There may be no more potent a symbol of mythic malevolence than New York City's subway system. Many of us would rather cross the River Styx on a leaky inner tube than descend into underground Manhattan at, say, 2 a.m. "Not me," says John McEnroe as he boards the C train in dark glasses, a black baseball cap and a black T-shirt bearing the legend FRED. "I love taking the subway."
Which is another way of saying he hates driving between his downtown art gallery and his uptown apartment. "By the time I drive home," he says, "50 people have called me an a———." And that's without even recognizing him. "Sometimes a guy will yell, 'Hey, that a———'s John McEnroe! Now I know why he's driving like that.' I tell you, subways are the way to go."
People have been calling McEnroe an a——— forever. His constant carping, his bullying, his obsession with himself—all of these combined to make him the monstre sacré of tennis. Yet over his 16-year pro career, which ended in 1992, he retained a solid following. Partly it was due to his game, which at its peak was simply a level above his contemporaries'. Mostly, though, it was because there was a sort of integrity to his negativity. There was something compelling in his anti-Establishment rants. When he called a haughty British umpire "the pits of the world," more than a few of us colonists silently cheered.
McEnroe was, essentially, a child of the Establishment who lived to criticize the Establishment, an insider who bad-mouthed the system. At times it seemed that what he really wanted was to be a rock star—a Stateside Johnny Rotten. His dallyings with the electric guitar were well known, and he had all the other qualifications: He was defiant, complex, enraged and rich. By the time he quit the tennis tour, his fortune reportedly exceeded $150 million.
The McEnroe who has traveled underground to his gallery on this afternoon is warm and amiable, if a little contentious. O.K., a lot contentious. But the fume and bluster are leavened by a disarming self-deprecation. His face is lean and stubbled, his watery blue eyes less menacing than vigilant. A rose tattoo blossoms on his right deltoid, a small gray shrub sprouts from his chin. "I let it grow because my kids liked to pull it," he says. "I hope I'm too old for my parents to say anything about it. I'm 37, for god's sake."
He laughs easily—a detonating laugh that threatens to blow off the top of his head—from behind a neat and uncluttered art deco desk. Reposing atop it are a shiny beetle mounted in a small glass case, miniature busts of Beavis and Butthead, a book on the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and a boxed set of CDs by the Clash, the thumb-in-your-eye punk band whose rise roughly corresponded with McEnroe's. "I like the Clash for their attitude," McEnroe says. "It was straight-ahead, which is in my ballpark."
He picks up the book on Basquiat, a graffiti-scrawling expressionist who died of a heroin overdose in New York in 1988, at age 27. Like McEnroe, Basquiat was a ferociously driven talent whose work alternated between stylized aggression and aggressive stylishness. As it turns out, McEnroe has just attended a screening of a new film on Basquiat's life. He offers a terse critique: "It's s—-." McEnroe's ex-wife, Tatum O'Neal, has a small role in the movie. She plays a fatuous art collector.
McEnroe has more than a passing interest in Basquiat. He owns two of the painter's canvases. McEnroe stumbled upon Basquiat's work at an exhibition in the late '80s. As he and a friend approached one painting, the friend said, "It's a steal at $9,000." Peering at the squiggles, McEnroe said, "This is junk. I wouldn't pay a thousand bucks for it." He didn't. But a few years later, he says, the painting sold for $300,000. "Oh, well," says McEnroe. "You live and learn."
He was not to the gallery born. "My parents never once took me to the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan," he says. "But we went to plenty of Rangers and Knicks games." His first real exposure to painting came when he was 18, during the 1977 French Open. Mary Carillo, with whom he won the mixed doubles that year, dragged him to a Paris museum. "I remember looking real close at a Monet and not getting it at all," McEnroe says. "Then I stepped back and thought, There's something to this Impressionist stuff. That's art."
A couple of years later his friend and fellow tennis pro Vitas Gerulaitis introduced him to photorealism. Now that's really art, McEnroe thought. It looks just like photographs. He plunked down $120,000 for three paintings. Today he winces at the memory of having been suckered by a fad. "I sold all of them back," he says. As for the Impressionist stuff, he bought a Renoir landscape for $300,000 in 1983 but then traded it. "It was a Grade B piece," McEnroe says of the Renoir, "and I've learned you've got to get the best. The B pieces are where you get your ass kicked."