John McEnroe On Life, Tennis And Overcoming An 'Addiction' To Crossing The Line

Download Audio
"But Seriously," by John McEnroe. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"But Seriously," by John McEnroe. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Tennis legend John McEnroe made news this week when he told NPR that if Serena Williams "played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world." McEnroe's fans won't be surprised by his strong opinions.

But in his new book, "But Seriously," a more nuanced McEnroe emerges: a calmer, more introspective and at times sentimental version of his still-opinionated self. The book is full of tennis lore, but also a look at his other interests and passions — from art to music to family.

McEnroe joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about his life on and off the court.

Interview Highlights

On keeping his cool as a player and a commentator

"It's like being a backseat driver, I guess, being a commentator. You can sort of sit back and say what everyone did wrong. Like, ‘You should have done this here!’ But when you have a lot less time to think about it, and it's a lot hotter and there's split-second decisions, and you could be exposed, and maybe you're not playing so well, and you think people are cheating you, and people are booing you and calling you a bum, ‘You jerk,’ for me it was virtually impossible to keep cool. And where I grew up in New York, if someone called you a name you'd sort of call them a name back. And people were taken aback by that, particularly in England, when I first went there.

"I tried to snap my racket under my foot, which they didn't seem to like a whole lot. But I thought it was funny. I actually kicked my racket to the sideline just to see what the reaction was. And it's the first time I remember ever being booed on a tennis court. It's not that I liked it. I'm not gonna sit here and say I like being booed. But I liked the energy that it brought. And it brought an intensity."

On curbing his temper

"Yeah, I think I would compare it to someone who's a cigarette smoker. I mean the addiction becomes — you don't like it. I mean you might convince yourself, at one stage, maybe some of these kids, 'Oh I'll never get addicted to cigarette smoke. It's just something I'll do briefly. It looks cool.' And for a while as far as what I was doing on the court, when I started questioning line calls and going a bit crazy, I did feel most of the time it helped me. It did hurt me in a couple of big matches. But for the most part, that's what I brought to the table — that will, the drive. It wasn't like they'd look at me and go, 'Look there's a guy who's 6 foot 5 inches and got a lot of big muscles.' I mean I wasn't gonna blow people off the court. Later on, particularly when I had kids, I realized that some of the things I was saying, I was going over the line."

"For a while as far as what I was doing on the court, when I started questioning line calls and going a bit crazy, I did feel most of the time it helped me. It did hurt me in a couple of big matches."

John McEnroe

On his response to Margaret Court's comments about gay tennis players

"You gotta have a sense of humor with it because obviously, some of these topics such as this one, people have very strong feelings and it's extremely serious to them. But I'm actually the 'self-appointed commissioner of tennis' when I do those Eurosport things. So I have fun doing it. But actually I've gotten more response from that than anything I think I've said or done in 10 years. Mainly very supportive and appreciative. I didn't expect it."

On his celebrity friends like Robert De Niro and Roger Waters

"When you mentioned a couple of those names, I literally got goosebumps. And the answer to your question is, it's still unbelievable. To me it's, moving forward, how will I handle it in a way that doesn't keep happening? I can't believe my good fortune in that way. I'm sitting there and Paul McCartney says, 'Oh man, I love your commentary at Wimbledon.' Paul McCartney? I mean you can't even believe what you're seeing there. And it's inspiring."

On his goal to become the "Rolling Stones of the seniors tour"

"I've been doing that for years. You know, 58 for a tennis player is about 75 for a rock star, if I’m not mistaken."

Book Excerpt: 'But Seriously'

By John McEnroe

5:14 a.m., June 8, 2015, Paris

I wake up in a sweat. My pillow’s damp and I don’t know what day it is. Did I miss the match? Am I playing later? For a few seconds I don’t even know where I am. Then it hits me. I already played the match. I already lost it. Jesus, it was back in 1984 and I’m still haunted by it. Even now, more than thirty years later, I’m as hot as I was in the fifth set and I can taste the red clay on my tongue.

It was a match I should have won and it turned into the worst loss of my career. I’d been playing my best tennis ever, I was undefeated that year, and although serve-volleying wasn’t the obvious way of winning the French Open on the slow clay of Roland-Garros, I was playing Ivan Lendl. Ivan had so far lost four Grand Slam finals in a row and I sure as hell wasn’t planning on breaking that run for him by handing him his first title. In fact, I was planning on beating his ass.

