John McEnroe’s timing is still spot on – it’s the first week of Wimbledon and he’s just released his latest book. He spoke to Hannah Stephenson.
He used to be known for his on-court rages, coining the phrase ‘You cannot be serious!’ at a Wimbledon umpire in 1981, a line which became as connected to him as his numerous tennis victories.
More than 35 years on, John McEnroe, three-times Wimbledon singles champion and respected BBC commentator, is still courting controversy. First he said Andy Murray was a ‘distant fourth’ behind the three main rivals in his career, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and most recently declared Serena Williams would be ranked ‘700 in the world’ if she had to play on the men’s circuit. Yep, he’s still causing a stir but he’s long since learned to volley away criticism and serve up some self-deprecating humour.
“I’ve mellowed,” he says. “I’m not mellow compared to the average person, but I’m certainly a lot mellower than I was.”
The former tennis ace is promoting his second autobiography, But Seriously.
His first, 2003’s Serious, charted his childhood and early days of tennis – which progressed to seven Grand Slam singles titles, the ‘Superbrat’ reputation and a tumultuous eight-year marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal, marred by her addiction battles, his hot temper and a prolonged custody battle for their three children.
Now, the follow-up deals with his struggles to reinvent himself as a father, art collector, musician and broadcaster, his relationship with second wife Patty Smyth, and his efforts to be the best father he could to his six children (he had another two daughters and a step-daughter with Patty). By his own admission, he’s been a strict disciplinarian which hasn’t always gone down well. “I’m sure if you asked some of my kids, they wouldn’t say I’m mellow. If you don’t mature and mellow and have a better overview and perspective of things at 58, you are going to be a kid your entire life.” He met Patty at a party in 1993, when he was going through his divorce and was at a low ebb. “If there’s any credit for the faint possibility that I might have become a slightly better, less selfish person over the last 20 years or so, the bulk of that should go to Patty,” he writes. After retiring from professional tennis in 1992, at first, he admits he filled the space by smoking more marijuana than he should have done. “I was going through a difficult time in my personal life. Sometimes it’s hard to look in the mirror and face up to things,” he says now. He never pushed his children into tennis. However, he recalls how when he’d watch them at sports events, other parents expected him to react. “Sometimes I’d sit there and not say anything, while parents are expecting me to explode. Then after the event, my kids would say, ‘God, you didn’t say anything!’ You can’t win. As for fame, he reflects: “If a whole day passed when someone didn’t say, ‘You cannot be serious!’ to me, that would be amazing. My feelings about that are a strange juxtaposition of embarrassment and pride: On the one hand, that this is what I represent to people; on the other, at least I represent something.
“Ultimately, pride wins out.”
But Seriously by John McEnroe, £20, is published by Orion.