Friday, October 28, 2011
CONFESSIONS OF A "SUPERBRAT": John McEnroe on his Memoir, "You Cannot Be Serious"
I had 25 minutes with McEnroe in his publisher's office. I would say that the biography was one of the least revealing that I had ever read. I asked him where all the anger came from, and he mumbled something about coming from a sports-oriented family. Little introspection in this man. The good news is that all the talk about going into politics during our 2002 interview was just talk.
By Dylan Foley
THE original tennis bad boy, John McEnroe, has just published his memoir. It's #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. DYLAN FOLEY sits down with the Queens native to discuss his Irish relatives and political ambitions.
AT Wimbledon in 1981, American tennis star John Patrick McEnroe Jr. already had a reputation for exploding at judges and umpires. In the first round, the middle-aged umpire said to McEnroe: "I'm Scottish, so we are not going to have any problems, are we?"
In his autobiography You Cannot Be Serious, (G.P. Putnam, $25.95) McEnroe writes, "I guess since my name started with `Mc,' he thought we were soul brothers! `I'm Irish,' I told him curtly."
IN THE late 1970s and early 1980s, McEnroe dominated men's tennis. The enfant terrible of the professional circuit, he is remembered for his tantrums and his epic tennis battles with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. Now 20 years later, McEnroe has published his memoir, in which he details his tumultuous tennis career and eventual maturity into fatherhood.
Apparently, there is a large audience for what you might call these confessions of a "Superbrat": This week, buoyed by weeks of buzz on the gossip pages, McEnroe's book was listed in the #1 slot on the New York Times best-seller list.
Sitting in his publisher's office in lower Manhattan recently, the 43-year-old McEnroe is calm and relaxed. He has evolved into a successful tennis commentator and art dealer, but is still all muscle, and blunt about the controversies in tennis 20 years ago and today, as well as why he wrote this book.
"I didn't have any burning reason to write this book," he said, "but it seemed that by looking back, it might help me figure where I want to go next."
The title "You Cannot Be Serious" is one of McEnroe's patented lines for screaming at tennis umpires around the world. His memoir, written with journalist James Kaplan, offers a riveting look into the mind of McEnroe when he battled Borg and Connors and became No. 1 in the tennis world. He also covers the decline of his tennis career in his mid-20s and the implosion of his marriage to actress Tatum O'Neill.
McEnroe's grandparents hail from County Cavan and County Westmeath. His grandfather John Joseph McEnroe emigrated to Manhattan's Upper East Side in the early 1900s, when it was a rough working-class Irish, German and Polish enclave. John Joseph was a bank messenger who played trombone on the side.
McEnroe doesn't shy from controversy, whether it is referring to Lendl as "Darth Vader" or recounting how top American players like Jimmy Connors and Michael Chang have often refused to play for the American team in the Davis Cup competitions.
McEnroe also offers the hint that, in the future, he may pursue political office.
"I don't have the temperament for politics right now, but it is not impossible," he said.
McEnroe's father, John Patrick Sr., put himself through Fordham Law at night and wound up at a big New York law firm. He moved his family out to the affluent neighborhood of Douglaston, Queens, and sent his three sons to the Trinity School in Manhattan.
Starting with tennis at age three, McEnroe had a brilliant junior career. He went to Wimbledon semifinals at the age of 17 and matured on the tour.
"My life basically changed when I went to Wimbledon in 1977. I missed my high school graduation to go," he said. "I came back and people asked me, `Are you the guy Who yells?' It was a difficult growing process. I was making mistakes in public."
Much of the center of the book involves his battles with Borg at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1980 and 1981. McEnroe was the brash, let-it-all-hang-out New Yorker, while Borg was the quiet intense Swede.
"Borg was the only guy I never had a problem with on or off the court," said McEnroe. "He made me feel special, and I think I brought him up to another level."
The men's tour from 1977 to 1985 was populated with fascinating eccentrics, which McEnroe's book captures.
"When I came on to the scene, there was a cast of characters already," he said. "There was Vitas Gerulaitis. Borg had that aura around him and Connors was super-intense. And Vilas had the hair. It seemed it that all worked."
McEnroe's own notoriety grew. He was dubbed "Superbrat" by the British press for his outbursts at the 1981 Wimbledon tournament.
SOON after McEnroe became the No. 1 men's tennis player in the world, Borg retired at the age of 25.
"I know his disappearance hurt the sport," he said. "It is crying over spilled milk, but I wish he hadn't done it."
During the height of his career, McEnroe was playing the Davis Cup in 1983. His whole family came over to England to be with him.
"My father said we had one aunt remaining in Ireland, and she lived 90 minutes outside of Dublin," said McEnroe. The family went over to Dublin and drove out to her house.
"The first thing she says is, `I like Borg better than you.'"
McEnroe's father was an outgoing Irishman, according to John.
"My father knows every Irish song in existence. I love to watch him. He is the life of the party," he said. "I don't know any Irish songs myself."
After several years at No. 1, McEnroe's own career started to fall apart. His family life with Tatum O'Neal was plagued by conflict and they had three children in quick succession. A beefed-up Lendl eventually took him down.
McEnroe does not regret continuing to play as his rankings dropped. "Even though I never played as well again, I preferred mediocrity to quitting. I really didn't think about quitting."
McEnroe tells fascinating stories from the tour. He writes of Borg vanishing from the U.S. Open in 1981 after McEnroe beats him. Lendl comes off as a colorless machine. Then there is Connors, the moody schemer. Connors storms off the court during a finals match with McEnroe on the senior tour in Dallas in 1998. Connors, with the "smile of a riverboat gambler," offers to throw the match, then goes back on the court and beats McEnroe.
McEnroe said that he wasn't settling scores with Lendl and Connors.
"They are all incredible competitors," he said. "This is my point of view. I think the respect is there. They are all crazy in their own way, and so am I. That's what it is all about."
McEnroe's large ego on the court was necessary to handle the pressure that won him 77 career singles titles and 77 doubles titles.
"If you don't believe wholeheartedly that you are going to get the job done and you have what it takes," said McEnroe, "I don't think you can do it. There has to be a part of you that believes that the world revolves around you, even if you are wrong."
McENROE now lives in Manhattan and is happily married to rock singer Patty Smyth. They inhabit a four-story penthouse with six children between them.
"Having kids cost me a bit of my edge," said McEnroe of his beloved fatherhood, "but it has helped me as a person."
Are McEnroe's political ambitions serious?
"It is half and half," he admitted. "I have little kids now, and I don't want to spend a lot of time away from them. I also want to take a number ofyears to become knowledgeable on the issues. I could give back a lot because I received a lot."
One of McEnroe's dream jobs would be to become the first tennis commissioner, a position he says American tennis desperately needs.
"I would rather be the commissioner of something in New York City, than the tennis commissioner," he admitted. "Or if I were the Manhattan borough president, that would be a start."
McEnroe's personal hero is Arizona Senator John McCain.
"I know his story is 10 times tougher than mine will ever be, but he is an inspiration to me. He still has a temper, but for the most part controls it. I don't believe I have the political temperament, but I think people are fed up with politicians with that phony temperament. That is why Mayor Mike Bloomberg got in."