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John McEnroe grapples with his legacy as tennis' bad boy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're playing back some of our favorite interviews from the year. And our guest today is John McEnroe, remembered as one of the greatest tennis players ever and one of the loudest. He won 155 combined titles - that's singles and doubles - more than any man in the game's modern era. And he's won 25 singles titles on the Champions Tour, the circuit for those who've retired from the mainstream tour. His playing days are also remembered for moments like this.


JOHN MCENROE: You can't be serious, man. You cannot be serious. That ball was on the line. Chalk flew up. It was clearly in. How can you possibly call that out? How many are you going to miss?

DAVIES: That's McEnroe arguing a line call at the 1981 Wimbledon tournament. John McEnroe is the subject of a documentary film released this year, directed by Barney Douglas, that's now streaming on Showtime. It chronicles McEnroe's remarkable success at a young age and his marriages to Tatum O'Neal and Patty Smyth, all in the glare of intense media scrutiny. The film also explores his family relationships with his father and manager and with his own children. McEnroe is a regular analyst on TV coverage of major tennis tournaments, and he does voiceover work on the hit Netflix series "Never Have I Ever." I spoke to John McEnroe in September. The Showtime documentary about his life is called "McEnroe."


DAVIES: John McEnroe, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MCENROE: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: You know, I have to say, when I was preparing this introduction, I kind of cringed at the thought of playing that clip. Am I really going to make John McEnroe listen to this for the 5,000th at the time? But that particular phrase, you know - you cannot be serious - has kind of become part of your brand, hasn't it?

MCENROE: Yeah. My first book was called that. On all these seniors events, Champions events you mentioned that I played and won, they would be disappointed if I didn't use that phrase at least once. So it's sort of laughable and sort of sad at the same. That really - the only time I said that in my 15-year career was that clip you just played. So it's sort of crazy that that phrase that I said once in the first round of Wimbledon in 1981 is still something that I hear every day.

DAVIES: Partly it was so well miked, I guess. You know, I will - I think we have to note that you can look at the full clip on YouTube, the longer clip, and you can see that the ball actually was in, that you were right. And the announcers noted that, for what it's worth.

MCENROE: Well, amazingly enough, actually, ESPN did a 40th anniversary piece for me, you know, about that clip. And at the end of it, Tom Gullikson, who was - I was playing at the time, came out and said, just for the record, I want everyone to know that that ball was in and on the line. And John was right. And I was like, well, it took 40 years, but better late than never. I appreciated it.

DAVIES: I'm wondering about the natural talents that you brought to the game. You know, your game wasn't like muscling it and overpowering everyone. It was using a wide variety of shots and being really creative. Bjorn Borg says that you could do anything with the ball. And it's interesting. In the documentary, we hear your wife, Patty Smyth, say that you're very visual, that you have a great eye for art. You say that you think strategically. You look at the court and see where a ball was going. I mean, your wife says - at one point, wonders if maybe you were on the spectrum. I'm just wondering, is there something about the way your brain was wired that really fit this sport and your game?

MCENROE: Good question. I'm not sure I have a great answer, but I think in some ways it was. But it was also Antonio Palafox, who was a Mexican player who played on the tour for many years, who taught me the way I played. And he looked at the sport as if it was sort of a geometry class. And it was all about putting me in advantageous positions and putting my opponent in difficult positions. And sort of that swirled in my head. It took me probably six, eight years to figure out what he was trying to teach me. But it clicked in.

And then I realized, OK, this is something that I can take advantage of. I'm athletic enough to do what he taught me. And I think that that was his style of play that suited my personality. Because initially, when I was a kid, I couldn't do like the type of aggressive style of play and, you know, the serve volley and covering the net, that type of game that you don't see much anymore, but at the time was certainly something that was done a lot more often. But it took me a while to figure it out. And he was the guy that sort of gave me the hands, the feel of the ball, that that was more important.

DAVIES: So you went to Wimbledon for the first time in 1977. And in the documentary, gosh, you look so young. You missed your high school graduation to make the trip, right?


DAVIES: And then you end up winning, you know, match after match. And you find yourself in the semifinals against Jimmy Connors. What were your interactions like when you saw each other on the court or whenever you met?

