For those lucky enough to have watched John McEnroe play tennis in the 1980s, this documentary by UK filmmaker Barney Douglas goes some way to explaining the person behind the famously explosive on-court antics.
For those who weren’t, it provides both a timely counterpoint to the reams of column space devoted to the antics of Australia’s own ‘superbrat’ of the court and a glimpse into what is widely considered to have been a golden era of tennis.
The film takes the viewer on a journey through McEnroe’s childhood, tennis career and personal life. Part-documentary, partbiopic, it is peppered with interviews with McEnroe himself, his brother Patrick, his current wife Patty Smyth and some of his children. Importantly, it gives the viewer an insight into the relationship between McEnroe and his domineering, perfectionist, lawyer father who, in becoming the 18 year old’s manager, deprived him of a father precisely when he most needed one.
There is also the suggestion that McEnroe is neurodivergent – something which may or may not have contributed to his reactions to the world he was operating in. It shines a light on some of the inner demons which plagued McEnroe both on and off the court, without attempting to rewrite the narrative or absolve him of blame.
Technically speaking, this documentary is patchy. Some of the devices it employs miss the mark. Some of the graphics seem misplaced, the music choices odd. What it does do well though is use archival footage (some of it previously unseen) from some of the biggest matches in tennis history – including the US Open and Wimbledon – as well as home video footage from McEnroe himself, to demonstrate just how exciting this era of tennis was and McEnroe’s place in it. Among all the long hair, the terrytowelling and the headbands, viewers are treated to footage of McEnroe’s long-time nemesis and close friend Bjorn Borg whose Nordic-cool stood in stark contrast to McEnroe’s hot-headed-New-Yorker temper tantrums. It includes their famous 1980 Wimbledon singles final duel – McEnroe’s first, at which he was booed as he walked onto Centre Court, which featured a gruelling 20 minute tiebreaker in the fourth set during which McEnroe saved five championship points and which is often described as the best Wimbledon final in history.
We see Jimmy Connors trading the No.1 ranking with Borg, McEnroe and Lendl and of course McEnroe’s now famous 'You CANNOT Be SERIOUS' outbursts at various umpires (which became so iconic he later used it as the title of his autobiography). But the footage does not stop on court or in the locker room. We see McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis living life large – seemingly just as busy off-court partying at Studio 54 and jamming on stage with Keith Richards. On a much more sobering note, we also see some of the impact of this lifestyle and inner turbulence on McEnroe’s personal life. We also learn what Borg and McEnroe – both now in their 60s – make of their younger selves and the choices they made in their lives with the benefit of hindsight.
Ultimately this film gives you an understanding of how, despite his demons – or perhaps because of them – a relatively small, skinny kid from suburban Queens became one of the most compelling sporting icons of all time, winning three Wimbledon Championships, four US Opens and becoming the only male tennis player in history to hold the No.1 ranking in both singles and doubles simultaneously. It may be uneven in its execution, but it is a reminder of just how breathtakingly talented – and troubled – the original bad boy of tennis really was. BN
McEnroe is available for digital download from 26 October 2022.