroe's Davis Cup captain, remembers the time several years ago when a London newspaper ran the opinions several psychiatrists held about McEnroe. "One of them theorized that John obviously felt he had very few peers," says Ashe. "Maybe Borg then. Probably no one now. So he gets bored and condescending with others and has to manufacture controversy to stay interested. Remember, whenever he played Borg there was no nonsense at all. I always found that revealing."
Because it's also apparent that McEnroe inevitably pulls up short just shy of a default, one cynical school of thought puts McEnroe in the Nastase camp, meaning he choreographs disturbances to upset his opponent. If he is up to such tricks, however, McEnroe's a fool, for, as he himself knows, the record shows that his performance tends to suffer after he blows up. He was destroying Lendl in the French final—perhaps too easily—until he started arguing about some noisy television apparatus.
"I wish I were that smart to plan those things," McEnroe says. "Albert Einstein couldn't have thought up these things I do. Look, even my friends know I have no control. I just go into the ozone. There've been times, I swear to you, five minutes before the match, five minutes, I've said to myself, 'Now John, don't do anything today. Just go out and play,' and two games into the match—two bloody games—I've lost complete control. People think I plan all this stuff? I've gone nuts in exhibitions. I've lost it completely, 10 times or more, and nobody even hears about that. Then my friends say, 'John, there was no money involved, no title, no nothing. Who cares?' Well, at the time, I cared. I'd like to tell you, 'I promise you there won't be any more outbursts.' I would. But I can't say that because I don't know. I'm sorry, I don't."
Indisputably, what does animate McEnroe is a special kind of intolerance, one that decrees that he is doing his best, but somebody else isn't up to snuff. Braden calls this attitude "an honest rudeness." But what scars McEnroe is that he sets himself up as the sole arbiter of who's trying and who isn't, who's right and who's wrong. It's ingrained, too. "The only time I was ever called when he was in grammar school," says Kay, "is when he got mad in basketball, and the school was upset that he was trying to be the coach. John just won't accept anything that, in his judgment, is wrong. It's as simple as that."
Others, especially those who become the object of his wrath, are not so generous in excusing his tirades. Says a linesman who has locked horns with him for the last five years, "Where does he get off being superior to everyone else? He's absolved because he says he strives for perfection? If he were something besides a tennis player, there'd be another term for it. We'd say he had delusions of grandeur. He's absolutely bonkers."
Without doubt, the most unattractive aspect of McEnroe's behavior is how he personalizes disputes. Slights become grudges, which are turned into vendettas. Further, they're all the more pronounced because, as his mother says, "Johnny has a memory like an elephant." When protesting a line call, McEnroe may well cite a supposedly bad decision that official made in some obscure second-round match four years ago. Much is made of the fact that McEnroe's innate shyness causes him to look down. In fact, when angry or determined to make a point, McEnroe looks at you directly. Actually, his greater failing is a narrow-minded inability to look out. Especially for one so bright, playing in an international arena, McEnroe is strangely unforgiving of other viewpoints, having an inside-out vision of the world that was most clearly displayed in Paris in 1983, when during a quarterfinal loss to Mats Wilander he yelled, "I hate this country!"
McEnroe's failure to respect tennis officials is exacerbated by the fact that he happens to be that rare sports star who is also an avid sports fan. Music may be his first love; it's not only his pleasure, but also something of a humbling escape. McEnroe admits he's always brought down to earth when he rediscovers he can play the guitar no better than most stiffs in sneakers can wield a tennis racket. However, apart from rock, McEnroe enjoys nothing more than sitting around with some friends, wolfing down pretzels and beer—he's a notorious cheap drunk—and watching one of his beloved New York teams.
