McEnroe’s Anarchist Spirit, Compelling On Court and Off

You Cannot Be Serious , by John McEnroe, with James Kaplan. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 342 pages, $25.95. Comparisons of athletes

You Cannot Be Serious , by John McEnroe, with James Kaplan. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 342 pages, $25.95.

Comparisons of athletes across generations are usually invidious, but it’s impossible to conceive that any man since has wielded racquet and self in quite as vivid a combination as John McEnroe. In the summer of 1977, tennis was a rarefied gentleman’s sport, and John McEnroe a scrawny Queens teenager with pouting cheeks and a frazzled mop of curls when he arrived in England to enter the qualifying rounds at Wimbledon. He proceeded to play through into the main draw, and then all the way to the semifinals before losing to Jimmy Connors in four sets. Immediately it was clear that there was nothing orthodox about his game. Lacking in conventional form-his strokes were far from fluid-he compensated with imagination and kinetic intensity. With other players, you thought about the arc of their arms; with John McEnroe, it was all about head and heart and hands. He took the ball quickly off the bounce and offered back shots that were so deft, betrayed such a precocious understanding of angle and logic, that right from the beginning he reminded audiences of men plying vocations that involved neither net nor ball: chess players, painters, middleweight boxers.

Soon he was a champion. He would win seven grand-slam singles’ titles. None of these victories were as memorable as his loss in the 1980 Wimbledon final to his greatest opponent, Bjorn Borg, an epic affair featuring a thrilling 34-point fourth-game tie-breaker won at last by Mr. McEnroe and then, in a rousing display of counter-composure, a fifth-set victory by Mr. Borg. There were dimensions beyond. Mr. McEnroe was, in the opinion of his peers, the best doubles player anyone had ever seen. He was also a devoted patriot who regularly fronted the American Davis Cup team in a time when playing for country was becoming anathema to most top-level U.S. players.

And then there was the matter of his temper. Feeling wronged by an umpire, an opponent or a ticket buyer, Mr. McEnroe was not simply strident in response, he was combustible-a petulant, puerile, raving kicker and screamer of a like never before glimpsed in the genteel stadia of London, Paris and New York. A McEnroe tantrum was never an attractive sight, and there were times when his vulgar comportment diverted attention from the stunning precision of his play; people came to crave the McBrat act, and he too frequently obliged. Yet there was also something fascinating about an athlete who could compete with such formidable physical control, even as his emotions were swinging so wildly out of control. Many people loathed him, but others delighted in the spectacle of a man expressing the frustrations that games-and life-so often present to us all. That such an anarchist spirit had invaded a notably staid sport-and could thrash anybody in it-was nothing short of an egalitarian revelation. In short, he was something new for a game that had been enrolled for far too long at the old school. He was a curiosity, a character, a popular totem.

And now he’s an autobiographer. Mr. McEnroe has long been a noted solipsist and noted dilettante, and so it seems unsurprising that after trying out life beyond Forest Hills as a rock ‘n’ roller, an art collector and a television game-show host, he’d get around to the most deliberate way of publicly expressing himself.

His is a strange book. Mr. McEnroe is a bold and thoughtful tennis broadcaster, and so here one might reasonably expect keen analysis of the inner game, coupled with uninhibited McEnroe discourses on players past and present. There’s some of that. It’s interesting to learn about aspects of player comportment, like the guilt-inducing stares players level at one another following obviously poor line calls, the significant effect crowd noises have on players, and the endless rehearsals that transformed Ivan Lendl from a stiff to a champion. One wishes for more intimate scenes like that of an aching McEnroe furtively glancing over at Mr. Lendl in the locker room before a U.S. Open final and noticing that Mr. Lendl, too, is in terrible physical pain. Watching Ilie Nastase first pitch a bellowing fit on the court in a match against the young McEnroe and then turn and blithely invite the startled Mac to dinner is hilarious and telling. Mr. McEnroe’s prolonged mourning for Bjorn Borg after the Swede retires from the sport feels genuinely poignant, while tennis legend Don Budge slipping Mac advice to help him defeat Mr. Lendl in a big match is the most exhilarating moment in the book.

Mr. McEnroe’s reflections on his own play, from the genesis of his signature cantilevered service form-it kept his frail back loose-to the fear of losing that Mac says was his primary motivation as an athlete, are likewise engaging. But the core of this memoir is not really tennis at all.

Instead, it finds a retired athlete using his book contract and his hired literary mentor (the respected novelist James Kaplan) to traverse the fragile and confusing reaches of his own midlife personality. Mr. McEnroe is often frank: He confesses that he could never abide family and friends as professional equals, that he hated it when his friend and doubles partner Peter Fleming found happiness with a woman, and that athletic failure turned him into a raging mess of self-doubt.

In its best moments, You Cannot Be Serious is reminiscent of the memoirs of another gifted, choleric, intelligent athlete, Ted Williams, whose My Turn at Bat is one of the finest examples of sporting autobiography.

What makes the book most compelling are its inadvertent admissions. Mr. McEnroe’s conflicting-and conflicted-thoughts about himself function on the page as an id/superego struggle as dynamic as his best matches with Mr. Borg. Mr. McEnroe is someone who clearly thinks hard about himself, but finds genuine reflection elusive. Here is a shameless fellow who boasts about living in “the best apartment in the most beautiful building in New York City,” and then just a few pages later refers to his “shyness.” Early in the book, he lets it be known that he is getting anger counseling. Later on, he says he remains reluctant to “give up [his] anger.” (Alas, we hear nothing more about these undoubtedly piquant sessions.) This is a hapless charmer who proposes to his second wife, the rocker Patty Smyth, by offering her a ring she already owns, and follows up her acceptance with “I don’t have to get you another ring, do I?” Then later, at Christmas, he gives her a “proper” ring. That’s the perpetual pattern here: jerk, not jerk. Mr. McEnroe expresses casual contempt for dentists and old people, but evinces a touching love for his own children.

There’s a fascinating disingenuousness at work, too, a coy dish/no-dish dynamic. Mr. McEnroe offers harsh general criticism of his first wife, the actress Tatum O’Neal, but never delivers any specific Tatum behavior he found distasteful. He mentions a brief relationship he had with “a very famous, very attractive older woman” who was eager to be seen out on the town with him. Mr. McEnroe, however, did not want to be glimpsed in public with her. He still doesn’t; he refrains from using her name in the book. Then he has us believe that the omission is “out of respect for her.”

Mr. McEnroe often describes himself in selfish, neurotic, nutty and narcissistic terms. In truth, his self-importance is, at times, astonishing, and no more so than when he muses about his future. Early in the book, Mr. McEnroe lets it be known that he never voted until the year 2000, when he was 41 years old-which makes it logical that he has all but decided that he was born to hold political office. And why is he considering having at the hustings? Because he wants to serve people? You cannot be serious! The entire platform for future campaigns offered by prospective candidate McEnroe holds that a popularity contest you can win even when 40 percent of the voters thoroughly detest you is just the new game for him.

The broader message of this volume would seem an important one in our sports-obsessed culture: that is, how crucial a certain kind of ego is for success in individual athletic competition, and how unsuitable that same approach can be in life after tournaments. As a tennis player, John McEnroe’s lush skills could usually compensate for his truculent behavior. Now that he is a graying MacDaddy reduced to whining about the difficulties of fame and his struggles with happiness, his odd book reminds us that some of the people we are most drawn to aren’t helped in the least by all that attention.

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World (Pantheon Books.)

McEnroe’s Anarchist Spirit, Compelling On Court and Off