At first, that’s exactly what I did. After two sets, I was up 6-3, 6–2, and I was all over him. The crowd was behind me, “Allez, John! Allez.” As far as I was concerned, I was in control, I had this in the bag. But as it got hotter, the crowd started losing focus.


Then my friend Ahmad Rashad—a great former wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings—who was there rooting for me, got up to leave. “You got this, Mac! I’ll see ya back at the hotel.” Shit, the last thing I needed was a jinx. It’s an unwritten rule in sports that friends and family don’t leave until the match is over. Not that I’m blaming Ahmad for the loss, but that’s when little doubts started creeping in for the first time. I still thought I was going to win but those negative thoughts began to get to me.

Everything suddenly became a distraction. At the next changeover I couldn’t help but notice the noise from a nearby cameraman’s headphones. Someone was obviously trying to get this guy’s attention. The third set had barely started when, I swear to God, I heard something like, “When the match is over, we’ll focus on John and then stick with him through the trophy ceremony. He’s got this, so make sure he’s in the shot.” In English. In Paris. It was the American TV cameraman listening to the producer’s instructions in his headphones, but they
were so loud I could hear them too. Unbelievable! Now I was feeling even more jinxed. So I walked to the guy’s chair, grabbed the headphones off his head, and screamed as loud as I possibly could into his mic: “SHU T UP!” I knew immediately that my frustration wasn’t a good enough reason for me to do this, and while I didn’t care about the cameraman, I did care about the crowd. I needed them. But they sure as hell didn’t need me and my bad attitude. That was the point when they turned on me. They just wanted the match to go on—who could blame them—and what better way than to change corners and root for my opponent? After all, that French crowd was known for being fickle. I tried to block them out. I was still the best tennis player in the world and there was no way I was losing to Lendl.

I failed to break his serve at 2–2 in the third, despite him being 0–40 down. No matter. I still had my mojo. I was still convinced I could win this thing, all I needed to do was stick with my game plan: serve-volley, and break him—as soon as possible. Except he won the set 6–4.

I had to pull it together. I reminded myself I was two sets to one up; better than him. “Don’t panic. Don’t let the heat get to you. Don’t let these people get to you. They know I can beat this guy. I know I can beat this guy.” But it didn’t happen.

In the fourth set, I found myself serving, 4–3, 40–30. I’d broken him and was five points from the title. I really thought I could close it out. But in the heat of the moment, my normally soft hands pushed my first volley a fraction beyond the baseline. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, the set was over. He’d won it 7–5 and we were now two sets all.

In the fifth, the heat became stifling, Lendl’s confidence ignited, and the crowd got behind him. My legs felt more and more like Jell-O and, with my strength draining fast from my body, I lost my grip on the match. I tried and tried, but in the end, I was the one walking to the net with my head down, while Lendl was smiling goofily, his hands up, jumping around as he
sealed his first Slam title.

Does it surprise you that I still have that nightmare, all these years later? It wakes me up every year when I’m in Paris, commentating on the French Open—at least once, usually twice. But every time I have this bad dream, it’s a little easier to get over. Maybe I’ve gained some perspective on this dark moment in my career. Maybe time does heal all wounds. But any way you look at it, this was the closest I ever came to winning this clay-court major.

Thankfully I’ve had a couple of small chances for revenge since then (although let me be clear: nothing could EVER EVER EVER make up for what happened that day). The first was in October 2010. And it was in Paris. That morning when I awoke I didn’t have to have the nightmare, because after eighteen years, I was finally going to be playing Ivan Lendl again. For me, it was a big deal to meet him on court once more. My chance to get one back on him. I’m not kidding. That 1984 Roland-Garros defeat still burned my guts. We’d come up against each other on a number of occasions since then; sometimes I’d won, mostly I’d lost. We’d last played each other on the main tour back in 1992 in Toronto, but by then we were both on the downward slope of our careers, so it hadn’t felt like a proper opportunity for payback. Once I started on the seniors circuit, there was a long period where Ivan was kept off the court because of a clause in an insurance policy that looked like it would stop him from ever playing again. But somehow that got ironed out. So now, in the city where I’d suffered the most painful loss of my career, I finally had the chance to lay that ghost to rest—the one that had been haunting me for twenty-six years.

Excerpted from BUT SERIOUSLY © 2017 by John McEnroe, Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company.

Correction: A previous version of the audio atop this post stated that McEnroe's seven Grand Slam titles are a men's record. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on June 27, 2017.

This segment aired on June 27, 2017.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live