Of course, like any red-blooded, pigheaded, narrow-minded, typical New York fan, McEnroe is an authority on officiating. There is a difference in his case, though, because what he sees of the officiating in other sports, McEnroe rather likes. "Umpiring in tennis is so much worse than other sports, it's ridiculous," he says, warming up, his usual rat-a-tat-tat delivery accelerating, his close-set eyes boring in. "You go to the Open, you get the same people who were working the Easter Bowl for me when I was 12. Or who work for my brother in the juniors right now. I'm serious. It'd be like refs in the NBA doing a CYO game in Great Neck. How can you respect them?
"Now, I know I'm wrong sometimes...."
"Yeah, because I can't take no for an answer [eyes drop], and I keep rubbing it in and nail them to the wall. I know I'm wrong there. But I know I can see the ball so much better than they can. [Eyes up.] As many balls as I hit, I can feel it when I hit a serve out. But they don't understand that. I have zero percent doubt that I see balls better than they do." [Eyes blazing on "zero percent doubt."]
In conversation with McEnroe, officials aren't the only devils; phonies and hypocrites abound, to the point where it seems that Holden Caulfield is back, alive and well and No. 1 in the world. (When you think about it, "pits of the world"—McEnroe's description of one Wimbledon umpire in 1981—is exactly what old Holden would have said, too, isn't it?) Moreover, not only is McEnroe's psyche scrutinized as much as any athlete's, but his whole family is subjected to psychoanalytic interpretation as well. It can't all be New York's fault; genes must be held accountable, too.
John McEnroe Sr. has become a public figure, as accepted in sports as Teri Shields is in showbiz. The only thing is, unlike almost all professional parents, he never set out to be one. Depression-born, first-generation Irish, he grows up in a Third Avenue walkup, the elevated subway line outside his window; works his way through Catholic University in Washington; is introduced to Kay Tresham, a nurse, through some friends of hers he met in a bar—"I met Kay correctly! I did!" he says—and marries her; service, first son and heir, a junior, born in West Germany; returns to New York and an office job while going to law school at night. The first little house in the suburbs: the Douglaston section of Queens, on the border of "the Island." Another son: Mark. Takes a pay cut to join a law firm, but moves up the ladder—"We are a meritocracy," says John Sr.—another house; private schools; makes partner; another house in the best section, Douglas Manor; another son, Patrick; tuition, cars, midlife, success, pride, a happy home and friends who kid him that he looks something like Jack Lemmon. The New York/slash/American Dream, period. "If you'd asked me would I want this, a partner in a major New York law firm, I would say yes, this is exactly what I had in mind for myself," he says. And then one day seven springs ago he kissed his Paris-bound son good-by, and soon he was, instead, ever after, somebody's Father. This is not all bad.
"He always wanted a house on the Island, with a tennis court," John Jr. says. "And she always wanted a place in the city." That means Manhattan.
It was Trinity Night at the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills in May. McEnroe attended Trinity School, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, from eighth grade through 12th. At this annual benefit for a McEnroe scholarship fund, Trinity's students get a chance to meet the famous alumnus. "Did your parents have any objections to you becoming a pro tennis player?" the little boy in the Nike painter's hat asked.
"Not when they got an apartment on Fifth Avenue," Junior said, and Senior roared. The flat is elegant and tastefully appointed, too. Amid all the family photographs sits a picture of John Sr.—with Jack Lemmon himself. The McEnroes also have a weekend house with a tennis court on the Island.
The prominence of Papa McEnroe, as he's sometimes known abroad, is heightened by a couple of other factors. Not only has he always been the second most visible member of the family, but also he never has to share billing with a famous coach. Most top players enjoy some kind of symbiotic relationship with a mentor—Borg and Bergelin, Vilas and Tiriac, Navratilova and Richards, Navratilova and Estep, Whoever and Bollettieri, Mandlikova and Stove—but only tennis aficionados know who McEnroe's coach is. In fact, Tony Palafox, 48, a former Davis Cup player for Mexico, has served as McEnroe's coach almost continuously since the boy was 12. He's probably the ideal man for the job.
