There may be no more potent a symbol of mythic malevolence than
New York City's subway system. Many of us would rather cross the
River Styx on a leaky inner tube than descend into underground
Manhattan at, say, 2 a.m. "Not me," says John McEnroe as he
boards the C train in dark glasses, a black baseball cap and a
black T-shirt bearing the legend FRED. "I love taking the subway."
Which is another way of saying he hates driving between his
downtown art gallery and his uptown apartment. "By the time I
drive home," he says, "50 people have called me an a------." And
that's without even recognizing him. "Sometimes a guy will yell,
'Hey, that a------'s John McEnroe! Now I know why he's driving
like that.' I tell you, subways are the way to go."
People have been calling McEnroe an a------ forever. His
constant carping, his bullying, his obsession with himself--all
of these combined to make him the monstre sacre of tennis. Yet
over his 16-year pro career, which ended in 1992, he retained a
solid following. Partly it was due to his game, which at its
peak was simply a level above his contemporaries'. Mostly,
though, it was because there was a sort of integrity to his
negativity. There was something compelling in his
anti-Establishment rants. When he called a haughty British
umpire "the pits of the world," more than a few of us colonists
McEnroe was, essentially, a child of the Establishment who lived
to criticize the Establishment, an insider who bad-mouthed the
system. At times it seemed that what he really wanted was to be
a rock star--a Stateside Johnny Rotten. His dallyings with the
electric guitar were well known, and he had all the other
qualifications: He was defiant, complex, enraged and rich. By
the time he quit the tennis tour, his fortune reportedly
exceeded $150 million.
September 8, 1996
The McEnroe who has traveled underground to his gallery on this
afternoon is warm and amiable, if a little contentious. O.K., a
lot contentious. But the fume and bluster are leavened by a
disarming self-deprecation. His face is lean and stubbled, his
watery blue eyes less menacing than vigilant. A rose tattoo
blossoms on his right deltoid, a small gray shrub sprouts from
his chin. "I let it grow because my kids liked to pull it," he
says. "I hope I'm too old for my parents to say anything about
it. I'm 37, for god's sake."
He laughs easily--a detonating laugh that threatens to blow off
the top of his head--from behind a neat and uncluttered art deco
desk. Reposing atop it are a shiny beetle mounted in a small
glass case, miniature busts of Beavis and Butthead, a book on
the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and a boxed set of CDs by the
Clash, the thumb-in-your-eye punk band whose rise roughly
corresponded with McEnroe's. "I like the Clash for their
attitude," McEnroe says. "It was straight-ahead, which is in my
He picks up the book on Basquiat, a graffiti-scrawling
expressionist who died of a heroin overdose in New York in 1988,
at age 27. Like McEnroe, Basquiat was a ferociously driven
talent whose work alternated between stylized aggression and
aggressive stylishness. As it turns out, McEnroe has just
attended a screening of a new film on Basquiat's life. He offers
a terse critique: "It's s---." McEnroe's ex-wife, Tatum O'Neal,
has a small role in the movie. She plays a fatuous art collector.
McEnroe has more than a passing interest in Basquiat. He owns
two of the painter's canvases. McEnroe stumbled upon Basquiat's
work at an exhibition in the late '80s. As he and a friend
approached one painting, the friend said, "It's a steal at
$9,000." Peering at the squiggles, McEnroe said, "This is junk.
I wouldn't pay a thousand bucks for it." He didn't. But a few
years later, he says, the painting sold for $300,000. "Oh,
well," says McEnroe. "You live and learn."
He was not to the gallery born. "My parents never once took me
to the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan," he says. "But
we went to plenty of Rangers and Knicks games." His first real
exposure to painting came when he was 18, during the 1977 French
Open. Mary Carillo, with whom he won the mixed doubles that
year, dragged him to a Paris museum. "I remember looking real
close at a Monet and not getting it at all," McEnroe says. "Then
I stepped back and thought, There's something to this
Impressionist stuff. That's art."
A couple of years later his friend and fellow tennis pro Vitas
Gerulaitis introduced him to photorealism. Now that's really
art, McEnroe thought. It looks just like photographs. He plunked
down $120,000 for three paintings. Today he winces at the memory
of having been suckered by a fad. "I sold all of them back," he
says. As for the Impressionist stuff, he bought a Renoir
landscape for $300,000 in 1983 but then traded it. "It was a
Grade B piece," McEnroe says of the Renoir, "and I've learned
you've got to get the best. The B pieces are where you get your
When not pursuing art, the young McEnroe was sometimes pursued
by artists. "In the late '70s, no matter what party I went to,
the same guy would always follow me around with a camera," he
recalls. "It was annoying, especially since I was trying to pick
up chicks. Finally I asked, 'Who is this weird-looking guy?' And
somebody said, 'Andy Warhol.'" Years later, when McEnroe was
married to O'Neal, they commissioned a Warhol silkscreen
portrait of themselves. McEnroe keeps two prints in storage.
