- Showtime’s documentary, “McEnroe,” showcases the tumult of John McEnroe’s life and tennis career.
- The seven-time Grand Slam champion found great success and personal misery through relentlessness.
- Even at his peak — four years as world No. 1 — McEnroe recalls that he didn’t “feel that great.”
John McEnroe was never satisfied.
The legendary tennis superstar, who is the subject of director Barney Douglas’ upcoming Showtime documentary “McEnroe,” has always relentlessly pursued perfection. And while this intensity led him to unparalleled glory in tennis, it also yielded personal torment that plagued him, dating all the way back to his childhood.
“One time his mom handed me a piece of paper and it was John’s report card from first or second grade,” McEnroe’s wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth, says in the opening minutes of the documentary. “John is too hard on himself. John wasn’t satisfied with his A-.”
“This is how he’s always been,” she adds.
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 gotta be intense, you gotta keep that edge, and you can’t let it off for a second [because] you gotta keep your foot on the gas” in order to achieve excellence.
Throughout his tennis career, that mentality often manifested in notoriously aggressive outbursts on the court. McEnroe would frequently berate umpires, smash equipment, and publicly lose his temper over the course of a given match.
In hindsight, it’s apparent to McEnroe that “a lot of the times I was getting angry, I was hiding something completely different.”
“When I grew up, it was like, guys don’t cry — you gotta be tough, you gotta just grin and bear it kind of stuff,” McEnroe said after the premiere. “And so instead of showing tears, I would show anger. So I became this guy that 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 worthwhile; when he beat Björn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981.
“That moment was worth it,” he said.
Throughout the rest of his illustrious career, however, McEnroe struggled to find contentment with his body of work. That struggle intensified after Borg, whom McEnroe describes as his idol as well as his “greatest rival,” retired from tennis at just 26 years old, immediately following their meeting in the 1981 US Open final.
The Swede’s early departure from the sport gave McEnroe a clear path to dominance in the years to follow. But even once he achieved bona fide greatness on the tennis court — winning seven Grand Slams over five years and earning a No. 1 ranking 14 times in that span — he still wasn’t content.
“When you’re working your way to the top, it’s easier and more fun than when you get there and you’re looking over your shoulder and trying to stay there,” McEnroe explained in the film. “It felt sort of empty.”
“I had the best year in the history of tennis on the men’s side in 1984,” he added. “I was No. 1 in the world for four years. I’m the greatest player that’s ever played. Why does it not feel that amazing?”
A tough stretch in his personal and professional life — including a divorce from his first wife and struggles with addiction — was punctuated by the death of his good friend and fellow tennis star, Vitas Gerulaitis. McEnroe said the fellow New Yorker’s death “felt like a huge turning point in my life” that spurred McEnroe to reevaluate his emotional situation.
He sought help from mental health experts — “37 psychologists and psychiatrists,” as he said in the film — in order to address his struggles. Meeting and falling in love with Smyth allowed McEnroe “to be myself,” feel supported, and grow.
“Patty certainly caught me at a time where I was lost,” McEnroe said. “But it’s not like I’m perfect now. It’s not like I don’t fuck up now and it’s not like I couldn’t have been a better dad or any number of things. But at the same time, I feel like all -in-all I veered into much more of a direction that allowed me to be me.”
“I’m not that person,” he added during the post-premiere panel, referring to his on-court behavior. “I hope if nothing else that people see that there’s more to it — more to me and more to a lot of people — than meets the eye.”
Even still, McEnroe would never go so far as to say he’s “at peace.”
“I don’t think I’d want to be at total peace,” he said in the final moments of the film. “I don’t even know what that feels like. Does that exist?”
Friday, September 2 on Showtime. The documentary hits theaters in the UK on Friday, July 15.