Stylistically, Palafox was much the same sort of player McEnroe is—minus the serve. Temperamentally, however, McEnroe and Palafox are opposites. Palafox, whom McEnroe calls "the mellowest guy," seems without ego. As a player, Palafox had more equipment than his flamboyant and gifted teammate, Rafael Osuna, but he could never display his best except in doubles, in which he could be content to operate in Osuna's shadow. Together they won Wimbledon and Forest Hills and whipped the U.S. in the Davis Cup. In a way, McEnroe is the conduit for Palafox that Osuna was, and Palafox seems perfectly satisfied to sit back and watch the victories from the shadows.
Another reason John Sr. is front and center is that he handles his son's business affairs. Officially, John Jr. is a client of his father's firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He occupies about a quarter of John Sr.'s time, but the nepotistic relationship leaves some tennis people vaguely uncomfortable. When John Bassett, the Canadian entrepreneur, was once asked if he would ever handle the affairs of his daughter, Carling, now the 18th-ranked woman player, he shot back, "I'd feel like a pimp."
John Jr. and John Sr. are enjoying something of a generational inversion. "It's great for him to have this experience in his lifetime," says the son of the father, and everyone knows that John Sr. enjoys the fuss and notoriety much more than does his tennis-playing client. But p√®re et fils are both remarkably businesslike about the business. "I think it's a fair arrangement, but it's too much for him to handle," says John Jr. The only sensitivity Senior ever evidences comes when someone implies that he was some kind of failed ambulance chaser until his son's account came along.
Now John Sr. sits back comfortably in his Park Avenue law office, crossing his arms, always making sure to toss his tie to the side lest it become rumpled and require a pressing. "I know what all the competitors say," he says, "that John could be exploited a great deal more. Yes, I think an argument could be made for that case, because the fact is that in certain areas I've only been reactive. I'm not out there looking for it. But then again, I don't know where he'd find the time to do anything else if I were out beating the bushes."
As it is, McEnroe makes commercials for various products, has huge contracts for endorsing tennis clothes and shoes and a racket and earns rock-star-level guarantees for his Tennis Over America exhibition tour, a series of one-night stands in the hinterlands complete with laser lights, smoke, music and—as we have heard—gen-u-wine tirades. Guillermo Vilas is usually the foil. McEnroe just bought a four-story apartment (a quadruplex?) on Central Park West, and it's possible that he makes as much money as—maybe more than—any American athlete in history. All without smiling and without his father-cum-lawyer beating the bushes, thank you.
Despite this successful fiduciary relationship, another long-standing force within the family circle may be more important. Kay is half English—"I've kept that quiet at Wimbledon," she says—and shy, with a pretty face framed by a heart-shaped head of hair that is prematurely gray (well, wouldn't yours be?). But her temper, says her eldest son, is a match for that of any of the four males in her household. Of herself Kay says, "Oh, I'm a stinker. I think a lot of Johnny is me. It's very hard to change our minds. I've always thought that what I do is the right way. People are mistaken if they think I'm the shrinking violet in this family."
Remembering that he worked days and went to school nights when John was a little boy, John Sr. says, "I suspect Kay had a larger influence on John overall than I did—certainly until he made the big splash." Even now, a family friend points out, "John lets Kay know more about his life than most 25-year-olds want their mothers to know."
This isn't to imply that McEnroe is some kind of mama's boy. The McEnroe clan is simply a fierce family unit. Furthermore, John's closeness to his mother is only the continuance of a common pattern in tennis, whereby an older member of the other gender often plays an inordinately important role. Female champions from Suzanne Lenglen to Chris Evert Lloyd have tended to be directed by fathers or attracted to older male coaches or lovers, while such disparate types as Bill Tilden, Frankie Parker, Bobby Riggs, Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors all were heavily influenced by maternal figures.
