Imagine if you'd approached John McEnroe toward the end of his playing career and told him that a decade hence he'd have an outsized presence in tennis. He would likely have responded: You cannot be serious! Surely McEnroe would be too busy with his art gallery, his band and his family. Surely the game's biggest iconoclast would ditch the tennis establishment as soon as possible.
Yet during the U.S. Open the past two weeks, it was impossible to tune in to the tournament and not encounter McEnroe's overexposed mug. Before the event he appeared on Letterman; during it he provided some 80 hours of commentary for USA and CBS. He shilled for Heineken and Lincoln. Until his opponent, Boris Becker, pulled out with a foot injury, McEnroe was to have competed in a $100,000 stadium court exhibition match after Saturday's prime-time women's final. Close line calls were even replayed on the Acuvue Mac Cam.
Perhaps McEnroe's ubiquity would be easier to take if he weren't marinating in hubris. Among his favorite themes: At age 42 he could still hold his own on the tour in doubles. Time and again he reminded us that he'd been asked to partner with defending U.S. Open doubles champion Max Mirnyi, 24, at Flushing Meadow this year. (Asked about the invitation last week, Mirnyi said with a laugh, "I didn't think we'd win; I just wanted to play alongside a legend.") McEnroe has also used his bully pulpit to incessantly promote his candidacy for the nonexistent position of Commissioner of Tennis. Please. This is a man who lobbied for years to be the U.S Davis Cup captain. When he finally got the job, he alienated the top American players, trashed opposing athletes and coaches and blew off meetings and press conferences. During a disastrous 5-0 loss to Spain last summer, McEnroe showed up at a captain's breakfast in a bathrobe. After barely a year he quit in semidisgrace—then said he'd like to be named to a Davis Cup doubles spot.
McEnroe also regularly bashes the men's game for its lack of compelling personalities. He may have a point, but he's part of the problem. So long as he refuses to cede the spotlight, he will upstage every player and render even the most colorful of them Al Gore-bland. As one veteran pro puts it: "We want to move forward and out of the Borg-McEnroe-Connors era, but John won't let it happen."
In fairness, McEnroe does have genuine passion for the game, and his willingness to take on the sport's sacred cows is admirable. His candor and hilarious random ruminations as an analyst make even the most lopsided matches worth watching. During one of the countless matches he called last week, McEnroe referred to himself as an "old soldier." No one is asking that he fade away entirely, but we sure wish he came in smaller doses.