McEnroe review tennis’s original bad boy takes stock

The rock’n’roll bad boy of tennis is watchably if uncritically celebrated in this documentary portrait by Barney Douglas; it is a film that leaves unsolved the riddle, if it is a riddle, of John McEnroe’s confrontational on-court personality. (Ever since my own teen years, I have been waiting for an interviewer to ask John if he ever saw an opponent’s ball called out when it was obviously in, and was tempted to scream with perfectionist rage against his own interests.) McEnroe is an engaging raconteur: funny and disarming about his excessive drug use – specifically cocaine – under the influence of Dionysiac sensualist and Studio 54-habitué Vitas Gerulaitis back in the good old days of the wooden racket and the disco glitter ball. It surely exacerbated his alarming temper. “People today use performance-enhancing drugs,” says McEnroe. “We used performance-detracting drugs.” And as for drugs not being good for you, McEnroe cheerfully says: “They were good so you can appreciate your life a little more …” McEnroe can still summon a snarl when he remembers being told off by the grumpy Wimbledon authorities for not showing up to the champions’ dinner and doing the traditional dance with ladies’ champ Martina Navratilova: “Big fucking deal!”

But the awful truth is that the good times were when he was on the way up, culminating in the mythic encounters with Björn Borg. Being and staying at the top was lonely and stressed; McEnroe’s invincibility inevitably cracked as the 80s wore on, and the road back down was unpleasant, complicated by his disintegrating marriage to Tatum O’Neal and his complex relationship with his father-slash-manager John McEnroe (who is shown reprimanding an interviewer for calling him “John McEnroe Sr” – he is just “John McEnroe”, he says; his son is “John McEnroe Jr”). John had to fire his dad as his manager because, he said, he wanted a real relationship with him. Doubtless that’s true for the most part, although I wonder if a part of both men knew that he was firing his dad because he thought a professional manager could reverse his slump.

I would have liked to hear more about McEnroe’s participation in seniors’ tournaments and his tremendous commentating career for the BBC. And I wondered if anyone was going to compare him with that other celebrity bad boy New Yorker and uber-winner with a formidable dad: Donald Trump. And what about his legacy? Did he normalise aggressive behaviour in tennis? It doesn’t look like it; perhaps the group dynamic is that there is only ever room for one superbrat, and now it seems to be Nick Kyrgios. The film shows McEnroe pacing the night-time streets of New York: it’s as good a metaphor as any for his restless personality.