Both McEnroes, husband and wife, independent of each other, like to tell the tale of the time John Sr. came home with his law school grades. He had finished second in his class at Fordham and was bursting his buttons at his achievement. It was going to be an evening to really celebrate, but Kay said, "If you'd worked harder you'd have finished first."
Talking of her oldest son, Kay says, "Johnny was always competitive, in everything. If he got a 90 on a test, he wouldn't necessarily be satisfied...not if someone else happened to get a 95."
John Sr. says, "If an opponent makes a great return, passing John at the net, people want him to cheer his opponent. But they don't understand. John doesn't think, 'What a great shot the other guy made.' He thinks, 'My volley wasn't perfect or he couldn't have hit that passing shot.' Do you see?"
The only real anomaly in the McEnroes' suburban existence was that John Jr. commuted, just as the neighborhood daddies did. His mother worried about this daily adventure, for he was an inviting target, shining in his preppy blazer and tie and small for his age. To reach Trinity he had to walk 15 minutes to the Douglaston railroad station and then transfer in Manhattan for another long haul uptown on the subway. He had the longest hike of any of the students in a school that was excellent in academics, tony in clientele and more than 85% "the city."
Soon enough, though—this is a meritocracy—the little curly-haired kid from distant Queens found his way into the right crowd, sharp types who would go on to Harvard and graduate with honors. McEnroe was a fine student, possessing, as the headmaster, Robin Lester, says, "an FBI mind—great comprehension, an ability to accumulate gobs of facts." Johnny has a memory like an elephant. Stanford would have accepted him on his grades alone. In class, though, he'd always be Mister Cool, sitting in the back all slouched over. Even then he was famous for wolfing down the wrong foods and for pulling muscles in soccer games after not warming up.
Lester says John "never acted up here," but one of McEnroe's closest Trinity chums, Scott McKinsey, chuckles as he remembers McEnroe being a "menace" on the subways. One of his favorite bits was to leap over the turnstiles, screaming "UN delegate!" at the token booth. He had a '74 Pinto (the pits?) that was known as The Deathmobile, and he posed atop a garbage can for the yearbook. What the hell: He was a regular wise-ass New York kid who grew up to be a normal New York sports fan, the type that boos its own kind.
Still, there was the dark side of the McEnroe moon, the one he turns away from us. Weekends he would go off and win tournaments, but he would come back, commute in, never miss a class and never offer a word about his accomplishments. During his year at Stanford he was just as self-effacing, although by then he was already revealed, exposed as that different character he refers to as "you know, John McEnroe, the tennis player."
He isn't being dramatic in identifying that public creature as someone separate. Most of us do our utmost to show our best face in public. Isn't it wonderful, every now and then, when you're with some perfect person from work or school or your bowling team, and you go into his house and he lets his hair down and acts normal and rotten for a moment, and you're relieved to discover that this person and his whole damn perfect family are just as terrible as you and yours? Isn't that a grand feeling? Well, McEnroe does that upside down. The worst of him is what you see in the most public setting. The more private he gets, the more attractive. The really perverse kicker to all this is that somehow he has convinced himself that if he went along and acted as decently in public as he does in camera, then he'd be a "phony hypocrite," selling out. Says McEnroe, almost poignantly, "You know, there is so much more to me than a brat kid who makes a lot of bread and gets mad at umpires. I want people to respect me. I'm human. I like to be liked, too. But not if I have to be a phony."
He worries a great deal that John McEnroe, the tennis player, will obscure McEnroe the person from his friends. The day after he lost to Connors at Wimbledon in '77, he went back to Queens to discover that "nobody I knew knew how to react to me, the Wimbledon semifinalist. And you know, to this day that's been a big part of my job—putting everyone at ease."
