McEnroe – Another John McEnroe documentary

By Vanessa Taylor and Russell Boxshall

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If you believe in things happening for a reason, I was meant to play tennis.” – John McEnroe

A new documentary simply called McEnroe has been released.

Directed by Barney Douglas, the film includes John McEnroe as an active participant, living through the past again and joined by archival footage showing his partying with Vitas Gerulaitis; deep friendship with Björn Borg; frosty relationship with Jimmy Connors.

The “bad boy” era of Gerulaitis, Connors and Ilie Năstase “made tennis seem much more cool” to McEnroe. But it was glamour boy Borg “the coolest guy in the world to me” who made McEnroe decide wanted to be a tennis player.

He’s also shown enjoying his current happy life, particularly with his family. His wife Patty Smyth features prominently and memorably describes him as “a bad boy who turned out to be a good man”, while he explains the catharsis of his second marriage after his volatile union with Tatum O’Neal.

His warm, teasing, relationship with his three daughters is apparent as is his cordial relationship with son Kevin.

Not interviewed are O’Neal and son Sean, from whom he is estranged, though they appear in old footage.  

Promotional image from McEnroe. Image: Showtime

The documentary opens with an aerial shot of New York, perhaps because McEnroe personifies his city. He explains that he just couldn’t understand or fit in with the Brits and their frustrating traditions at Wimbledon.

There is, of course, classic vision of the matches that made him famous, both for his sublime skills and his profanity.

He was even able to capitalise on his notoriety with a Nike ad: “McEnroe swears by them”

McEnroe claims he learnt from Jimmy Connors, “you’ve got to be a bit of a prick out there.”

The documentary’s style is mostly slick and tonally muted, with graphics illustrating its subject’s thoughts.

In the Realm of Perfection. Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories

It provides a contrast with 2018’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (L’empire de la perfection), based on McEnroe’s inability to win the French Open, the only Grand Slam which eluded him. Using some 16 ml footage to enhance a particularly cinematic style, French director Julien Faraut focused on McEnroe’s loss to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 final. He had led 2 sets to love and became distraught as he watched it all drain away into a Lendl victory.

In McEnroe, he describes that final as a “nightmare”.

Even success was a torment for McEnroe, who asked himself, “Is winning worth it in the end?”.

He won 155 titles and was No. 1 for four years and also No. 1 in singles and doubles concurrently. But he talks about the letdown after actually reaching No. 1 and just “looking over your shoulder”.

“You look back and you say, well, someone gave me the ability to do something better than others. You have to recognise that and put yourself on the line, especially when you’re out there by yourself. And I didn’t do a good enough job of that.

“In fact, I did a shitty job of it. I’m the greatest player who’s ever played. At this point, why does it not feel that amazing? It felt like I was doomed.”

A still from McEnroe. Image: Showtime

The film also provides many insights about Borg and the burden of his celebrity.

Despite their great friendship, McEnroe never lost his competitive instincts towards the Swede.  

After winning the US final in 1980 against Borg, McEnroe was asked on the TODAY show the next day if he had anything to say to Borg (who was appearing on the show after him)

So, he said to Borg, “Thanks for letting me win, and thanks for not making me go to Australia…”

In all probability, he meant that if Borg had beaten him at the US Open, having already won Wimbledon and the French earlier in the year, Borg would then go to Australia (played in December in 1980) to try to win The Grand Slam. And that McEnroe would have gone as well to try to prevent that happening. 

One of the most interesting revelations is that McEnroe played a lot of chess when he was young and transferred what it taught him into tennis. “…It makes you think strategically. I see the court as a hundred different squares. Each time I move lays out percentages; that’s going to give me a 90% chance of winning this point. It’s like a computer going through your head.”

As the end credits roll, cameo tributes appear from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Chris Evert.


McEnroe has been nominated for several awards and won the 2023 Sports Emmy for Outstanding Editing – Long Form

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