MCENROE: You know, I was in like sort of like the B locker room, which is where they put like the lesser-ranked players or the qualifiers until the quarter finals. So I didn't have really any interaction at all with the top players. It was like unbelievable to be in this, you know, the presence of these guys, you know, these gods that I looked at like Connors and Gerulaitis and Borg. So, you know, I felt like it was - who that - how the hell am I in this situation? I was the No. 1 junior player in the world, but I didn't realize that gap between where I was at then and where the pros were at was as little as it was. You know, I thought, oh, my God, either I'm a lot better than I thought or these guys aren't as good as I thought. And I think it was a combination of both.

But as far as Connors, he blew me off completely. He wouldn't acknowledge my existence before, which was, you know, I tried to introduce myself. He just walked by me as if I didn't exist. So that was sort of - I was like, oh, my God, there goes the first set. I was, like, so wound up. I'd never been on the center court of Wimbledon. I'm playing Jimmy Connors. He's trying to intimidate me already and he did. He succeeded.

DAVIES: You know, you and Connors did not become friends. But did you learn something about his game that was helpful to you in that one match that you lost there at Wimbledon?

MCENROE: I didn't learn too much, you know, in that particular match. But what I did learn as I started playing him more frequently was the intensity and the effort he gave. It was as if every point he played was the last point he was ever going to play. And I had never seen anyone that could do that, you know, that consistently. He's sort of the Rafael Nadal of our time. That intensity and effort alone was intimidating, and it was tough to match. You know, I used to play him. And I'd go back to the hotel room. And I'd look in the mirror after, and I go, did you try as hard as Jimmy Connors in that match? And most of the time it felt like I didn't.

And so I felt like I had to find another gear, like more will, more effort. You know, that - something that is the greatest lesson any athlete I think could learn truthfully is if you can go out there and be able to give that type of effort consistently, that you're going to - good things are going to happen. So, you know, there's very few athletes in any sport that are able to go out there with that intensity. I mean, it was a remarkable quality. That's why he's still, in my book, one of the all-time greats and, you know, brought a lot to the game because he played with such ferocity when he went out there. He wasn't a big guy, but he played like a big guy.

DAVIES: You know, as your career developed, I mean, your outbursts on court became kind of part of your identity and the media focus of it. And I think we should just note that, you know, there are other sports where yelling at the umpires is part of the game. In baseball, I mean, it's nothing wrong with just chewing out an umpire. And, you know, you'll get tossed out if it's for balls and strikes. But, you know, nobody's going to think differently of you for it. Tennis is different. I'm wondering why you think, looking back on it, you lost your temper more than others on the court.

MCENROE: First of all, I think that most of the players in the sport of tennis are remarkably well-behaved. You know, I would consider myself more of the average Joe type of guy that goes out there. And, you know, it's such a frustrating game that I was amazed that people could keep their composure as well as they did. And one of the other - and, I mean, Connors, for example - I mean, I think he did worse things on the court than I did, with all due respect to him - and Nastase were two guys I - I kid, but it's true. I taught - they taught me a lot.

DAVIES: What do you mean when they say they did worse things?

MCENROE: Well, there were certain antics that they did that were way beyond the pale, in my book, of what I was doing. You know, I'm not saying I'm some angel. But I'm saying they - you know, they took it to, you know, vulgarity at times, you know, situations where there would be altercations, you know, potentially, you know. And Nastase was like Jekyll and Hyde. You know, he would be on the court, and you'd want to strangle the guy. And then, right after the match, he'd say - he used to call me macaroni. He'd go, macaroni, where are we going to dinner? And, you know, it was over, you know. So they taught me, in a way, that it was - like, what's on the court stays on the court. And so that was, like, a learning experience.

But honestly, when I started playing, to me, I just wanted to be treated the same way other athletes in other sports. You refer to baseball, obviously. There's a sport where that was sort of almost encouraged in a way. People loved that when there was a spat between a player, the manager and the umpire. Why all of a sudden are they - you know, have microphones 10 times as loud on the tennis court, you know, hearing every breath that I say? It just seemed unfair. I'm sure if you put a mic in the center of a football game, they weren't saying, hello, how are you?

So, you know, we weren't protected in the way, which bothered me. You know, not saying that certain things I did were out of line - they were. And I was reprimanded. And I was, you know, fined, et cetera. Sometimes I deserved it, but I didn't feel like I had the backing that I needed. And I feel like the sport has suffered still because it's still considered sort of this - you know, it's too expensive, that upper-class, you know, white man's game, you know, that hasn't had - given the opportunity to enough people that, you know, can't afford to play the game.

