The glory of tennis, personal torment on screen

  • The Showtime documentary “McEnroe” explores the upheaval in John McEnroe’s life and career in tennis.
  • The seven-time Grand Slam champion achieved major success and personal misery through boldness.
  • Even at his peak – four years when he was world number one – McEnroe remembers he didn’t “feel that great”.

John McEnroe was never satisfied.

The legendary tennis star, the subject of Barney Douglas’ upcoming Showtime documentary “McEnroe,” has always strived for perfection. While this acuity led him to unparalleled glory in tennis, it also resulted in a personal agony that plagued him, dating back to his childhood.

“One time his mother handed me a piece of paper and it was John’s report card from first or second grade,” McEnroe’s wife, singer-songwriter Patti Smith, said in the early minutes of the documentary. “John is too hard on himself. John wasn’t happy with A-.”

“That’s how it always was,” she adds.

John McEnroe scores in the 1980 Wimbledon final.

McEnroe takes a shot during the 1980 Wimbledon final.

Associated Press/Adam Stoltman

McEnroe underlined this fate during the documentary and emphasized the point during a question-and-answer session after the film’s premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. The now 63-year-old said he was brought up on the understanding that “you have to be tough, you have to keep that edge.” And you can’t leave it for a second [because] You have to keep your foot on the gas’ in order to achieve excellence.

Throughout his tennis career, that mindset has often manifested itself in the aggressive outbursts known on the court. McEnroe would frequently scold referees, wreck equipment, and publicly lose his temper over the course of a given match.

In hindsight, it is clear to McEnroe that “a lot of the time I was getting angry, I was hiding something completely different.”

John McEnroe kicks a TV camera during a match.

McEnroe kicks a TV camera during a match.

AP Photo / Amy Sancita

“When I got older, it was like guys don’t cry — you have to be tough, you just have to smile and put up with some sort of thing,” McEnroe said after the premiere. “Instead of showing tears, I would show anger. So I became this crazy angry man.”

Only once throughout the entire film did McEnroe openly admit that “the enormous pressure I put on myself – this burden” was worth it; When he beat Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981.

“That moment was worth it,” he said.

John McEnroe

McEnroe celebrated his victory over Bjorn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon final.


Throughout the rest of his illustrious career, McEnroe struggled to find satisfaction with his work body. This struggle intensified after Borg, whom McEnroe describes as his idol as well as his “biggest competitor”, retired from tennis at just 26, right after their encounter in the 1981 US Open final.

The Swede’s early departure from the sport gave McEnroe a clear path to dominance in the following years. But even when he achieved well-intentioned greatness on the tennis court – winning seven majors over five years and being number one in the standings 14 times in that span – he didn’t make it.

“When you make your way to the top, it’s easier and more fun than if you get to it looking over your shoulder and trying to stay there,” McEnroe explained in the film. “I felt a kind of emptiness.”

John McEnroe.


Photograph: Mark Baker/Reuters

“I had the best year in tennis history with the men’s team in 1984,” he added. “I was No. 1 in the world for four years. I’m the greatest player ever played. Why shouldn’t I be surprised?”

A difficult period in his personal and professional life – including his divorce from his first wife and his struggle with addiction – was punctuated by the death of his dear friend and fellow tennis star, Vitas Girolaitis. McEnroe said his New York colleague’s death “felt like a huge turning point in my life” that prompted McEnroe to reassess his emotional situation.

He sought help from mental health experts — “37 psychologists and psychiatrists,” as he put it in the film — in order to address his suffering. Meeting and falling in love with Smith allowed McEnroe to “be me” and to feel supported and grown.

John McEnroe and his wife, singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

McEnroe (left) and his wife, singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

Photograph: Danny Molochuk/Reuters

“Patty definitely threw me at a time when I was lost,” McEnroe said. “But it’s not like I’m perfect now. It’s not like I’m not using myself now and it’s not like I wouldn’t have been a better dad or any number of things. But at the same time, I feel like everything – in everything, veered into a direction I was allowed to be.”

“I’m not that person,” he added during the hearing that followed the premiere, referring to his behavior in court. “I hope people see nothing else that there is more than meets the eye – for me and more for a lot of people.”

Even then, McEnroe would never go so far as to say he was “at peace”.

John McEnroe.


Photograph: Pierre Elboy/Reuters

“I don’t think I want to be completely at peace,” he said in the final moments of the film. “I don’t even know what that looks like. Does that exist?”

The movie “McEnroe” begins


Friday 2 September on Showtime. The documentary arrives in UK theaters on Friday 15 July.

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