"I'm saving them for my children," he says. "I figure they're
the only ones in the world who'd want them."
It was only after McEnroe and O'Neal separated, in 1992, that he
got the idea to deal art. Adrift and rudderless, he volunteered
to help in the gallery of an artist friend. So absorbing was the
apprenticeship that McEnroe converted his SoHo loft into a
gallery. His first exhibition, in December 1993, showcased Bruno
Fonseca's Goya-like oils about war. Since then McEnroe has
mounted about three shows a year, including exhibitions of
German expressionists, 20th-century nudes by various artists and
sculptors, and, most recently, paintings by British figurative
"I wasn't fond of a couple of pieces in my last show," McEnroe
says, wincing again. "Basically, a sculptor can give you a
urinal--like Duchamp once did--sign his name to it and call it
art." He shakes his head. "If you want to make money, you've got
to deal with dead guys. Live artists can be tough to deal with.
They look at dealers like tennis players look at agents: not as
equals but as necessary evils."
McEnroe the art dealer is still mastering the art of the deal.
"The gallery is a nonmoneymaker," he says. "I'm looking to break
even." He may be open to accusations of dilettantism, but what
pensioner with millions in his pocket isn't? Of McEnroe's
exhibits, his artist pal Eric Fischl has said, "What impressed
me was how fast he put together a consistent collection, one
that has quality and shows he has vision."
In his private collection McEnroe has narrowed his vision to
20th-century figurative artists--Basquiat, Fischl, Phillip
Guston, Alice Neel. "I like art with morals and messages," he
says. "I don't get the abstract expressionism of the '50s, or
minimalism. What's the point of painting 22 layers of white on
white? Maybe that shows my naivete, but I'd rather look at a
In the snobbish world of art dealing, McEnroe is regarded as a
weed in a gilded garden. "He needs to establish credibility,"
says Ann Freedman, president of New York's venerable Knoedler
Galleries. "A gallery's name recognition should be about the
artists it exhibits, not the dealer." Yet McEnroe's name
recognition has its advantages. "As a dealer you hope to attract
people, and people are curious about John McEnroe," Freedman
says. "They're interested in seeing another side of him--his
eye, his taste, his sensitivity."
Until now, sensitivity was the last thing anyone looked for in
McEnroe. Maybe Freedman is referring to his delicate drop
volley. "I always liked it when people called me an artist on
the court," McEnroe says. "It was as if they were saying my
style was something they couldn't really relate to and they had
to look at the game through me."
Someone once suggested that wrapping McEnroe in a CBS Sports
blazer and setting him in a TV booth was like putting Faulkner
in a Gap ad. Surely no tennis color commentator rivals McEnroe
in sound and fury. His style is personal and pouncing; at times
the words fly so fast that they turn into a blur of buckshot. At
the 1994 U.S. Open, during a match in which Richard Krajicek led
6-0 in a tiebreaker, McEnroe blurted out, "If Krajicek loses
this set, I'll stand on my head." Sure enough, the Dutchman
dropped the tiebreaker 10-8. The following day McEnroe called a
match upside down--"until the blood rushed to my head," he
recalls--for about 30 seconds.
"On TV, I try to stay positive," McEnroe says stoutly. "It's
only when I see a player tanking that I say anything negative."
Off TV is another story. "John can be very charming or very
moody," says a producer who knows him well. "One day he'll seek
you out, shake your hand, ask you about your family. The next
day he'll brush past you as if you were invisible."
The buzz at NBC, for which McEnroe also does tennis commentary,
is that he prodded the network into demoting Bud Collins, the
longtime Boston Globe columnist and NBC analyst, from the booth
to the sidelines during French Open and Wimbledon telecasts. "I
feel a barrier with Bud," McEnroe says, his mouth tightening,
"because he's a journalist." Perhaps McEnroe still hasn't
forgiven the cornball Collins for accosting him after his July
4, 1981, Wimbledon victory and crooning, "Stuck a feather in his
cap/And called it McEnroni."
"Bud knows more about tennis than 99.5 percent of the
population," says McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles. "But
what did he ever do in tennis that would make him know what's
happening in the U.S. Open final? The same with Mary Carillo."
McEnroe has an uneasy detente with Carillo, for the second
straight year his CBS boothmate at the Open men's final (to be
telecast on Sunday). "What would she know about playing in the
final? She wasn't there."
McEnroe still takes heat for his 1993 remark that women aren't
as qualified as men to call men's matches. "It's annoying that
people don't acknowledge the reality," McEnroe says. He mulls
this over a moment, then barrels on. "They pretend that
[Carillo] knows as much about men's tennis as me. Why don't they
have three women broadcast the NBA Finals?"
McEnroe is not unlike Garbo: He wants to be alone. In a perfect,
Mac-ocentric universe, he would be by himself in the TV booth
and maybe take calls from viewers. "Just get some of these
know-it-alls," he says knowingly, "and let me talk to them on
the air. That would be far more interesting than hearing, 'He's
got 80 unforced errors, and 22 percent of his serves are going
to the left of the deuce court.' Eighty unforced errors! I
honestly don't think people care."
McEnroe's tactlessness often obscures his passion for tennis. He
wants a more coordinated tournament schedule that would build
toward a year-end championship. He wants to speed up the game by
eliminating lets on serve. He wants the tour to banish metal
rackets and go back to wood. And he wants to replace the ranking
system, which counts only a player's best 14 tournament results
within a 52-week period, with a system that takes in every event
a player enters. "The current rules encourage tanking," McEnroe
says. "If every tournament counted, you wouldn't see as much
He's passionate about the Davis Cup. He likes its camaraderie,
its foot-soldier mentality. Though McEnroe is no longer
campaigning for the Cup captaincy, he says, "I think I was the
type of guy who should have been named captain." That's not a
ringing endorsement of Tom Gullikson, who beat out McEnroe for
the 1994 captaincy and seems firmly entrenched. Gullikson's
squad won the Cup in '95, but this year the captain couldn't
persuade any of the top U.S. singles players to compete in a
second-round tie against the Czech Republic last April in
Prague. The U.S. scrubs lost 3-2. "Tom is a really great guy,"
McEnroe says. But, he adds, "you want someone who'll bring
energy and vitality to the team. Obviously, some sort of boost
is needed. The players don't give a damn."
America's foremost tennis patriot (McEnroe played more Davis Cup
matches than any other American) believes ties shouldn't be
contested during Olympic years. "This year Andre Agassi was in
the Olympics but not Davis Cup," McEnroe notes. "[Pete] Sampras
and Jim Courier were in neither. Michael Chang played our first
Davis Cup tie but not the second. He and Sampras get paid a ton
of dough to play tournaments--they don't play Davis Cup, and we
lose. What can you say? Chang is Mr. Nice Guy--'The Lord this,
that and the other thing.' I don't know why he wouldn't jump to
be in the Olympics. His parents are Chinese expatriates, he's
making millions of dollars, living like a king...." McEnroe
sighs, lowers his eyes, bites his lip. "Too bad."
He is no less despondent about how the international tennis
establishment handled the competition in Atlanta. "Allowing six
of the top nine men to skip the Games, playing best-of-three
sets to the finals, not having a team concept, holding pro
tournaments at the same time," he laments. "It was a complete
Is Jimmy Connors's fledgling seniors circuit a joke too? "I
wouldn't call it a joke," says McEnroe, who has called it the
Dinosaurs Tour. "I mean, a joke's a little harsh. I did view it
with some skepticism. I view senior golf as pretty much of a
joke. So I guess I put [senior tennis] in the same category. But
people love that. Why the hell would people love that? I don't
know. So Lee Trevino can make some more millions? It's a farce."
A farce, a joke, whatever. Connors's 13-event Nuveen Tour, for
players 35 and older, is a modest venture that plays out before
small, country-club crowds. McEnroe occasionally participates,
albeit reluctantly. "Let's face it," he says. "It's not
Wimbledon." In the six senior events McEnroe has entered since
last year, he has never won. "Connors told me clay would be
easier on my back," Mac says, "but he forgot to mention Andres
Gomez." Four of those McEnroe losses have come at the hands of
the 1990 French Open winner.
"I haven't quite figured out how to enjoy losing," says McEnroe.
"As you get older, the pain of losing is greater, and the joy of
winning is diminished."
He doesn't want to live off, or in, the past. "My job is not to
tell people I'm still a great tennis player," he says. "That's
my ego getting in the way of me trying to improve as a person.
That's like needing someone to kiss my ass so I can entertain
the thought that I'm going to go back and play Wimbledon.
There's still a part of me that feels I can kick ass on the pro
tour on a given day, so it doesn't totally go away. Maybe that's
what got me where I was."
Whether out of fear or good manners, hardly anyone in the tennis
world who has been left for McEnroadkill is willing to tangle
publicly with him. Gullikson politely deflects McEnroe's jibes.