DAVIES: Well, you know, your dad was a huge influence on your life. And I - you know, I gather he had high expectations of you. I mean, did he have a habit of yelling at you? And do you think that maybe part of this is just - that's kind of the way you were used to people communicating?

MCENROE: Yeah. You know, I used to kid around - or half kiddingly. It was a loud dinner table, you know. He used to, you know, say, look, you don't need to, you know, yell at the umpire. You don't need to, you know, get involved in these altercations. Just go out and play. You're better than them. But he'd say it, like, you don't need to get involved in these - you know. He didn't even realize he was saying it. You're better than them. So it seemed only natural.

I grew up in Queens. I commuted on the train in the subway to my high school. I was used to a lot of energy. I was very taken aback, actually, when I went to Wimbledon in London for the first time. I was like, wow, they're so polite here. This is incredible. There's - they just act so differently. And I'm sure they felt the same way about me. So to me, it was sort of normal. I was actually sort of taken aback that people were sort of bent out of shape, shall we say. It really surprised me. And so it got really frustrating. I got more and more defensive and then rebellious, I guess, you know. And it just kept blowing up.

DAVIES: Do you think it helps your game or hurt it or neither?

MCENROE: I think at times it helped it. I think that - certainly early on even though I would much prefer the crowd being all behind me. And I did usually have a good portion of the crowd behind me, but I'd focus on the people that weren't behind me. And for a while, I think that fueled me, you know, I'll show them type of thing. And I think that sometimes if I was sort of not, you know, that intensity that you need, that Connors-like effort, it would wake me up a little bit if I got it going.

I think after I had children, which was - you know, I was 27 when my - Kevin was born. I think that I started to look and view that differently. It just seemed like I was sort of like - I don't know - a cigarette smoker who couldn't quit. And it just felt like it was then becoming a negative, and I wasn't learning from it. I mean, I think the key to - you know, when you're not winning and - is to learn from the losses. And if you're able to take something out of what just happened and turn it into a positive and - towards the end, I think that it was hurting me.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with John McEnroe. His career and life are examined in a new documentary now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest today is Hall of Fame tennis player John McEnroe. There's a new documentary about his life and career now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe."

Your matches with Bjorn Borg were such epic confrontations. I think I remember these more than any tennis I've ever watched. And it's interesting that your on-court personas just couldn't have been more different. I mean, you were emotional, you know, sometimes overheated. He seemed to show almost no emotion. Did that bother you on court?

MCENROE: It didn't bother me. I was absolutely amazed that he could be as disciplined and show nothing. I couldn't understand how that was even possible, truthfully. I knew him off the court, and he wasn't like that off the court. You know, he - our personalities are more similar than people realize. We have similar sense of humors. I think we generally think of things in the same way.

But, like, he was this god when I came up. He's 2 1/2 years older than me. And I remember seeing him at Wimbledon when I was a kid in one of his first Wimbledons - and all these girls screaming on the court - and screaming. It looked like - you know, the closest thing that tennis had ever had to Beatlemania. And I thought, now I want to be a professional tennis player. I was probably 14 or 15. I was like, wow, this is unbelievable.

But actually, probably in a way, especially after we played the first few times - actually, the third time we played, we were in New Orleans, and it was a very close match. It got to about 5-0 on the third set, and I was acting like a jerk for the most part. And he finally motioned up to me. He said, come to net. And I thought, oh, my God. He's going to say I'm the biggest a** that ever lived. And it's embarrassing because he's, like, one of the gods of tennis. And I was just sort of getting going. I think I was 19 at the time.

And he put his arm around me. And he said, look, this is good. This is good, you know. You've got to enjoy this. And then I walked back. And I was like, is he trying to, you know, do something to my head, like, throw me off or what's he doing? And then the more I thought about it, I realized, oh, my God, he's right. This is incredible. I mean, you dream of something like this. And from that point forward with him, I didn't have to worry so much about the antics. I mean, of course, anything I did would be magnified because he did nothing. So it made me think, look, just go out and play and do your thing because that's, you know, exciting enough. And it's going to be awesome, you know. And you don't even you have to think about getting upset anymore. So it actually worked out to both our benefits, I think, ultimately. I just wish he had kept playing longer.

