Tennis glory, personal torment exposed


  • The Showtime documentary, “McEnroe”, presents the tumult of the life and tennis career of John McEnroe.
  • The seven-time Grand Slam champion has found great success and personal misery thanks to his relentlessness.
  • Even in his prime – four years as world No. 1 – McEnroe recalls he “didn’t feel so good”.

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 that intensity led him to unprecedented glory in tennis, it also brought personal turmoil that plagued him, dating back to his childhood.


“Once, his mother has held me a piece of paper and it was John’s school bulletin in the first or second year,” said Mcenroe’s wife, the singer-songwriter Patty Smyth, in the first minutes of the documentary. “John is too hard on himself. John wasn’t happy with his A-.”

“That’s how he’s always been,” she adds.

John McEnroe hits a shot in the 1980 Wimbledon final.

McEnroe hits a shot in the 1980 Wimbledon final.

AP Photo/Adam Stoltman

McEnroe confirms this throughout the documentary and underscored the point during a Q&A after the film’s premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. The 63-year-old said he was raised with understanding that “you gotta be intense, you gotta keep that edge, and you can’t let it go for a second [because] you have to keep your foot on the accelerator” to achieve excellence.

Throughout his tennis career, this mentality often manifested itself in notoriously aggressive outbursts on the court. McEnroe would frequently berate referees, break equipment, and publicly lose his temper during any given game.

Looking back, it’s obvious to McEnroe that “most of the time I was getting angry, I was hiding something completely different.”

John McEnroe kicks a television camera during a match.

McEnroe kicks a TV camera during a game.

AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

“When I was growing up, it was like guys didn’t cry — you gotta be tough, you just gotta smile and put up with this stuff,” McEnroe said after the premiere. “And so instead of showing tears, I was showing anger. So I became this guy who was this mad, angry guy.”

Only once throughout the film did McEnroe explicitly acknowledge that “the incredible pressure I put on myself – this burden” was worth it; when he beat Björn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981.

“That moment was worth it,” he said.

John McEnroe

McEnroe celebrates his victory over Björn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final.


Throughout his illustrious career, however, McEnroe struggled to be content with his handiwork. This struggle intensified after Borg, which McENROE describes as his idol as well as his “biggest rival”, withdrew from tennis at only 26 years old, immediately after their meeting during the final of the US Open of 1981 .

The Swede’s early departure from the sport gave McEnroe a clear path to dominance in the years to come. But even once he has reached a real grandeur on the tennis court – winning seven Grand Chelem tournaments in five years and ranking n ° 1 14 times during this period – he was still not satisfied.

“When you progress to the top, it’s easier and more fun than when you get there and look over your shoulder and try to stay there,” McEnroe explained in the film. “It was kind of empty.”

John McEnroe.


REUTERS/Mark Baker

“I had the best year in the history of men’s tennis in 1984,” he added. “I was world No. 1 for four years. I’m the greatest player that has ever played. Why isn’t that so amazing?”

A difficult period in his personal and professional life – including a divorce with his first wife and dependence problems – was punctuated by the death of his good friend and colleague star of tennis, Vitas Gerulaitis. McEnroe said the death of his fellow New Yorker “felt like a huge turning point in my life” which prompted McEnroe to reassess his emotional situation.

He sought the help of mental health experts – “37 psychologists and psychiatrists”, as he put it in the film – in order to solve his problems. Meeting and falling in love with Smyth allowed McEnroe to “be myself”, to feel supported and to grow.

John McEnroe and his wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth.

McEnroe (left) and his wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth.

REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

“Patty definitely caught me at a time when I was lost,” McEnroe said. “But it’s not like I’m perfect now. It’s not like I don’t screw up now and it’s not like I couldn’t have been a better dad or a number of things. But at the same time, I feel like everything — overall, I veered a lot more in a direction that allowed me to be myself.”

“I’m not that person,” he added during the post-premiere panel, referring to his behavior on the pitch. “I hope people at least see that there’s more – more for me and more for a lot of people – than meets the eye.”

Even still, McEnroe would never go so far as to say he’s “at peace.”

John McEnroe.


REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

“I don’t think I would want to be at total peace,” he said in the film’s final moments. “I don’t even know what it does. Does that exist ?

“McEnroe” begins


Friday September 2 on Showtime. The documentary will hit theaters in the UK on Friday July 15.