He picks his friends carefully, remaining exceptionally loyal to old pals from school and the Island as well as to doubles partners. He goes out of his way to act casual with people he knew before he was John McEnroe, the tennis player. "You know, it's really terrible being around me," he says. "I guess my friends really do like me." Also, maintaining some semblance of a normal existence is made more difficult by the fact that, while McEnroe may be shy, he's no recluse. Indeed he's very much a social animal, or, as his mother puts it in describing his love-hate relationship with New York, "Johnny and New York are a lot alike; they're both full of themselves." Although he never takes it upon himself to be a leader on the Davis Cup team—that would be phony, showing off—he loves being able to hang around on the squad, goofing off mostly with Fleming, throwing down a beer or two and then, as Ashe says, doing something "outrageous" to certify that he's still one of the guys. Once, at a team dinner, Ashe had to restrain McEnroe from taking off his trousers.
In an era when most tennis stars take on personal traveling coaches, not to say whole entourages, McEnroe is a regular lone eagle. "I like being independent," he says. "I've never paid anyone to travel with me—the Martina Navratilova style, the Willie Vilas style. I just don't need people carrying my bags and telling me what a great person I am."
But in 1981, after he beat Borg at Wimbledon and was accepted, unquestionably, as No. 1, he suffered terrible problems of adjustment and identity. In the juniors he had studiously avoided reaching the top in his age group. But now, suddenly, here he was, best in all the world, man or boy, and he found it more a burden than a prize. "I couldn't handle it well, and I don't know why," he said later. His play became erratic. He was troubled by injuries and altogether unable to cope with Lendl, who walloped him seven times running. His romance with former tour player Stacy Margolin, his first real love, foundered, and so chary was he of encountering a nosy public that he often incarcerated himself in his apartment or hotel.
The slump itself was nothing abnormal. Almost every great athlete in an individual sport who attains early preeminence suffers some sort of temporary decline after a bit, but in McEnroe's case it was pronounced. His mind was plagued with conflicts. In the middle of his melancholy muddle, he simply shook his head one day and groaned, "I just go off into space for whole games at a time."
Now, while he has both his health and his game back, circumstances have conspired to make him more of a loner than even he might want. Peter Rennert, perhaps his best friend in tennis, from both the Island and Stanford, has fallen to a ranking in the mid-200s and can no longer be counted on to make the circuit. Fleming is married and about to become a father, breaking up that old gang o' mine all the more. Finally, McEnroe and his girl friend, Stella Hall, have recently split up.
Hall, a New York model, was well liked by McEnroe's family and friends, and it pains him to talk about their separation. He looks you in the eye when he speaks about Hall. "The last two years of my life with her have been great," he says. "She's made me a better person. You know, it's not easy for someone to be with me, either. There's so much crap. You lose your identity. And the way the tennis life is, you're either not with the other person at all or you're with her completely." She didn't want to go on indefinitely being a traveling companion, and he doesn't think a tennis tour is the place to become a husband. In fact, the subject inspires him to go off on a long diatribe about the phony players and their infidelities.
Inveterate gamblers will say that the best thing is winning; a close second is losing. Similarly, with McEnroe, the essence of life is in the test. People are there to be challenged. Indeed, because tennis came so easily to McEnroe, it's almost as if, subconsciously, he refuses to get into top shape to make it harder for himself, and soils the scene to make it harder for others to appreciate his God-given skills.
At the WCT Championships last April in Dallas, McEnroe gave a little dinner speech the night before the finals. His talk showcased him at his best. He mixed grace and humor. Afterward, a wealthy woman came up to him and gushed how impressed she had been, that whereas before she had always rooted against him because of his behavior, now she would be his fan. Most anybody would have been thrilled at this. Not McEnroe. "Is that all it takes to turn somebody around if you're John McEnroe, tennis player?" he says. "A little speech? Is that all it takes to snow people?"