DAVIES: You know, the 1980 match that you had against him, the final at Wimbledon, Bjorn Borg, that's one of the best-remembered, I think, ever. I mean, you - he was in a position to win the game on the fourth set. And you broke his set points. And then there was this tie-breaking game that went 18-16. I mean, I don't know how long that took. But it was just incredible. And you prevailed. And you thought, man, I've got this guy. And then he came back and won the fifth set and took the title. What did you take away from that loss?

MCENROE: I took away a couple of things, one of which was, you know, how great a champion he was, because he had won it four years in a row. And I thought, when I won that tiebreaker, he'd sort of break his will. And it seemed like he dug in even deeper. And I'm like, I didn't realize that people could even do that that well. And so he showed me that I have to find that other gear, that effort, you know, similar to like what Connors showed me early on. He also showed that, you know, his fitness level was unsurpassed. It was like, you know, he was the fittest guy in the tour, so that I had to work harder from that standpoint in order to try to get over the hump and win something.

I also was aware of something that you only feel a couple of times in your career. That was one of them, where it just seemed like something amazing and special was going on in that - especially in that four-set tiebreaker. There was an electricity that I'd never felt before that, you know, I wanted more of. And it felt incredible. And then maybe the best part, I mean, because you always say there's - you know, there was no losers, and of course there was, but I did feel like I came out a winner in that match ultimately because I got respect from other players. I got respect from the fans. And to some extent, even the media was kind to me there, which - they had been pretty brutal to that point. So I felt like I had taken my game and the way I was viewed up a level because of that. But also, I realized I'd lost. So - and it made me hungrier. And I think it certainly helped me those next couple years.

DAVIES: Yeah. It was one of those athletic contests where you're just in awe of the two competitors. And it's really a special thing. It occurred to me that, you know, in almost every other sport, there is a coach or a manager that's part of the game that you can confer with from time to time. In baseball, between innings, there are mound conferences. In golf, there's a caddie that walks with the player and discusses every shot. In tennis, you're out there for a match that could go for hours. You're not allowed to confer with a coach. So, you know, if you need a little help with your mechanics - I mean, is your elbow out of position on your forehand or whatever - or just you need some help kind of mentally collecting yourself, that's just not available to you, is it?

MCENROE: It wasn't available to me. And it hasn't been available until recently. Now, to me, honestly, I think that's part of what makes tennis a great game, that there's certain things that we do as a sport that's different. And I think we should keep that. But there has also been talk of wire and players allowed to be coached. And I think, in a lot of the events now, particularly in the women's side, they're allowing coaching. I think, at the U.S. Open, you can coach from the box. So you can scream and yell at the box and tell them.

So I don't know if that's the greatest idea, even though it was being done anyway. I sort of think that's something unique and interesting about the sport of tennis, that you get all this advice and you prepared with a bunch of people, then you go out there and you do your thing. You can always bring notes if you want and look at them. I like that part of the sport still. I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I mean, it's not like the sport will end if suddenly there's coaching. But I think that makes it interesting for the sport of tennis that we do something different.

DAVIES: John McEnroe's career and personal life are examined in a documentary released earlier this year, which is streaming on Showtime, called "McEnroe." We'll hear more of our interview, recorded in September, after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're playing back some of our favorite interviews from 2022. My guest, tennis great John McEnroe, is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in recognition of his 158 combined titles on the pro tour and so many riveting matches, particularly at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. His career and personal life are the subject of a documentary directed by Barney Douglas released earlier this year and now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe." I spoke to John McEnroe in September.


DAVIES: I want to play a clip from the documentary. And this is Bjorn Borg years later - I guess this was in an interview for the documentary - reflecting on tennis and his relationship with you. Let's listen.


BJORN BORG: The champion should handle the pressure very well. The champion should be able to be strong mentally. You're by yourself out there. Tennis is a very lonely sport. It's always been and it's always going to be. But you have to like that. I mean, when you walk on that court, it's only you. And if you don't like that, you are never going to be successful. I loved it. John loved it. And we connected.

DAVIES: Yeah. I learned in this documentary that the two of you really became friends, right?

