To John McEnroe the exotic is commonplace. ‚ÄúI remember going to Mandela‚Äôs house in Jo‚Äôburg,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúAnd I shake his hand, and he‚Äôs the most beautiful man I‚Äôve ever touched, the closest thing to a godlike person, and all of a sudden Nelson Mandela says to me‚Äù--and here McEnroe affects a gravelly whisper--‚Äú‚ÄòI just want to say it‚Äôs an incredible honor to meet you.‚Äô And I look over my shoulder, but it‚Äôs just me there, so I‚Äôm like: What?! C‚Äômon! Give me a break!‚Äù
This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue
But the corollary is also true: To someone as famous as McEnroe--or Mandela--the commonplace is exotic. ‚ÄúI have never used an ATM,‚Äù says McEnroe, with what sounds like regret.
It is difficult to name a giant of popular culture whom McEnroe hasn‚Äôt met in the quarter century since he won his first Grand Slam tennis title. ‚ÄúPrincess Diana, she used to come watch the tennis,‚Äù he says of another favorite quarry of the British tabloids. ‚ÄúAnd even though she had it 1,000 times worse than I ever did, she pulled me aside a few times and said, ‚ÄòI really feel for you.‚Äô‚Äù
McEnroe doesn‚Äôt care for the rap music that his children play ceaselessly. Tell him that Gregg Allman once said, ‚ÄúRap is short for crap,‚Äù and McEnroe instantly recalls coming home from his famous 1980 Wimbledon finals loss to Bjorn Borg, with its epic 18‚Äì16 tiebreaker, to attend an Allman Brothers concert. ‚ÄúI was 21, and I walked backstage and Gregg Allman was--I‚Äôm just guessing--pretty stoned,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúAnd he looks up and says to [lead guitarist] Dickey Betts, ‚ÄòHey, Dickey, that‚Äôs the golfer over there.‚Äô And I remember thinking, ‚ÄòGod, I guess I gotta win Wimbledon so Gregg Allman remembers I‚Äôm a tennis player.‚Äô‚Äù The next summer McEnroe did just that.
He‚Äôs in his tiny office at the New Jersey studios of CNBC, for which McEnroe now hosts his own nightly talk show called McEnroe. He would seem ideally suited to the job, if only because he has manifold friends to book--Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Sting. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not like Tom Cruise is saying, ‚ÄòHey, I‚Äôm not doing Letterman until I‚Äôve done McEnroe,‚Äô‚Äù says McEnroe. ‚ÄúFortunately I‚Äôve met a lot of people.‚Äù As a 15-year-old he saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. ‚ÄúOne second you‚Äôre idolizing these people,‚Äù McEnroe says of his ascension to celebrity status, ‚Äúand the next second Robert Plant is telling you, ‚ÄòI‚Äôm such a big tennis fan.‚Äô‚Äù
After a recent McEnroe taping, which featured his friend Kevin Kline, the host notes that he‚Äôs never been ejected from one of his children‚Äôs games, as Roger Clemens was recently (though unjustly, as it turned out). But his son Sean, now 16, used to insist--maddeningly--on taking 15 dribbles before shooting every free throw. After five dribbles, says McEnroe, ‚ÄúI‚Äôd be like, ‚ÄòShoot it!!!‚Äô‚Äù
He isn‚Äôt laughing. ‚ÄúThe embarrassment that caused and the expectation that people have of me screaming at the refs.... It was just too easy to go there,‚Äù says McEnroe. ‚ÄúAnd so I now actually get real inward and quiet.‚Äù
It has not been an easy, or complete, transformation. But his six children--three with ex-wife Tatum O‚ÄôNeal, two with current wife Patty Smyth, and one from Smyth‚Äôs previous marriage--have softened the 45-year-old. McEnroe notes that his four girls and two boys range in age from five to 18. ‚ÄúSo everything can happen on any given day,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs the whole range of human emotion. Two are always [doting]. A couple do their own thing. And one or two are always pissed off.‚Äù He loves it. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs life in a nutshell,‚Äù he says.
When people were calling, circa 1985, for McEnroe‚Äôs suspension from tennis because of his on-court behavior, Nicholson and Mick Jagger said separately at the same party, ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt change a thing.‚Äù To which McEnroe says, ‚ÄúWho was I going to listen to: the greatest actor of all time and the lead singer of the Rolling Stones--or some old fart from the USTA?‚Äù
Around that time McEnroe purchased a disguise, so uncomfortable was he with fame. ‚ÄúIt was this huge Hendrix wig and a beard,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúI looked like a complete buffoon. The only time I wore it, I was walking in New York and saw this old Indian rug that I thought was cool. So I went into the store and said, ‚ÄòHow much is the rug?‚Äô And the guy said, ‚ÄòYou‚Äôre John McEnroe. I recognize your voice.‚Äô‚Äù
He laughs sardonically. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve got to embrace it at some point,‚Äù says the talk-show host. ‚ÄúWhen you‚Äôre young, you get lucky enough to be a pretty good athlete and you get some money and that makes you more attractive to girls. But I can remember saying‚Äù--to paparazzi, while exiting a club--‚Äú‚ÄòDon‚Äôt take pictures of me with these beautifulgirls!‚Äô‚Äù McEnroe stares into the distance for a moment and says, ‚ÄúWhat the hell was I thinking?‚Äù
Now, with McEnroe, McEnroe fairly courts recognition. ‚ÄúNinety-nine-point-nine percent of the time people on the street just want to say, ‚ÄòHey, Johnny Mac!‚Äô‚Äù says Johnny Mac. ‚ÄúAnd sometimes, if I‚Äôm running to the gym, people will look at me like, ‚ÄòIs that him or isn‚Äôt it?‚Äô And sometimes I‚Äôll look back wondering, ‚ÄòHave they recognized me or haven‚Äôt they?‚Äô I wonder, in 10 years, will I be saying to them, ‚ÄòHey, look, I‚Äôm John McEnroe!‚Äô So far that hasn‚Äôt happened. But I guess it‚Äôs going to. And then I‚Äôm going to have to say, ‚ÄòRemember me?‚Äô‚Äù
The onetime tennis bad boy now hosts his own talk show, and he would seem ideally suited to the job.