On the court he tests his opponent, and if that's not demanding enough, he'll test the linesmen or the umpire or photographers or TV minions or, ultimately, the crowd itself. Everybody is obliged to get involved, take a stand. No phonies allowed. "How can he possibly think about the game when he's so aware of everything going on around him?" says veteran player Harold Solomon. "McEnroe's like someone leading an orchestra out there. Have you ever noticed? If someone sneezes in the 15th row, he's capable of turning around and looking directly at the guy. It's amazing. I have no idea how he does it all." Whatever the scoreboard may say, McEnroe is keeping his own score, playing his own match.
"He almost never verbalizes about his game," says Rennert. "Everything is instinctive. The one guy he listens to is Tony. When Palafox says something, John pays attention. Otherwise, he'll just pick and choose and maybe say something months later. Mainly, he just does what feels right, and with him it ends up being good."
But then, McEnroe's atrocious behavior obscures so much that is good. The beauty and majesty of his game are not all that go unnoticed. He receives almost no attention for his spirit and fortitude, qualities that the public readily attributes to Connors. Only insiders seem aware of McEnroe's grit. Jack Kramer, often the most captious critic of today's take-the-money-and-run stars, gives McEnroe the ultimate compliment from one of his generation. "The kid would have made a helluva player on the old pro tour," says Kramer. "He's got pride, he's consistent, he plays hurt and he dislikes losing in front of anybody. I tell you what he is: The kid's a throwback."
However much the players may complain of McEnroe's condescension and his distracting hijinks—irritations that are expressed increasingly often in locker rooms—no one can challenge his everyday courage. Wojtek Fibak, who is, keep in mind, the mentor of McEnroe's rival, Lendl, wrote this recently in International Tennis Weekly. "I remember at Basle, 1978, we were doubles partners. John lost in the singles final, and he was in pain; his elbow hurt. He came to the dressing room, took two aspirin, did not change clothes, just lay down for 20 minutes. Then we went on the court, and I told him I would serve first because I knew his elbow hurt, but he said, 'No problem.' The first ball he hit was a clean ace. That's John...he can do it not just one hour or one match but for 3½ hours every day."
This sort of recognition eludes a public exasperated by McEnroe's boorish antics. Though McEnroe has devoted himself to Davis Cup play and regularly contributes time, money and enthusiasm to a wide range of worthy causes—even the USTA, support your local linesman—he purchases little affection. All that his countrymen see is that he is a churl on the court.
Richard Evans, an Englishman who is McEnroe's authorized biographer, notes that his book, McEnroe: A Rage for Perfection, sold best in France, quite well in England and dreadfully in the U.S. "There's a greater antipathy toward John in America because he appears to Americans as the original Ugly American," says Evans. "The extension of that is that he's received worst of all in New York because New Yorkers cannot tolerate that he is actually their own product."
Whether McEnroe can ever shuck his bad-boy image and capture the public's affection remains most problematical. The '80s don't appear to be a time for antiheroes. On the other hand, the seven years of turmoil may be followed by seven years of serenity. "Look, I believe I've been much more good for tennis than bad," McEnroe says stoutly. "Like 90-10. And remember, it was really all Dullsville when I came in, everybody playing the same clay-court style.
"I know, sometimes I read I'm bad for the game, but it's easy for the players to make those grandiose statements when the press is down on me. Look, if these guys don't know where the bread on their table is coming from, I'm not going to tell them, because I'm not a political campaigner and I won't beat my own drum. I'm not going to go around advertising myself as another 'new Connors.' I mean, I won't do anything if it conflicts with my principles. I'm not going to be a phony.
"And right now, I'm playing better than ever. Physically, I should be coming into my prime—25, 26, 27, those years. Plus mentally I've been through a lot, so I'm prepared for whatever there is out there, too. And then...."
"Well, I feel pretty good about myself right now. I really do." And he smiles. O.K., he didn't smile like some phony Cheshire cat or anybody. But he did break a grin. Don't expect a smile from a genius. A smile never hit a backhand down the line, and a smile never made people rise out of their seats, enthralled, in awe. If they don't know what's good for them and what's right—if they don't know how to behave at the matches—it's their own damn fault.