MCENROE: Yeah, we - well, actually, he's one of the few people that even while we were playing, we were always friends. I didn't have the type of problems I had with most other players, in particular Connors and Lendl, if you want to throw out two names. I think that we brought each other's games to a different level. And we have respect for each other, but we weren't hanging out. Whereas with Bjorn, we were friends. And we ran, to some extent, not at the big events, but in the same circles. So he's certainly right about, you know, it's a lonely game and you need to like that. But there comes a time, unfortunately too early for him, where he didn't like it enough to keep going. He was only 25 when we played the 1981 U.S. Open. He never played another major again.

DAVIES: Right. You know, you mentioned his leaving the game. And that was the 19 - was the '81 U.S. Open - right? - after you had already beaten him at Wimbledon. And when he lost that U.S. Open in the final against you, he didn't stay for the ceremony to accept the runner-up award. He just got in the car and went away. It was really quite a moment. Billie Jean King says in the documentary that in that match, you broke his spirit. Do you see it that way?

MCENROE: I - you know, I wish that I could give you a definitive answer, because I've always wondered the same thing. He said to me soon after that when he said he was retiring - I remember I was in a room with him and Vitas Gerulaitis, our great friend as well - and he said, I'm quitting playing. This was like two months later. We were in an exhibition in Australia. And we were laughing. We thought he was kidding. We were like, what the hell are you going to do? And then he did. And he said to me soon after, someday you'll understand. And, you know, I guess in some ways I do understand now, but in some ways I don't understand.

But, you know, given sort of what we've been talking more about in sports the last couple of years, the mental health, as any - you know, for example, you hear it from some of the ladies in Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles in particular. I mean, you're seeing and hearing it from a lot of people, but this has been going on. This isn't - you know, they're not the first people experiencing this. And to some degree, I'm sure that the expectations and the fact that you're sort of living in a bubble and not really having a real life, and he'd been doing that for a lot longer than I've been doing it, you know, you burn out, I guess, in a way.

And, you know, some people can regroup and come back and, you know, want to keep playing another five, eight years. You look at the guys now, they're in their mid to late 30s. Roger Federer just turned 41. They were doing phenomenal things - they are doing, I should say - Nadal, Djokovic in their 30s, whereas we thought, like, if we even make it to 30, we'll be lucky.

DAVIES: I'm wondering if you think the pressure of being an elite tennis player is taking more of a toll on players mentally. And what are they doing to help?

MCENROE: You know, that's a difficult question to answer. I don't think that - if you look back 40 years ago, I think this was an ongoing - this has been a problem, particularly for players in individual sports or athletes in individual sports. So I think that this is something that's become more to the forefront in certain ways. I would think it'd be easier because there's so much money. From that aspect, you don't have to worry about what am I going to do next type of thing. You have the luxury of sort of sitting back and trying to figure out ways where you can enjoy your own sport as much as possible.

Naomi Osaka took a different stand, and she decided to get more public about it. But, you know, to me that's, you know, in a way admirable. But in another way, it's - the focus is going to be more intense on her when she does play. So I think that that could have been a miscalculation because, you know, you all - we all sit and go through that. But it's not necessarily something you want to be the first thing talked about when they talk about you.

Simone Biles was, you know, maybe the greatest gymnast ever. But now we're going to remember for the rest of her life, I think, that she's, you know, decided not to participate in the Olympics for obviously, you know, understandable reasons, especially given the fact that we were going through this crazy pandemic. And people were just - it was such an abrupt change that it was - had to be difficult for a lot of people to handle in many different ways, including athletes. But the answer to your question is it's being talked about more openly, so that's good.

DAVIES: You know, you can see as the documentary unfolds and you get married to Tatum O'Neal and you're both celebrities and everything in your life is in this media spotlight, and it just occurred to me that, you know, elite athletes today have a team. I mean, they've - you know, they've got the fitness guy and they've got the nutritionist and somebody handling the press. And it's just a lot more support. You were kind of managing all this mostly on your own, I guess, with your dad as your agent, right?

MCENROE: Yes. My dad was my agent. I didn't have a publicist. You know, I don't like traveling with other people. I'd like to be with my wife or my girlfriend or, you know - in some cases, I travel with Peter Fleming, who is my doubles partner and buddy - or a couple buddies. But I didn't like a lot of people around. That's like to each his own. Now, perhaps, I'm not sure how many people I would have around me now - you know, to what level I take it, to the extreme. I'd certainly sort of be more aware of using people to sort of maximize what I could, you know, go out on court and do.

