John McEnroe, who remains the greatest tennis player ever produced in New York City, said his infamous outbursts were coping mechanisms that masked issues related to the emotional toll of a complicated personal life and career under pressure.
The profanity, often directed toward the referee, inspired McEnroe’s “angry rebel” reputation, which eventually became his lucrative brand.
“A lot of the times I got mad, I was hiding something that was completely different,” McEnroe said. “And thinking something different.
“The first thing I think of is hopefully something fun, something that lightens the mood. And I grew up with you, you have to be intense and you have to have that edge and you can’t slow down for a second, you have to keep your foot on the gas. And I wish I could do better. And at other times, you felt like there were tears in your eyes, but I know that, at least when I grew up, boys don’t cry. You have to be tough. You have to smile and put up with the kind of thing. And so instead of showing tears, he was showing anger. So I became the mad madman. I’m not that person”.
McEnroe’s antics are covered in his documentary, ‘McEnroe,’ which will be available to SHOWTIME subscribers on September 2nd. It’s essentially a two-part movie condensed into 100 minutes. The first half is a look back at his meteoric rise in tennis, summed up in the style of a long-running Nike commercial. Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis great who retired into solitude at just 26, is featured prominently as McEnroe’s idol and friend. The second part delves into McEnroe’s home life, including his failed marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal, while focusing on fatherhood.
“In a way, at least, I hope people see that there is more to me and a lot of people than meets the eye,” he said.
The mental buzz of fame and tumult contributed to McEnroe’s early descent from the top. He captured a seventh Grand Slam at age 25, but never again advanced to a major semifinal. After his film debuted last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, McEnroe found parallels between himself, Naomi Osaka, and the evolving discussion of mental health in sports.
Osaka, 24, boycotted post-match press conferences last year because, among other reasons, they “show no consideration for the mental health of athletes.” He later withdrew from the tournament and adopted a reputation for being mentally fragile. Osaka has resumed her involvement in the presses but, on the court, she lost momentum as the next big thing in tennis.
She has failed to progress beyond the third round of her last four Grand Slam appearances and is unsure if she will participate in Wimbledon this month due to an Achilles tendon injury.
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“I’m concerned about Naomi because she did something (boycotted the media) that she thought at the time was right and unbelievable,” McEnroe said. “But the problem is that there is more attention on her. Now how is she today? How is the next? Is she going to go to Wimbledon?
“So what started out as something that was done for reasons that made her feel good, now she’s probably not so sure. And it is very bad. Because she is the kind of person we need. Big moment. She has already won four Grand Slams. And everyone has their way of coping (pressure). Some are healthier than others. If everyone can be like Rafa Nadal and give 100 percent on the court or every time they do something, that would be absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, that is very difficult to do.”
McEnroe cited Osaka’s upbringing as a potential detriment to now dealing with adversity. Osaka was groomed to become a professional tennis player and was homeschooled from a young age.
“The idea that you can experience things so that these kids can grow up and be able to handle things that are thrown at them,” McEnroe said. “Naomi Osaka, 3 years old, was: It would all be about being a tennis player and she was sheltered and living in a cocoon and she didn’t get to experience things that children, good or bad, experience.”
“It seems healthy to me in many ways that (mental health) is being talked about more openly,” added McEnroe, who also coaches junior tennis at his academy. “But this is not something that has just started. This started long before me. Obviously with more money in sports, it has become more of a business. Parents see dollar signs in their eyes. It’s gotten a lot worse in that regard.”
McEnroe also criticized Wimbledon for banning Russian and Belarusian players as punishment for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The purpose is “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest possible means”, according to Wimbledon, but McEnroe believes it is unfair to the players.
“It’s unfortunate that even in sports, everything has become political,” McEnroe said.