The appeal of John McEnroe, then and now
John JeansonneJohn Jeansonne
Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since
It was New York Post columnist Maury Allen, preparing a John McEnroe yarn on a day in the early 1980s at the U.S. Open when McEnroe had not played and did not appear to offer any news value, who wisely counseled, "Kid, you could write about John McEnroe every day and not be wrong."
Here it is, roughly 30 years later, and Allen (who died last year) still has a point. Both a new HBO special and just-released book, pegged on McEnroe's rivalry and memorable 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg, draw their oxygen from the mad genius that is McEnroe. Wherever the line can be drawn between fascinating and infuriating, McEnroe long ago began crisscrossing it, even as he provided -- and continues to provide -- a psychoanalysis of himself that lends a vivid layer to tennis.
"I still wanted to play other sports," McEnroe says of his high school days in HBO's "McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice," a treatment of the contrasting tennis styles and personalities of the two champions. "I'd like to tell you I'd be a better soccer player. I got benched a couple of times because of these sort of outbursts. I'd go to the coach, 'Why are we doing this?' and he'd sit me down because, how dare I rebel against authority? The hell with it. I don't want to deal with coaches, I don't want to deal with other players, I didn't want to deal with anyone if they're going to be on a different wave length than me. And that pushed me more toward tennis a little bit."
In "High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivarly," author Stephen Tignor writes that Borg was the "first matinee idol" and the "first pure product of professionalism" in tennis, while McEnroe "would never match the breadth of Borg's endorsement power. But from an evolutionary standpoint, [McEnroe] was already a step ahead in the marketing race by 1980, and it was his controversial image that had put him there."
Borg's dominance and admirable self-control in the face of competitive pressure somehow wasn't as captivating, ultimately, as McEnroe constantly teetering over the abyss of lunacy. "If tennis wanted to appeal to the masses and join the mainstream the way it said it did," Tignor writes, "it would have to take a person like John McEnroe as he was. It was hypocritical to act as if his rage wasn't part of his appeal."
In the HBO piece and in the book, Borg, for all his talent and accomplishments in the sport, comes across as another modern superstar jock: Single-minded, supremely confident, encased in a entourage of marketers, plenty available to all his female fans. McEnroe, meanwhile, puts on full display his incongruous mixture of ego and insecurity, anger and humor. Plus, an endearing honesty.
He isn't shy about having idolized Borg, to the point that he rarely misbehaved when playing the Swedish star. "I'd never seen a tennis player like that," McEnroe recalls to HBO in his first up-close look of Borg. "He had this certain kind of Viking god look....I was desperate to have hair like Bjorn [but mine] sort of went out like Bozo the Clown."
What Tignor calls "the War of 18-16," referencing the fourth-set tiebreaker score of that riveting 1980 Wimbledon final eventually won by Borg in five sets, is properly a pivot point for the TV special and the book. Probably no championship match compared to it at Wimbledon, at least until Rafael Nadal's compelling five-set victory over Roger Federer in 2008. It was a "barometer," in performance and visibility, Tignor writes, of tennis' long advance from stuffy aristocratic beginnings to a full-fledged sporting spectacle. And crass commercialism.
So much of tennis' big-time arrival was a function of McEnroe's tortured soul, his impatience with absolutely any imperfections -- not the least, his own. The twist is that, having reached the top, McEnroe began to feel lost after driving Borg into sudden retirement at 25. And it was Borg, not the apparently crazed McEnroe, who suffered through bankruptcy, two divorces and an overdose of sleeping pills, at one point putting his five Wimbledon championship trophies up for sale.
"John was calling me: 'What the hell are you doing?' " Borg says in the HBO special.
"I just don't like to see him looking bad," McEnroe recalls thinking. "People taking pot shots at him."
Then, in the next breath, with a sly smile: "But if you're going to sell them, make sure I get the 1980 one."
There it is again: You could write about John McEnroe every day and not be wrong.