But I - it's gone almost - like, now everyone thinks - you know, I have this tennis academy in Randalls Island here in New York. And these parents think that they should have nutritionists at 14 or, you know, psychologists. I'm like, man, oh, man, this has gone way too far the other way. But I think we were hung out to dry a little bit. Like, this was new to the sport of tennis, that this was exploding. People didn't know how to protect us. I didn't have any protection when Tatum - when I was married to Tatum, it was just - it was chaos, you know, when I go to tournaments. And they didn't have a place for my kids to hang out, and they - it just seemed like - thankfully, it's gotten a lot better in that respect for the other players.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We'll take another break here. We are speaking with John McEnroe. His career and life are examined in a new documentary now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe." We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Hall of Fame tennis player John McEnroe. His career and life are the subject of a new documentary now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe."


DAVIES: You were on top of the tennis world for four years. And you won, I guess, three Wimbledons and just so many tournaments. In 1984, you were just unstoppable on, I think, 82 matches. And then, at the French Open, you won - got ahead head straight sets to - was it Ivan Lendl, I guess? - and then lost three in a row, a match that you said gave you nightmares for years. What do you think happened that day?

MCENROE: Well, there's a combination of things. One, it got extremely hot, which had - the first 10, 11 days of the tournament were unseasonably cool, and then it just got super hot. Perhaps I wasn't quite as physically fit as Ivan was, who was, you know, a fitness fanatic. I choked. I guess that would be the best phrase to use. I should have won that match. I was only 5 points away from winning it. I was able to do something that very few athletes are capable of doing - having a crowd that was 90% for me before the match turn against me somehow because of a couple ill-timed sort of outbursts that I made that they didn't particularly care for. And the French are very passionate, and they can sort of turn pretty quickly. And they also wanted to see a good match.

And truthfully, in the beginning, I was, you know, beating him pretty handily. So they just wanted to see more tennis. And by the time they realized that, oh, my God, you know, this is going to go the distance - and this guy - like, I was starting to get physically tired, that I - and I needed that help, that push from the crowd that could have gotten me over the hump, that - it wasn't there, you know, mainly 'cause of me. You know, I had sort of turned them against me.

So that, you know, single loss, I think, kept me from being elevated to that pantheon of all-time greats that you - when you talk about, you know, Novak and Rafa. I mean, obviously, they've won a lot more, too. But that would have proven that I could win on any surface at any time. So that - you know, that was bitterly disappointing. But I think, ultimately, probably as a human being, it sort of - the head was getting rather large, and it humbled me a bit. And I think it sort of set me up in the future to sort of reassess my priorities to some degree and try to become a better person.

DAVIES: You married Tatum O'Neal, I guess, in - what? - '86 or so? You know, you ended up having a long, difficult divorce with her. And, you know, it seems from the film that you have good relationships with all of your children now, but it wasn't always so. It's just not easy to navigate that kind of a difficulty with kids. And I kind of hesitate almost to get into this just because they're - any parent's relationship with children is so complex and evolves with age and circumstance. When you look back at that - I mean, you had full custody of the kids for a while. And then - I don't know - how do you look back at that time in your life?

MCENROE: It's painful. It's very painful. It took us through a couple of years to finally, you know, get divorced. And it just - you know, it seemed like I wouldn't - I didn't ever want to get married again 'cause it was the pain of the divorce more than the joy of the marriage. It just seemed like I can't go through that again. And then the next thing you know, you know, I see Patty. And I'm like, oh, my God, I got to make this turn, this about-face, where I was like, I don't want any serious - the next thing you know, I'm going all-in. And I'm glad I did it because we're going to be together 28 years next month.

And as far as the kids, you know, I remember, you know, Patty had one kid from her first marriage. I had the three. And I thought - hey, I used to watch "The Brady Bunch." I was like, we got to have kids, even though they didn't have kids. They had three each in their own marriage and they didn't have them together. But I was like, this will be great for the family. Like, the kids will see that we're committed. And we are committed. And I wanted to have a child with her. So honestly, when they were growing up, even though there was chaos because of the situation with their mom, the three kids, you know, going in - struggling with her addiction issues and just, to me, bad advice from lawyers who just want to extract money, it just made it difficult, obviously, for everyone.

