fb-pixel Skip to main content

Game, set, ‘McEnroe’

A Showtime documentary looks at the tennis great, a player who was as bad with anger management as he was gifted with a racket

John McEnroe in "McEnroe."Monaris Sylver Entertainment

John McEnroe has many guises: champion athlete, anger-management lost cause, tennis commentator/elder statesman, art collector, rock star (sort of). The first three are connected; and all figure in the latest guise, documentary subject. “McEnroe” starts streaming on Showtime on Friday.

The documentary comes well timed, with the US Open currently underway. McEnroe won it four times (1979-81, 1984). He also won Wimbledon three times (’81, ‘82, ‘84).

John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1982.Michael Cole

During broadcasts from Flushing Meadows, he can be heard as an analyst, an extremely good one. Younger tennis fans who watch “McEnroe” will be amazed to find that the self-possessed, well-spoken commentator they know was once the bane of umpires and referees, setting a standard for on-court bad behavior that even Nick Kyrgios would be hard pressed to match. They’ll be further amazed to see how the remarkable finesse of McEnroe’s game — has any tennis player had a more expert net game, which is to say one with such daring or élan? — could be at such variance with how he could conduct himself between points.

“McEnroe” is alternately compelling and annoying. What makes it compelling is its subject. With candor and self-awareness, he talks about himself and his career. “My patience was very limited, especially when I was young,” he says, with considerable understatement. Nowhere was that more the case than on the court, and nowhere was he more himself. “I can never remember not being able to play tennis.”


A crucial point to make about McEnroe’s bad behavior — and the film doesn’t quite do this — is that his acting up and acting out weren’t a form of gamesmanship, as Ilie Nastase’s or Jimmy Connors’s was. It was about an almost-Platonic pursuit of perfection, a standard to which he held officials as well as himself. That incorrect calls mattered so much to McEnroe was less because he had lost the point. It was more because they were incorrect.


John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1982.Michael Cole

“McEnroe” includes news footage, match footage, photographs, even home movies. When was the last time you saw a future tennis champion being baptized? In addition to McEnroe, there are interviews with his brothers, his children, his longtime doubles partner Peter Fleming, and Billie Jean King. “God, he doesn’t have a lot of muscle,” she remembers thinking the first time she saw him play.

Impressive in appearance McEnroe was not: that scrawniness, the unruly mop of hair, the pasty complexion, the glum-looking red headband he often wore. Certainly he didn’t look impressive the way his great rival, Björn Borg, did, with his icy Viking elegance. Now he knew how to wear a headband. Borg is another talking head, and the chance to hear him discuss McEnroe is a highlight. Interesting as it is to hear Achilles talk about Achilles, it’s in some ways even more so to hear Hector do it.

Someone not heard from is McEnroe’s first wife, Tatum O’Neal, though we do hear about their marital tribulations. His second wife, the rock singer Patty Smyth, gets plenty of screen time. In a nod to McEnroe’s rock ’n’ roll side, there are brief and appreciative talking-head appearances from Chrissie Hynde and Keith Richards.

We also hear a great deal about McEnroe’s father issues. John Patrick McEnroe was his son’s manager — not a good idea. In an old news interview, he hears a journalist refer to him as “John McEnroe Sr.” No, McEnroe père corrects him: He’s John McEnroe, the son is John McEnroe Jr. It’s a remarkable and telling moment. The attention to their relationship is not unjustified, or uninteresting, but it does make the second half of the documentary increasingly touchy-feely.


John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1983.Michael Cole

What’s annoying about “McEnroe” are the various “artistic” touches writer-director Barney Douglas trots out. He has great material to work with. He doesn’t trust it. McEnroe is interviewed in what looks like an empty warehouse (why?); and there are many — many — moody, noirish shots of him walking the wintry streets of Douglaston, the Queens neighborhood where he grew up, and then through Manhattan. Douglas even provides a timeline: “Midnight,” “3 a.m.” As they say at the French Open, it’s very . . . de trop.

Speaking of the French Open, there’s another, even more interesting McEnroe documentary, Julien Faraut’s highly unusual “John McEnroe in the Realm of Perfection” (2018). It’s available from Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kanopy, and YouTube. Faurat takes an up-close, you might even say granular look at McEnroe during the 1984 Open, a tournament that did not end well for him.

We see him on the court, with no interviews or biography or any distractions from his play, other than those he provides, with his reactions to poor calls. The documentary doesn’t give the sense of McEnroe as a person that Douglas’s film does. But it gives a rather astonishing sense of him as a player. With all due respect to those other McEnroe guises, that’s the one that matters.




Written and directed by Barney Douglas. On Showtime. 103 minutes. TV MA (lots of profanity, most, though not all, directed at tennis officials).

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.