Anger Therapy In his autobiography John McEnroe comes clean about his on-court behavior and off-court anguish

June 23, 2002

At 43, more than a decade removed from the maddest of his Mad
Mac days, John McEnroe thinks he's finally developed
perspective. "I really was pretty much of a jerk," McEnroe
writes of his 15 years on the professional tour. "Believe it or
not, I'm a lot better now."

An introspective tennis star comes along about as often as a
U.S. male player conquers Roland Garros; for every contemplative
Grand Slam winner such as Boris Becker, there's an endless
supply of lightweights such as Michael Chang. Unlike the musings
of dullards, McEnroe's have always played out like therapy
sessions, a healthy mixture of anger and ego, and his
autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, is a 342-page extension of
his search for self. McEnroe, it seems, just wants to be loved
(see Q+A, page 27).

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., McEnroe showed an instinctive feel
for the game as early as age eight. He breezed through the ranks
as a junior player and, stunningly, reached the semifinals at
Wimbledon in 1977 as an unheralded 18-year-old amateur. He ruled
the sport during its explosion in the '80s alongside giants such
as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe finished his career
with 77 singles titles (third behind Connors, with 109, and Ivan
Lendl, 94), including seven Grand Slam championships, as well as
an unparalleled record as a doubles player and as a Davis Cup
participant. His '84 campaign (an 82-3 match record with wins at
Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) is one of the best single-season
performances by a male player in history. Today he's the father
of six (including two daughters, six-year-old Anna and
three-year-old Ava, with his second wife, rock singer Patty
Smyth) and a tennis commentator for several networks, and he's
even hosted a short-lived prime-time game show.

The prose of You Cannot Be Serious isn't going to challenge John
Updike's, but the book moves along breezily and offers
compelling moments. Regarding his abusive behavior toward
linesmen, umpires and tennis rackets, McEnroe contends that he
and tennis officials were coconspirators: "Why didn't they
[default me]? The answer is simple but not so pure. They had a
show to put on and my presence put behinds in the seats.... If I
went home they lost money. The tournament directors knew it, and
the linesmen knew it. I knew it. The system let me get away with
more and more." The book discusses his most memorable rivals,
from Connors ("It was always my feeling that if it didn't put
money in his pocket, Jimmy wasn't interested") to Borg ("I
thought he was magical--like some kind of Viking god who'd
landed on the tennis court") to Lendl ("Whatever happened to him
as a kid left him with an odd, harsh demeanor--kind of bullying
and babyish at the same time").

Another example of how this book differs from the usual
sugarcoated sports autobiography is in McEnroe's candor about
his failed marriage to actress Tatum O'Neal and the havoc it
wreaked on his psyche and tennis career. He writes of faking
anger on changeovers so he could put his face in a towel and cry
over his crumbling marriage, and of indulging in marijuana to
cope.

Unfortunately the book also drones on about McEnroe's flirtation
with rock music (the novice guitar player fronted the
forgettable John McEnroe Band) and glosses over how hard he
campaigned behind the scenes for the Davis Cup captaincy, only
to resign 14 months after he got it because the team couldn't
win and McEnroe couldn't deliver both Andre Agassi and Pete
Sampras, as promised. Clearly McEnroe enjoys being in the
spotlight, and like most autobiographies this one is largely an
exercise in self-love. But for all his self-promotion and
blowhard tendencies, what McEnroe seems most interested in is
getting to the core of who he is. Such a journey is worth your
time.

COLOR PHOTO: PUTNAM PUBLISHING COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. FIRED UP McEnroe often blew his top, as at Wimbledon in '81 (left), but he hit bottom during his breakup with O'Neal (above, left). COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG [See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)