DAVIES: You know, some elite athletes, when they are past their prime, when they feel like they can't compete at the very highest level, just walk away. I mean, they just - I mean, some, like, they won't even pick up a club or a bat or a racket. I mean, you know, Bjorn Borg might fit that description. You've kept playing on the Champions Tour. And you've been a winner. How did you cope with, you know, not being able to do what you used to do when you were at the very highest level?

MCENROE: Well, honestly, I hated it. There's a phrase this great basketball player back in the '70s used to say, Connie Hawkins. He said, the older I get, the better I used to be. And that was just unfortunately true with me. And that probably started in my mid to late 20s. So that was extremely hard to sort of have to face up to the fact that like for all the effort that I made to try to get my act back together and do things to get me back to the top, I wasn't getting there. You know, I took time off when my first son was born. I probably took about six months off, which is not really - Nadal took six months off because an injury and won the Australian. So this wasn't - you know, it was more unheard of then. You were supposed to keep playing and playing. And it got to a stage where I had to accept the fact that I'd sort of dropped a notch and that was extremely difficult as well.

But I thought, look, I sort of considered the situation I was in. And I tried to - it wasn't easy at times but look at the glass half full and realize this, even though I dropped from one or two in the world to six, 10 in the world, that I was, you know, it was still an incredible way to make a living. It was a great job for the most part. You know, I got - I am proud to say that I was given the opportunity to try to do some different things that I wasn't always as successful at as I would have liked to have been. But it was good to get out of my comfort zone as well and try different things whether, you know, I did a game show. I did a talk show. You mentioned the narration. Those are things that sort of test yourself to see what, you know, how much you like it and how good you are at it. And, you know, see ultimately that you do - for me at least - belong in the sport of tennis and try to bring it to another level hopefully in any way I can. And I think that's going to be what I'm going to be trying to do as long as I'm around.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with John McEnroe. His career and life are examined in a new documentary now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest today is Hall of Fame tennis player John McEnroe. There's a new documentary about his life and career now streaming on Showtime. It's called "McEnroe."


DAVIES: Well, you know, you've done some commercials. And you've had cameo appearances and some TV shows, you know, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "30 Rock." But now you have this regular voiceover role in this Netflix series, "Never Have I Ever." It's a series created by Mindy Kaling. It's about an Indian American high school student, you know, working her way through, you know, romantic dramas and family issues. And I thought we would listen to a clip here of you. This is from the opening of the third season of the series. And the main character, this girl Devi, has landed the hottest guy in her class as a boyfriend at the end of the previous season through all kinds of crazy stuff. And series opens. She's walking into school holding his hand. And all the kids are stunned, and as they walk through, we hear your voice narrating the scene.


MCENROE: (As himself) Someone check on hell because it has definitely frozen over. Devi Vishwakumar just walked into school for the first time as Paxton Hall-Yoshida's girlfriend. And all she had to do was cheat on him, hit him with the car and do all his homework. Harry and Meghan, move over. This is what fairy tales are made of.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What the hell?

MCENROE: (As himself) They've been together for two whole weeks, which for teenagers is basically a lifetime of monogamy.

DAVIES: And that's John McEnroe in the in the series "Never Have I Ever," created by Mindy Kaling. You know, this is - a lot of your stuff is really funny here. How did this happen? How'd it come about?

MCENROE: Well, first of all, I can't take credit for the writing. Mindy and her right-hand woman, Lang Fisher, are great. And they've been doing that - they've been together for years. How it came together, I was at a Vanity Fair Oscar party. I was walking in to take a photograph with Patty. And as I was walking in, Mindy was walking out. And honestly, I wasn't even sure who it was. But Patty was like, oh, that's - hey, John, you got to meet Mindy Kaling. And then she looked at me. And she's like, oh, my God. I have this idea for a show where you're going to be the narrator. And I'm like, yeah, yeah, right. You know, check's in the mail type of thing because you hear that type of thing fairly often, and most of the time, if not all, it doesn't happen.

As it turned out, her father, who was in India, was a big fan of mine. So somehow she came up with this idea that I should be the alter ego or psychologist or uncle or adviser to a, you know, in essence, what I believe is her story to a degree. She's a first-generation immigrant from India. Her parents came. And sort of tell it - tell her story and then have me be the guy that's sort of looking through her as a kid. Maybe she heard my name too much from her father perhaps that so she was like, oh, the hell with it. I'll get him to do the narration. And at first, people were like, oh, this will never work. This is crazy. And I remember seeing a review or two a couple of years ago, and they're like, this is crazy, but maybe it could work. And then it was sort of like it did work.

