But Seriously … John McEnroe is back and ready to talk

A book review by Michael Dickens.

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Dickens

Michael Dickens

During this month’s U.S. Open fortnight, I began reading But Seriously by John McEnroe. It’s honest, it’s funny, it’s McEnroe being McEnroe. What’s not to like, right?

Well, it’s been fifteen years since McEnroe’s international No. 1 bestseller, You Cannot Be Serious, and in reading his new memoir, it’s clear that the elder statesman of tennis is ready to talk, again.

McEnroe, who is coaching Team World this weekend in the inaugural Laver Cup competition in Prague, has alway been seen as someone who is both controversial and beloved. In But Seriously, published earlier this summer in the U.S. by Little, Brown and Company (and published simultaneously in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicholson), the tennis Hall of Famer and commentator for ESPN and other American and European networks “confronts his demons and reveals his struggle to reinvent himself from champion and tennis legend to father, broadcaster and author.”

As London-based The Guardian wrote in its review of But Seriously, the book reveals McEnroe’s “difficulty of living a mature life in the shadow of youthful achievement.”

As a tennis player, McEnroe made his mark as a champion during the closing decades of the 20th century. He was always outspoken with his views about tennis and its players during his playing career. Now, he’s combined the world of 21st century sport and celebrity through both his commentary and in his writing, too.

In But Seriously, among the many questions and themes which McEnroe tackles are: “Who are the game’s winners and losers? What’s it like playing guitar onstage with the Rolling Stones, hitting balls with today’s greats, confronting his former on-court nemeses, getting scammed by an international art dealer, and raising a big family while balancing McEnroe-sized expectations?”

But Seriously is richly personal and McEnroe is brutally honest in what he shares with us.

“In 2002, when I ended my first book, I was just beginning the process of working out what I was going to do with my life now that I could no longer compete at the highest level as an athlete,” writes McEnroe. “Would it still be tennis – playing on the seniors tour, commentating, a bit of coaching – or something else, like art-dealing, or TV, or film? Or something totally different? I had no idea which way my life was heading, but I knew if I wanted to have new experiences that would fire me up the same way being on a tennis court had done, I was going to have to take some major risks.

“I’ve always needed to feel challenged, to push myself, and I’ve tried out a lot of different stuff in the intervening fifteen years. Some of it’s worked and some of it hasn’t, but in life as in sports, it’s often the big defeats that teach you the most. If you’re too scared of falling flat on your ass, you’ll never get out of your chair. And I hope that what I’ve learned from some of the more laughable calamities I’m going to describe for you on the pages that follow has given me a new perspective on the successes that came before.”

Here are some candid excerpts from But Seriously:

On art:

“I love art and as a result know a little more about it than the average person, but I’m no expert. What I would say is that when you look at some of the biggest artists in the world right now, people like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons – what’s keeping them a step ahead of the competition isn’t only their art, it’s the fact that each and every  one of them is a brilliant businessman who knows how to maximize the return from their talents.” …

“Collecting art has become a lot more complicated over the years. When I first started buying, I did it on the basis of acquiring things that I liked – that I would want to put on the walls in my house. I thought that was my biggest strength – that I didn’t have some kind of dogma I’d learned from studying art history holding me back. With hindsight, that probably hurt me quite a bit, financially. If I had listened to people that knew, who told me to buy certain things at certain times, pieces that I wasn’t sure about, I would have done even better. I started to do that after a while, so I wasn’t a total moron, but I’d still get stubborn sometimes. And that would cost me.”

On commentary:

“Even while I was pursing other career options and interests at the start of the 2000s, I had no intention of turning my back on my work as a commentator. For me, being in the commentary box is an opportunity to have a voice in the game. It won’t surprise you that I’ve got a few things to say  – on doubles, on the lack of serve-volleyers in today’s game, on wooden racquets, on let-cord serves, on gamesmanship, on … Do you want me to go on? As self-appointed ‘Commissioner of Tennis,’ it is my duty to do that.

“At first I would get upset when people told me I was a better TV commentator than I was a player – it took me years to realize they were paying me a compliment. I started behind the microphone back in 1992, when the dominant style of commentary was incredibly dry and boring (or at least, I thought it was). My timing was good, because tennis on TV was crying out for a change of style.” …

“When it comes to my commentating style, I try to be honest, though I’m always respectful – I hope – of the players I’m watching. Whatever the level of tennis, I know it takes guts to be out there. I don’t make it about me, either, so I won’t speculate about what I would be going through if I was on court, or compare what’s happening on court with what I might have gone through in a similar match. I won’t reminisce what it was like for me, say, in my final of 1980 – whatever, because half of the viewers weren’t even born then. And anyway, who cares? Viewers want some insight into what they’re watching, not some old fart going on about what he might have gone through thirty years before with his wooden racket. Which isn’t to say I don’t think what I did with that Dunlop wasn’t pretty cool at times. I just don’t want to keep reminding people.”