Carillo refuses to comment. Even Collins is uncharacteristically
mum. "The new McEnroe is the same as the old McEnroe," one of
his targets grumbles anonymously. "He's just as disagreeable as
"Don't stand in my way. Please! That's all I can ask."
Autograph seekers are thrusting scraps of paper in McEnroe's
face. For half an hour he swatted balls to dozens of kids on a
side court at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows,
N.Y., and now that the clinic is over, the kids are all over him.
"I'm happy," he says after he frees himself. "For once, I really
feel I'm in a good position." So he used to be unhappy? "Not
unhappy. There were a few years when I was less happy."
An air of melancholy once clung to McEnroe, despite his
achievements and the comfortable life they had brought him.
"Looking back, the thing I loved most about my year at Stanford
was the anonymity," McEnroe says of the 1977-78 school year. "I
figured being ranked 21st in the world would get me a lot of
chicks--but no one gave a damn who I was." He erupts in
laughter. "Nine-tenths of the girls in California are
good-looking. The other 10th go to Stanford. So my hunger
increased in college."
His hungriest and happiest years were 1979 and '80, when he was
usually ranked No. 2. In '81 he passed Bjorn Borg to become No.
1, an ideal that when realized was not as satisfying as the
anticipation. "Suddenly everyone viewed me differently," he
says. "I didn't expect the scrutiny. It seemed everyone was
trying to invade my privacy."
He needed a publicist. He needed an exorcist. "I'd think, You're
going out to play, and you're not gonna yell at the umpire," he
says. "And within two games I'd be pissed and yelling at the
umpire. It was an alter-ego thing, like Jekyll and Hyde. My bad
part overpowered me."
By 1985 his bad part was so overpowering that the U.S. Tennis
Association suspended him from the Davis Cup team, and World
Tennis magazine proposed that he be banned from the tour for a
year. McEnroe refused to knuckle under. "Mick Jagger and Jack
Nicholson told me, 'Don't change your game,'" he says. "When
you're 26, who are you gonna listen to, Jagger and Nicholson or
some old farts in the USTA?"
Only O'Neal seemed to have much sympathy for his devilry. They
met at a party in Los Angeles in November 1984 and married in
August '86, three months after the birth of their first son,
Kevin. "To be the best in tennis you have to be very selfish,
superselfish," McEnroe says. "Or at least I couldn't figure out
any other way. I'm sure other athletes treat family and friends
like garbage too. You don't even realize you're being a jerk."
O'Neal did, and in 1994 she filed for a divorce that became
final later that year. The split made headlines in the New York
Daily News, the New York Post and the National Enquirer. "It's
tough enough when you have to go through personal problems,"
McEnroe says. "It's tougher when a------s with cameras are
waiting outside the courthouse. You don't want to become a
spectacle for these people just so they can sell newspapers."
When he left the courthouse, paparazzi jammed their cameras in
his face. "They wanted me to throw a punch," he says. "I wanted
to throw a punch. But I'm too smart for that. Paparazzi don't
have blood in their veins; they have vomit." His own blood still
boils. "I can't explain why people are total a------s. It
doesn't make sense to me. And yet if I'm not nice to them, I
come off as the a------! That's the funny part. The same with
tennis, initially. The umpires would miss calls. I saw the ball
twice as well as they did. I've got 20-15 vision. I don't need
to have some 60-year-old tell me the ball was in when it wasn't.
Just tell me you made a mistake, and we'll play the point over:
That's O.K. But don't sit there and insist the ball was in. Yet
they insisted they were right, every time."
Is he equating umpires with paparazzi? "No," he says stonily.
"Tennis judges are usually frustrated tennis guys who didn't
make it, or old people who want to be around the sport.
Paparazzi are in a field all their own."
Last summer McEnroe made the front page of the Daily News for
allegedly manhandling an elderly neighbor in the lobby of their
apartment building. According to the News, after the woman
complained that McEnroe had been hogging the elevator, he
grabbed her from behind, spun her around and screamed, "Who the
hell are you? You're a lousy schoolteacher!"
"I was afraid for my life," the woman reportedly said. "I was so
frightened of this raging maniac."
"Raging maniac?" responds McEnroe. "The truth is that I tapped
her on the shoulder, and she said, 'Get your hands off me!' So I
said, 'What do you do for a living?' And she said, 'I don't have
to tell you, a------.' I'm like, 'F--- you!' And the next thing
I know, the News runs a story about me beating up a 60-year-old
lady!" He rolls his eyes. "I feel pretty fortunate, though," he
says. "I've moved past being the flavor of the month. I guess
losing and being happy a little, and being with one person and
having kids made me boring."
