At 43, more than a decade removed from the maddest of his Mad Mac days, John McEnroe thinks he's finally developed perspective. "I really was pretty much of a jerk" McEnroe writes of his 15 years on the professional tour. "Believe it or not, I'm a lot better now."
An introspective tennis star comes along about as often as a U.S. male player conquers Roland Garros; for every contemplative Grand Slam winner such as Boris Becker, there's an endless supply of lightweights such as Michael Chang. Unlike the musings of dullards, McEnroe's have always played out like therapy sessions, a healthy mixture of anger and ego, and his autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, is a 342-page extension of his search for self. McEnroe, it seems, just wants to be loved (see Q+A, page 27).
Growing up in Queens, N.Y., McEnroe showed an instinctive feel for the game as early as age eight. He breezed through the ranks as a junior player and, stunningly, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1977 as an unheralded 18-year-old amateur. He ruled the sport during its explosion in the '80s alongside giants such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe finished his career with 77 singles titles (third behind Connors, with 109, and Ivan Lendl, 94), including seven Grand Slam championships, as well as an unparalleled record as a doubles player and as a Davis Cup participant. His '84 campaign (an 82-3 match record with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) is one of the best single-season performances by a male player in history. Today he's the father of six (including two daughters, six-year-old Anna and three-year-old Ava, with his second wife, rock singer Patty Smyth) and a tennis commentator for several networks, and he's even hosted a short-lived prime-time game show.
The prose of You Cannot Be Serious isn't going to challenge John Updike's, but the book moves along breezily and offers compelling moments. Regarding his abusive behavior toward linesmen, umpires and tennis rackets, McEnroe contends that he and tennis officials were coconspirators: "Why didn't they [default me]? The answer is simple but not so pure. They had a show to put on and my presence put behinds in the seats.... If I went home they lost money. The tournament directors knew it, and the linesmen knew it. I knew it. The system let me get away with more and more." The book discusses his most memorable rivals, from Connors ("It was always my feeling that if it didn't put money in his pocket, Jimmy wasn't interested") to Borg ("I thought he was magical—like some kind of Viking god who'd landed on the tennis court") to Lendl ("Whatever happened to him as a kid left him with an odd, harsh demeanor—kind of bullying and babyish at the same time").
Another example of how this book differs from the usual sugarcoated sports autobiography is in McEnroe's candor about his failed marriage to actress Tatum O'Neal and the havoc it wreaked on his psyche and tennis career. He writes of faking anger on changeovers so he could put his face in a towel and cry over his crumbling marriage, and of indulging in marijuana to cope.
Unfortunately the book also drones on about McEnroe's flirtation with rock music (the novice guitar player fronted the forgettable John McEnroe Band) and glosses over how hard he campaigned behind the scenes for the Davis Cup captaincy, only to resign 14 months after he got it because the team couldn't win and McEnroe couldn't deliver both Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, as promised. Clearly McEnroe enjoys being in the spotlight, and like most autobiographies this one is largely an exercise in self-love. But for all his self-promotion and blowhard tendencies, what McEnroe seems most interested in is getting to the core of who he is. Such a journey is worth your time.