On music:

“As a teenager, I remember sitting up and taking notice when the girls started screaming for Björn Borg in his first year at Wimbledon. It was like something out of Beatlemania. I began to take the sport I was playing a bit more seriously.

“Once I started going to Europe to play Wimbledon every year I went from being the kid who played the sissy sport to someone who was cool enough to hang out with the British rock stars who’d been my heroes. That was one of my greatest perks when it came to success on the tennis court. I’d never imagined rock guys like Robert Plant being into Wimbledon – that was the opposite of what I would’ve expected. But the Stones, Zeppelin, all these bands I’d grown up loving – even Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath – were telling me, ‘You’re great,’ or ‘Wow, I really respect what you’re doing.’ I was still only a kid at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘Holy sh–t! This is amazing!'”

On artists:

“I have a special appreciation for artists – and stand-up comedians – because, like tennis players, they’re out there by themselves. That’s part of the reason I love art, because I realize artists have to expose themselves to criticism, just like we do on a court. There’s always the potential to embarrass ourselves, and we have to learn how to deal with that. For tennis players, it’s not about who hits the tennis ball better, because a lot of people can do that. It’s about getting over jet lag, getting over the nerves, getting over fear of failure – and actual failure – among other things, because very rarely do things go the way you want them to.

“For artists, there’s this constant process of appraisal and rejection, especially with abstract or conceptual art – ‘What the hell is that? It sucks. My kid could do better.’ That sort of stuff. So I respect them for putting themselves through that, I admire them for having the guts to put themselves and their work on the line, and as a result I’m interested in them as characters.”

On Roger Federer:

“In the summer of 2003, I’d been back in the commentary booth at Wimbledon. No one knew it at the time – least of all me – but as I watched Roger Federer win the first of his seven Wimbledon titles, I was watching the dawn of a new era. What’s incredible – with hindsight, and given who he has become – is that back then no one was totally convinced about Federer. Sure, people had been talking about him for a while as the next big thing, especially after he’d beaten Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. But by this time he was almost twenty-two, and in the Slams he hadn’t gotten further than the quarters, so there was a question mark over whether he was ever going to get it together to win one Grand Slam title, let alone eighteen (at the time of this writing!). No one was jumping up and down shouting, ‘This guy is going to be the greatest player, just you watch!’ Even so, I believe the expectation of what he might be capable of was getting to him. Yes, I know, Roger Federer.”

On winning his first Grand Slam:

“Winning your first Slam is always a game-changer for a player – both in your own head and in the way other people see you. Suddenly you’re on another level from the other pros, a potential title contender wherever you go. My own first Grand Slam title win was at the U.S. Open in 1979. I was twenty years old, and up against my fellow New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis, who was four years older than me. This was the guy who had taken me under his wing and become my friend and mentor, and I was feeling uncomfortable about having to play him now in what was the biggest match of either of our careers. The crazy thing was, here we were, two guys from Queens, and we actually got booed by the New York crowd. Why? They’d wanted a Connors-Borg final and we’d gone and spoiled it for them. Too bad. I didn’t care. I’d had a great run in the tournament, I’d beaten Connors easily to get to the final, so I felt like it was my year.

“On the day, I was able to put my relationship with Vitas aside and ended up beating him in straight sets. Now I had taken my place at the top along with Connors and Borg. Vitas could’ve held that against me, but he never did. In fact, he even took me out with him on the night I beat him. Straight after the final he asked me, ‘What are you doing later?’ I replied, ‘What are you doing?’ Because I knew whatever he was doing was going to be a hell of a lot better than what I might have planned! I guess there’s more than one way to be a winner.”

On coaching Milos Raonic:

“When Milos’s people first approached me a few weeks before the French Open to ask if I could work with him over the grass-court season, the timing was perfect for me. From the moment ex-Grand Slam champions started to do the coaching thing part-time on a more advisory basis, I knew that it was something I could do, and at this point I was primed for a new challenge. To me, Milos was clearly one of the five or six players with the potential to win at Wimbledon that year – I wouldn’t have taken the job on otherwise – and he also had a clear idea of what he wanted from me, which was to help him express himself a bit more in the course of a match, and translate his undoubted physical power (he’s 6’5” and has one of the deadliest serves in the game) into a more commanding presence on the court.

“Milos thinks about the game a lot, and has a completely different temperament to me. In a way, that’s why we’re a good fit: we’re like the Odd Couple – I’m Walter Matthau, he’s Jack Lemmon. If I was going to be coaching someone people would think I’d have more in common with, Nick Kyrgios would be the obvious choice, but I’m not sure if two nutcases together would work so well.”

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.