So it was sort of gratifying that sort of, you know, there's people that come up to me now. I mean, this show is bigger outside the U.S., actually, than it is inside. So I hear more and more about this. And it's sort of ironic that I'm involved in this show about a high school, you know, Indian American girl trying to come to grips with, you know, growing up in a difficult situation. Although I think a lot of people are going to relate to the difficulties of trying to have friendships and, you know, not feeling overwhelmed in high school.

DAVIES: You know, you also do commentary on major tennis matches. I'm wondering if that came easily and whether you had to check yourself at times when you might want to say something harsh or critical about another player and you might have had concern for what that would feel like, having been on the other end of it.

MCENROE: Yes. I think that I have to be aware of that although I think they pay me to be honest. And I had always wanted the players to feel that I was on their side because I was a player myself. And I understand what it took and how difficult it could be at times when you're laying an egg, for example, and things aren't going the way you want and you're just not able to do the things you feel like you can do.

I did have an incident about 10, 15 years ago where the top player in the world at the time - I think it was Lleyton Hewitt. He was one of the top couple - was playing a guy at the Australian Open. And it was on center court there. And it was, like, basically, like, a journeyman player that had never been in that situation before. And you could tell, like, a game or two into the match that it was, like, a total mismatch. And I felt, like, bad for the guy, but I was like, this shouldn't even be on this court 'cause it's going - he's going to be lucky to win any games at all.

And it was true that that was the case, but I think I sort of lost sight of the journey it would be for this guy to sort of even get to that point, like reaching a Wimbledon or making the U.S. Open. And I sort of pooh-poohed it a little bit. And I think his brother was his coach, or he had a coach. And he confronted me, like, wanted to fight me after the match. Like, how can you say that about this - you just dumped on this guy. And then, it did make me think a little bit more and, you know, make sure that I reflected a little bit on the journey that these athletes and players have to get there and appreciate that and respect that as opposed to just sort of glowing at the - you know, the greats and, you know, sort of saying how great they are. And obviously, they are better than the other players, but you need the other players around to show you the truly elite. So I think that helped me.

But truthfully, I got very good advice in the beginning, which was be yourself. I wasn't too concerned with how I looked if - you know, turn to the camera; make sure you're, you know, looking at the right camera at the right time. I didn't really care about that. I don't like looking at tapes of myself. I just want to, you know, try to be myself and show people - or get people to feel and understand what it's like to be there - bring that to the table, more the mental part. I'm not - I'm bored with, like, stats and stuff like that, but to sort of have them - the everyday person to understand what was happening as well as, you know, give information to people that are fanatics. So I try to thread the needle, and hopefully, I've done a pretty good job with that.

DAVIES: You know, I'm curious. When that coach confronted you about what you'd said about this journeyman player, how did you react to him at the time?

MCENROE: You know, at the time, I realized he was probably right 'cause I had sort of, like - you know, it was almost like I was saying, turn off the TV; don't bother watching. And I think that was a disservice to this - you know, the years it had taken him just even get to this position and how difficult it probably was for this guy that - this incredible high where he was playing the center court at the Australian Open - he was Australian, I believe - and then losing, like, 6-love, 6-2, 6-1 to, you know, Lleyton Hewitt and how hard that must have been so that it was, like, the high and low of that match alone for him - you know, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all in one. So I - you know, when I reflect it, I think - I mean, I feel like he was going a little overboard, obviously, in the beginning. But I understood his frustration. And so I think ultimately that did help me, moving forward, to sort of get a better grasp of the overall picture.

DAVIES: Well, John McEnroe, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

MCENROE: You got it. Thanks a lot. Take care.

DAVIES: John McEnroe's career and personal life are the subjects of the documentary "McEnroe," now streaming on Showtime.

On Monday's FRESH AIR, our interview with Steven Spielberg as we continue with some of our favorite interviews from 2022. His new film, "The Fabelmans," is semi-autobiographical and is based on Spielberg's childhood and teenage years, when he fell in love with movies and began making them. It's also about his family and his parents' divorce. I hope you can join us


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Hope you have a great holiday weekend. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.