Tennis glory, personal torment on display

  • Showtime’s documentary “McEnroe” charts the tumultuous life and tennis career of John McEnroe.
  • The seven-time Grand Slam champion found great success and personal misery through relentlessness.
  • Even in his heyday, four years as the world No. 1, McEnroe recalls that he “didn’t feel so good”.

John McEnroe was never satisfied.

The legendary tennis superstar, who is the subject of director Barney Douglas’s upcoming Showtime documentary “McEnroe,” has always relentlessly pursued perfection. And while this intensity led to unparalleled glory in tennis, it also produced a personal torment that has haunted him since childhood.

“One time, his mom handed me a piece of paper and it was John’s report card from first or second grade,” says McEnroe’s wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth, in the opening minutes of the documentary. “John is too hard on himself. John wasn’t satisfied with the A- of him” of him.

“This is how it’s always been,” he adds.

John McEnroe hits a shot during the 1980 Wimbledon final.

McEnroe hits a shot during the 1980 Wimbledon final.

AP Photo/Adam Stoltman

McEnroe confirms as much throughout the documentary and underscored the point during a question-and-answer session following the film’s premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. The now 63-year-old said he was raised with the understanding that “You have to be intense, you have to keep that edge and you can’t let it go for a second.” [because] you have to keep your foot on the gas” to achieve excellence.

Throughout his tennis career, that mentality often manifested itself in notoriously aggressive outbursts on the court. McEnroe used to berate referees, trash teams and publicly lose his temper over the course of a given game.

In retrospect, it is clear to McEnroe that “a lot of the times I got angry, I was hiding something else entirely.”

John McEnroe kicks a television camera during a game.

McEnroe kicks a television camera during a game.

AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

“When I grew up, it was like, boys don’t cry, you have to be tough, you just have to smile and put up with that kind of stuff,” McEnroe said after the premiere. “So instead of showing tears, I was showing anger. So I became this guy who was this crazy, angry guy.”

Only once throughout the entire film did McEnroe explicitly acknowledge that the “incredible pressure I put on myself, this burden” was worth it; when he beat Björn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981.

“That moment was worth it,” he said.

John McEnroe

McEnroe celebrates beating Björn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final.

access point

However, throughout the rest of his illustrious career, McEnroe struggled to find satisfaction in his body of work. That fight intensified after Borg, whom McEnroe describes as his idol and his “biggest rival,” retired from tennis at just 26, immediately after their meeting in the 1981 US Open final.

The Swede’s early exit from the sport gave McEnroe a clear path to dominance in the years that followed. But even once he achieved bona fide greatness on the tennis court, winning seven Grand Slams in five years and ranking No. 1 14 times in that span, he still wasn’t happy.

“When you’re working your way to the top, it’s easier and more fun than when you get there and look over your shoulder and try to stay there,” McEnroe explained in the film. “He felt a bit empty.”

John McEnroe.


REUTERS/Mark Baker

“I had the best year in tennis history on the men’s side in 1984,” he added. “I was No. 1 in the world for four years. I’m the best player to ever play. Why doesn’t it feel so amazing?”

A difficult period in his personal and professional life, including divorce from his first wife and struggle with addiction, was marked by the death of his good friend and fellow tennis star, Vitas Gerulaitis. McEnroe said the fellow New Yorker’s death “felt like a big turning point in my life” that prompted McEnroe to reassess his emotional situation.

He sought help from mental health experts, “37 psychologists and psychiatrists,” as he put it in the film, to address his problems. Meeting and falling in love with Smyth allowed McEnroe to “be myself,” feel supported, and grow.

John McEnroe and his wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth.

McEnroe (left) and his wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth.

REUTERS/Danny Moloshock

“Patty certainly caught me at a time when I was lost,” McEnroe said. “But it’s not that I’m perfect now. It’s not that I don’t screw up now and it’s not that I couldn’t have been a better father or any number of things. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve all-in-everything veered in one direction. so much more that it allowed me to be me.”

“I’m not that person,” he added during the post-premiere panel, referring to his behavior on the court. “I hope that at least people see that there is more, more to me and more to a lot of people, than meets the eye.”

Still, McEnroe would never go so far as to say he’s “at peace.”

John McEnroe.


REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

“I don’t think I wanted to be totally at peace,” he said in the final moments of the film. “I don’t even know what that feels like. Does that exist?”

Start “McEnroe”


Friday, September 2 on Showtime. The documentary hits UK cinemas on Friday 15th July.

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