For the last two years he has lived quietly with Patty Smyth,
the pop singer of I Am the Warrior fame. They share his Malibu
beach house and Manhattan penthouse, along with, in various
combinations, Smyth's 10-year-old daughter, Ruby, from her
marriage to punk rocker Richard Hell; Smyth and McEnroe's
eight-month-old daughter, Anna; and McEnroe's three kids with
O'Neal--Kevin, 10; Sean, 8; and Emily, 5.
Smyth and McEnroe met at a Christmas party in 1993. "I liked
him," she recalls, "but I didn't think of myself as a potential
McMate." They didn't see each other again for eight months. "I
had just creamed Agassi at an exhibition in Phoenix," says
McEnroe. "I was feeling pretty good about myself, and I got up
the nerve to call her." They've been an item ever since, and
they plan to marry within a year.
Both are tough, gritty and from Queens. "It's funny," says
Smyth. "You travel all over the world, and you wind up with a
guy from your hometown. I think it's borough genetics." Both got
hitched and had kids in their mid-20s. And both had spouses who
reportedly had drug problems.
There are differences. "I'm able to do nothing," says Smyth.
"John's no good at doing nothing. He's always got to be
physically active and mentally stimulated."
He started playing guitar at age 20. His hero was another lefty,
Jimi Hendrix. Before matches McEnroe would sit around his hotel
room mutilating Purple Haze and Foxy Lady. One day during
Wimbledon, he says, he was in his hotel room administering last
rites to David Bowie's Suffragette City when he heard a gentle
rapping at the door. The knocker was Bowie himself. "I'll buy
you a drink upstairs," he told McEnroe. "Just don't bring the
Rock musicians have been only slightly more accepting of McEnroe
than art dealers. "They view me as a tennis player," he says.
"But I'd view them as rock musicians if they wanted to play
tennis." Rock critics and fans have been an even tougher sell.
Some listeners have pelted him with tennis balls. McEnroe smiles
shyly. "They may have been right," he says. "It's not like I ace
every tune. But then you have to be bad before you're good."
Smyth says McEnroe doesn't so much play the guitar as "wrestle
it into submission." Her assessment of his voice is more
generous: "It's big and loud and distinct." The Johnny Smyth
Band--McEnroe and three other musicians--will soon make its
recording debut on the 21 West label. McEnroe wrote all the
lyrics and music for the group, whose surly, sinewy sound owes a
debt to Soundgarden. "A lot of it is what I'd be telling myself
if I were looking in the mirror," he says. "Sort of reiterating
experiences I've had."
One ballad is a tribute to Gerulaitis, who died two Septembers
ago: "I remember you when I was just a kid/I looked up to you
and the things you did/You showed me places I'd never ever
seen/The world took notice of two kids from Queens." Well, even
Sid Vicious must have had moments of quiet introspection.
More up-tempo is a head banger McEnroe calls a "standard tennis
tune." The chorus is a medley of his greatest comebacks to
umpires: "You cannot be serious!" "Answer the question!" "You
guys are incompetent fools!" Alas, the song won't make the CD's
None of his kids seem drawn to rock or rackets. Kevin and Sean
dream of playing pro basketball. "I tell them, 'You've gotta
practice,'" McEnroe says. "I want to instill the intensity of
wanting to work for something."
McEnroe doesn't think kids need athlete role models. Not that he
feels he was a bad one. "Kids aren't morons," he says. "They
don't sit there and say, 'I'm gonna copy McEnroe yelling at an
umpire.' They like me because they see a personality, some
emotion, someone who cares and, beyond anything else, someone
McEnroe speaks of his children with great tenderness. His
sensitivity toward the innocence of youth may derive from having
had his innocence stamped out by the ridiculous demands of
junior tennis. "By having kids, I got my humanity back," he
says. "I'd been like some tennis dude, Number 1 in the world and
not happy with it."
His father and mother, John Sr. and Kay, still exert subtle
pressure. "I'll be thinking of pulling out of a seniors event,
and my mom will say, 'You might as well play. You've got to buy
diapers,'" McEnroe says. "And I'm like, 'When is it enough?'"
Recently McEnroe took his sons to a barbershop for $5 haircuts.
Ruby wanted to go, too. Smyth tried to dissuade her. "I told
Ruby there are two things a woman can't be cheap about," she
says. "Your hair and your shoes." Ruby went anyway. "She came
back with her hair absolutely butchered," says Smyth. "I was
about to freak when I noticed John standing behind her. He was
frantically waving his arms and silently mouthing, 'Be positive.'"