John McEnroe, still the greatest tennis player ever produced by NYC, said his infamous outbursts were coping mechanisms that masked issues with the emotional toll of a complicated personal life and a pressured career.
The profanity, often directed at the referee, inspired McEnroe’s reputation as an “angry rebel” which eventually became his lucrative trademark.
“A lot of times I would get mad, I would hide something completely different,” McEnroe said. “And think of something different.
“The first thing I think of is hopefully something funny, something that would lighten the mood. And I grew up with you gotta be intense and you gotta have that edge and you can’t let go of a second you gotta keep your foot on the accelerator And I wish I was better able to do that And at other times you’d feel like you’d have tears in your eyes but I know that at least When I grew up, guys don’t cry. You have to be tough. You have to smile and put up with the kind of stuff. And so instead of showing tears, I was showing anger. So I became the crazy guy in anger. I am not that person.
McEnroe’s antics are discussed in his documentary, “McEnroe,” which will be available to SHOWTIME subscribers on September 2. It’s basically a two-part film condensed into 100 minutes. The first half is a look back at his meteoric rise in tennis, summed up in the style of a lengthy Nike ad. Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis great who retired to enjoy solitude aged just 26, figures prominently as McEnroe’s idol and friend. Part two delves into McEnroe’s home life – including his failed marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal – while focusing on fatherhood.
“In some way, at least, I hope people see that there’s more to me and a lot of people than meets the eye,” he said.
The mental ringing of fame and uproar contributed to McEnroe’s early descent from the summit. He won a seventh Grand Slam at 25, but never reached a major semi-final again. 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 respect for the mental health of athletes”. She then withdrew from the tournament and gained a reputation for being mentally fragile. Osaka resumed her participation in the pressers, but, on the court, lost her momentum as tennis’ next great player.
She hasn’t made it past the third round in her last four Grand Slam appearances and is unsure of competing at Wimbledon this month due to an Achilles tendon injury.
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“‘I’m worried about Naomi because she did something (boycott the media) that she thought at the time was right and an incredible thing,'” McEnroe said. “But the problem is there’s more attention to her – Now, how is she today? How is the next? Is she going to Wimbledon?
“So what started out as something that was done for reasons she felt good about, now she’s probably not so sure. And that’s too bad. Because she’s the kind of person we need. Highlight. She has already won four Grand Slams. And everyone has their own way of dealing with (the pressure). Some are healthier than others. If everyone could be like Rafa Nadal and give 100% on the pitch or every time he did something, that would be absolutely amazing, unfortunately that’s very hard to do.
McEnroe cited Osaka’s upbringing as a potential detriment to facing adversity now. Osaka was trained to be a tennis pro and was homeschooled from an early age.
“The idea that you can experiment with things so these kids can grow up and be able to handle the things that are thrown at them,” McEnroe said. “Naomi Osaka from 3 years old was – it’s going to be about being a tennis player and she was just sheltered and living in a cocoon and she couldn’t experience things that children, good or bad, live.”
“I find it’s healthy in many ways that we talk more openly about (mental health),” added McEnroe, who also coaches youth tennis at his academy. “But it’s not something that just started. It started long before me. Obviously, with more money in sports, it’s become more of a business. Parents see dollar signs in their eyes. It got a whole 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 aim is to “limit Russia’s global influence in the strongest possible ways”, according to Wimbledon, but McEnroe believes this is unfair to the players.
“It’s a shame that even in sports everything has become political,” McEnroe said.