17 Jul 2022
John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Billie Jean King, Patti Smyth
The run of bad boy Nick Kyrgios all the way to this year's Wimbledon singles final brought inevitable comparisons with the equally temperamental John McEnroe. They both railed against the tennis establishment with its inherent snobbery and elitism, but other similarities are more difficult to pin down. This new film by Barney Douglas throws more light on the kid who so spectacularly burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old. The original enfant terrible transformed tennis in the late 1970s with the rarest of talents. Quickly dubbed 'Superbrat' he was a gift to comedy writers far and wide. No comedy sketch or routine was complete without that familiar mop of curly hair and red headband. But for all his volatility and comic strip persona John McEnroe was a gifted left-hander and arguably, the greatest serve and volley player of all time.
As the frames start to roll on this engrossing film, we begin to understand what a deeply complex man John McEnroe is. His wife Patti Smyth makes the most telling observation early on. She read John's report from first grade as a six-year-old. His teacher noted 'John is very harsh on himself'’. It betrays an obsession with perfection even at a very young age. His blow-ups on court were highly amusing and endeared him to many. Such antics were reminiscent of people playing tennis in the park on a Sunday afternoon as they argued over every point lost. But for McEnroe it was symptomatic of a deep rooted insecurity; failure was always attributed to circumstances beyond his control.
His intense rivalry with Bjorn Borg is well documented. McEnroe broke the Swede's five year run of Wimbledon singles titles in 1981. With only three years between them McEnroe expected an ongoing duel but Borg was to all intents and purposes retired at 25. How could McEnroe prove he was the world's greatest tennis player if Borg wasn't around to beat on a regular basis? Again the quest for perfection looms large in McEnroe's life and a continual need to prove himself.
The effect of Borg's absence cannot be underestimated. McEnroe's last grand slam titles were in 1984, by which time he had embarked on a toxic relationship with Tatum O'Neal. His subsequent divorce and later marriage to Patti Smyth gave him the stability he craved. However, it’s still difficult to draw conclusions from a remarkable life. The documentary cleverly links the narrative with film of McEnroe walking through deserted New York streets; another passage pictures him walking through a bleak desert that suddenly clouds over into a thunderstorm; all of which feels symbolic of a quest for answers and peace of mind. But this remains a frank and disarming portrait of a most charismatic sporting icon.