HIS hair-trigger temper made him one of the most controversial sports stars in the world – and John McEnroe says even 37 therapists couldn’t solve his anger issues.
In a searingly honest documentary, the three-time Wimbledon winner admits he found it impossible to enjoy his success — and how infidelity and cocaine wrecked his marriage to his film star wife.
McEnroe’s volcanic fury led to the spawning of his catchphrase “you cannot be serious” in 1981 when a serve was ruled out at the first round of the SW19 tournament.
And that same year he fumed at umpires, spectators and reporters at Wimbledon: “You are the pits of the world! Vultures! Trash!”
Now the seven-time Grand Slam champ, who once demolished a drinks tray with his racquet, admits he is ashamed of his past.
Watching footage of his worst behaviour, McEnroe, 63, says: “What are you? A stupid f***ing moron?”
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In the documentary, simply titled McEnroe, the man who dominated the game in the early 1980s is frank about his personal failings.
He admits taking cocaine and cheating on his Oscar-winning first wife Tatum O’Neal before they explosively divorced.
And he is open about the bitter fall-out with his alcoholic father John McEnroe senior, who he ditched as his agent in 1986 when his career went into freefall.
‘I was crazed’
Having seen many psychologists, none of whom could kerb his centre court rages, age has made him a calmer person and more relaxed father to his five children.
But when they were younger, he admits: “I would dwell on tennis matches when I could have been a better dad.” Success on the court didn’t bring him happiness.
Trying to understand why he felt nothing when he was world number one for four years, he asks: “I didn’t do a good enough job. In fact I did a s*y job.
“I’m the greatest player that’s ever played at that point. Why does that not feel amazing?”
McEnroe insists there were no demons from his childhood in New York that needed vanquishing in his quest to be the best.
Even though his lawyer father did drink a lot, McEnroe says he was generally a “happy” drunk. Instead it was his own desire for perfection that turned him into the hottest teen tennis player in 1977.
But his younger brother Patrick, who was also a tennis pro, reckons John is similar to their father.
He says: “They were both very driven. They both had a tendency to lash out.”
Arriving at Wimbledon as an 18-year-old wildcard, John reached the semi-finals where he lost to legend Jimmy Connors in four sets.
Connors blanked the youngster when he said “nice to meet you, sir” before their match.
McEnroe says: “I did learn from him, you have got to be a bit of a p***k out there.”
Tennis was exploding in popularity with handsome Swede Bjorn Bjorg followed by screaming female fans.
McEnroe says: “It was incredible to go round the world making money and meeting girls.”
The formerly “boring, shy straight kid” started hanging out with film stars in New York’s hedonistic Studio 54 nightclub.
And as his life away from the tennis court got wilder, so did his behaviour on it. In 1981 he was defeated in the final at Wimbledon by Bjorg in one of greatest matches ever but beat the Swede the following year.
McEnroe was driven by a desire to silence his critics, saying: “I had to prove that I could win it and I could really tell them to go f**k themselves”.
But he almost missed out on that chance after officials threatened to throw him out for yelling “you cannot be serious” at an umpire and swearing.
McEnroe recalls he told himself to remain calm but suddenly “boom — everything went out the window” when a close decision went against him. “I was crazed,” he admits.
“Nervous energy flying all over the place. Intensity, anger.” T
he All England Tennis Club traditionally grants honorary membership to Wimbledon winners, but because of his outbursts that didn’t happen in 1981.
Instead, McEnroe went clubbing in London rather than attend the club’s black tie winner’s event. Bjorg’s retirement from the game at just 26 after losing to McEnroe in the US Open final in the same year robbed him of the opponent who was raising his game.
During the 1984 tennis tour McEnroe won 82 matches and lost three — a record which remains unbeaten.
But privately, his life had been going off the rails. McEnroe admits: “These days they take performance enhancing drugs. We were taking performance detracting drugs. Putting smoke in your mouth isn’t the best thing.”
He became pals with Rolling Stones guitarist and legendary druggie Keith Richards, who appreciated the tennis rebel’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Richards said: “Who doesn’t mind yelling at an umpire, man?”
When McEnroe was at his peak in tennis he fell in love with Tatum — the daughter of screen stars Ryan O’Neal and Joanna Moore.
Tatum, 58, shared the addictive personality of her amphetamine addict mum and took cocaine with McEnroe.
He admits that the class A drug “didn’t help” their marriage, adding: “I have myself to blame for that.”
After marrying in 1986 they went on to have three children — Kevin, 36, Sean, 35, and Emily, 32 — but ended up seeing other people.
McEnroe confesses: “I don’t think infidelity helps. I believe that’s the end of the end.”
The rows had a deep impact on their children. His son Kevin regrets that when McEnroe said “at least I am consistent” during one dispute the then boy replied: “Consistently an a**hole”.
His dad is also troubled by his parental shortcomings. McEnroe says: “I wanted to be there for them, to make them feel loved.”
In 1992 he split from Tatum, who later got hooked on heroin.
There was also a painful fall-out with his dad, John Snr, who resented being dropped as his son’s agent in 1986.
‘Stabbed in the back’
McEnroe says: “He took that terribly. It was like I had stabbed him in the back.”
His alcoholic dad died in February 2017 with their feud still simmering, and in August of that year his beloved mum Katherine succumbed to cancer.
Having taken a six-month break from playing tennis in the year he ditched his agent dad, McEnroe never reached the same heights in the singles game.
But he did keep winning in the doubles, securing a fifth Wimbledon title in 1992.
Away from the Centre Court cauldron, McEnroe found a more settled life with his second wife, rocker Patty Smyth.
The singer, who had a number two US single called Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough, married McEnroe in 1997.
A year later he was awarded sole custody of his three children because of Tatum’s severe drug problems. Patty, 64, admits: “To take on his three kids was challenging.”
The couple have two daughters of their own — Anna, 27, and Ava, 23 — and Patty largely put her music career on the back burner to be a full-time mother.
She tells the makers of McEnroe that people “don’t know” her husband. Patty says he could be on the “spectrum” because he likes his “routine”, which suggests she believes he has autism.
His wife of 25 years admits that “when he yells, it is f***ing scary” but insists: “I married a bad boy who turned out to be a really good man.”
In the film we see the doting dad laughing with his children, accepting the gentle joshing.
It is clear that McEnroe has worked at ways to fit in with a world that is not accustomed to such an outspoken character.
Any player who has been on the receiving end of one of his criticisms as a commentator for the BBC at Wimbledon will understand his own assessment of his personality.
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He caused controversy by saying Wimbledon was “too much” for Emma Raducanu last year and this week snidely noting “it must be tiring” for Rafael Nadal’s rivals to keep hearing about the Spaniard’s injured foot.
He concludes: “I am not very empathetic — that’s my biggest flaw.”
- McEnroe is in cinemas on July 15.
He admits taking cocaine and cheating on his Oscar-winning first wife Tatum before they explosively divorced
He also opens about the bitter fall-out with his alcoholic father John McEnroe senior
He and Swede Bjorn Borg at the net prior to the final of the Men’s Singles tournament at the Wimbledon in 1980
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on Centre Court ahead of the Men’s Singles Final during the Wimbledon in 1984
John became pals with Rolling Stones star and legendary druggie Keith Richards, who appreciated the tennis rebel’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude