The Irony of John McEnroe

The view from the windows of the photo studio in Chelsea in Manhattan was filled with slate-gray watercolor clouds on an early June day and the industrial marine world of the Chelsea Piers. Inside the spacious, loft-like area, cell phones rang, Blackberrys buzzed and most of the inhabitants were bustling to set up photo shoots or video feeds. Others lounged on sofas, lost in the silent communications of their laptops. Behind a wall with a sign that simply said “John,” the unmistakable, friendly rasp of John McEnroe’s voice was evident

These days, McEnroe’s thinking about prostate cancer awareness and sat down to discuss the upcoming Wimbledon championship in London the following week and to just plain be John McEnroe.image

Since the end of his tennis days, which included playing in 11 grand-slam finals and winning seven, McEnroe has been a television analyst, Davis Cup captain, occasional player on the senior exhibition tour, premier ambassador of tennis, actor, TV pitchman, musician and even art gallery owner.

Having reached the magic age of 50, McEnroe has changed a great deal since his days as a tennis player. Vintage McEnroe, during his tennis heyday, was brash, argumentative, rebellious and prone to playing tennis with a major chip on his shoulder. Reflecting the mellower, gentler McEnroe, during a video shoot to promote awareness about prostate cancer, which afflicted his father, McEnroe was incredibly patient answering some questions several times for the spot. Dressed for tennis and resplendent in all white (the perfect attire for Wimbledon), McEnroe displayed a demeanor light years from that of the impetuous brat of his tennis days. He has become an amiable, easy-going man, content with his various projects and a true family man who is likely to be found at home on a Saturday night with his wife, rocker Patty Smyth of Scandal (“Warrior”), and any number of their six children, watching a movie or playing a board game. Back in April, the two seemed at ease watching Paul McCartney perform at Radio City Music Hall. The sight at first didn’t seem remarkable, but given that McEnroe played himself in an episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on his way to a Paul McCartney concert, it was a surreal example of life imitating art.

Peter Bodo of Tennis magazine, who is also the co-author of the recently published autobiography of Pete Sampras, A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, as well as the co-author of Tennis For Dummies with McEnroe’s brother (television analyst Patrick), talked about why McEnroe has become the preeminent tennis analyst on television today. “John is a model of discipline and clarity and brevity in the commentary booth,” he stated.

McEnroe discussed his approach to covering tennis on television. “I do just enough,” he began. “It’s a long two weeks and I get pretty tired by the end of the two weeks. I pick the three best ones and occasionally I do the Australian Open and Davis Cup, one Masters. Sometimes I wish I worked a little more, but I think that less is more and I don’t want to overwork to the point where you burn out.

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McEnroe also plays in about ten to twelve events a year. “By playing, it makes me feel I understand the difficulty of it,” he stated. “You lose sight of it a little in the commentary booth.

Bodo elaborated on the difficulty of those two weeks of the major finals: “He’s doing the broadcasting equivalent to his Wilander Davis Cup match that he played in St. Louis every time he steps into the television booth at the US Open.

Along with tennis, another long-time passion for McEnroe has been music. Even before his marriage to Smyth, McEnroe was a big music fan and a musician. As for who chooses the music at home, McEnroe said,“Patty doesn’t really like to hear a lot of music. She prefers it quieter… I listen to both old and new music. Classic rock, like Led Zeppelin, The Stones and The Beatles, and newer music like the Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters and Kings of Leon.” He played guitar with his wife at B.B. King’s in Manhattan at a gig she had a couple of weeks before the interview. He came out as a guest and they did the Ramones’ version of “What A Wonderful World.” McEnroe even briefly had his own band: The Johnny Smyth Band. He also has recently joined old friend Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders on stage during the group’s song “Precious,” and has played with Carlos Santana and others. At the 2005 US Open, he played at Arthur Ashe Stadium with Bo Diddley. He has many other friends in the music world and relished the memory of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones coming to see him play.

McEnroe’s approach to owning an art gallery, which is located in Soho, has changed a bit over the years. He claims he is not as hands-on as he used to be and the gallery is now open by appointment only “because I have six kids, travel the world on business, and I am very busy with many other business and personal commitments.” John’s interest in art led to a friendship with the painter and sculptor Eric Fischl who he “met through a mutual friend in Long Island and we traded tennis lessons for drawing lessons.” In his autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, published in 2002, McEnroe sent a shout-out to Fischl, writing, “You helped me more in the art world than anyone else. And your enthusiasm for tennis continues to rub off on me.

Asked what styles of art he’s most interested in, he said, “I like modern art as well as the work of classic artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh.” This past spring, though, McEnroe’s art interests became something a lot more serious. McEnroe, along with other art owners and collectors, as well as the Bank of America and various investment firms, became part of an $88 million art scam perpetrated by an art dealer named Lawrence Salander, the former owner of the Manhattan-based Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. For two million dollars, McEnroe had purchased a half-interest in an Arshile Gorky painting, the profits of which Salander and McEnroe were to eventually split as a result of a future sale. McEnroe then discovered the painting had been sold but never received his money. Salander then gave McEnroe a half-interest in another Gorky painting. That painting was then exhibited by the auction house Christie’s. Christie’s, after finding out that someone else claimed the painting and put a lien on it, refused to return it to McEnroe. McEnroe was one of 26 victims of a scam in which investors put up money for art works that Salander sold. Salander was released on bail after pleading not guilty to grand larceny and securities fraud and faces 25 years in prison if convicted. McEnroe’s lawyer, Philip R. Schatz, told Reuters in response to learning of Salander’s indictment, “I’m really not surprised.” Schatz also confirmed that his client does not have a civil lawsuit pending against Salander.

McEnroe has deep Long Island-area roots. He grew up in Douglaston, Queens, learned tennis at the Port Washington Tennis Academy and for some years now has had a house in Southampton. He spoke fondly of his East End digs. “I don’t spend as much time as I like out there,” he began. “I quite enjoy it out there. I live in walking distance to the beach. It’s the only place I own where I have a tennis court.” Along with his place in Southampton, he also lives in Manhattan and California.

With all of his accomplishments since his playing days ended, there’s no denying what McEnroe brought to the game. “What he did was radically different in the way he played,” Bodo said. “John was to tennis what cubism was to painting.

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It’s still tennis, though, that consumes McEnroe, primarily covering the French Open, Wimbledon and The US Open for various television networks. It has also been exciting for him to watch the unfolding rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

McEnroe knows a thing or two about great tennis rivalries. During his heyday, his matches against Ivan Lendl, and especially Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg were some of the greatest the sport has ever seen. McEnroe played Borg in four grand-slam finals and won three of them. After Borg had won five Wimbledon finals in a row, McEnroe’s first Wimbledon championship win against the Swede was probably his sweetest, as he exclaimed in his autobiography: “Victory! Borg’s streak was snapped and I had my first Wimbledon singles championship.

With a short break after having returned from Paris where he covered the French Open and with only a few days until he was to leave for London to cover Wimbledon, the French Open was still fresh in his mind. McEnroe was thrilled to talk about witnessing Roger Federer wrap up his 14th major title in Paris, tying Pete Sampras’ record, as the rain muddied the Parisian clay. “He’s a class guy,” McEnroe stated about the Swiss tennis god. “If there’s a guy that deserves it, it was him.” McEnroe talked about what it was like to be there covering the match for NBC and interviewing Federer after the win. “It solidifies his place in history. It’s pretty amazing to be there and be part of it, and get to go down on the court and interview him.” Since McEnroe never won the French Open, having lost to Ivan Lendl in five sets in 1984, he appreciated Federer finally winning one himself. “I got to hold the trophy for a second because I was five points from winning it, so I was like, ‘Hey, give me that trophy’ (laughs) and it was pouring rain and the whole thing was sort of surreal. Those are the moments when it’s nice to be there,” McEnroe remarked.

The rivalry between Federer and Nadal has become one of the best in sports history. The epic, five-set, Wimbledon match in 2008, which Nadal won, is still fresh in McEnroe’s mind and the memory of covering it for NBC is one he won’t soon forget. “In terms of everything that went on and the quality of it on grass—and to see these guys just swinging away and the rain delays and the way it ended just before it got dark and the comebacks and Federer saving match points—to me it was the greatest match I have ever seen,” McEnroe stated. “It’s going to be tough to match that one.

Speaking a few weeks prior to Wimbledon about when Federer might break Sampras’ record, McEnroe prognosticated, “He could do it at Wimbledon.” He was proved correct. In an epic match at the Wimbledon men’s final, with the fifth set taking more than an hour-and-a-half and ending with the score 16-14, the longest finals fifth set since 1927, Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick to win his 15th Grand Slam, breaking the record previously held by Pete Sampras.

Federer may now be the record holder, however, the uncertainty of Nadal still exists. “Nadal is amazing, but there is a bit of the unknown now.” In contrasting the two players, McEnroe said, “Nadal puts a lot more strain on his body than Roger does. The way he plays, he’s so physical. I’m surprised he’s gotten this far with it. I’m quite impressed with him; he’s got an unbelievable heart.

After the formal part of our interview was complete, McEnroe hung around and talked about music life and the tennis world. It was in these moments it became apparent that like one of his rock and roll heroes, Keith Richards, McEnroe has certainly changed a great deal, going from the bad boy to the content man. Whether it’s the wisdom acquired with age or the love of his family or both, he’s clearly comfortable in his place in the world and the world is clearly comfortable with him. He can now poke fun at himself in commercials as the angry middle-aged man and not take himself so seriously. Maybe he simply realizes, whether he likes it or not, that he’s now part of the establishment he often railed against. McEnroe can stand side-by-side with other retired tennis legends and the mainstream broadcast media figures who often criticized him for his arrogance and short temper. Yet, he still remains very much his own man, bringing a street-smart, rock and roll style to a sport that is often too polite and staid. When he’s in the broadcast booth, there are no catch phrases or pandering to the viewers. Looking the part of network sportscaster in his conservative suits, if one looks close enough, his rock and roll earring reminds everyone that he’s still John McEnroe, only now he doesn’t have to announce it so loudly.
It was also then that, in encapsulating his approach to tennis, broadcasting, acting, music, art, his gallery and just about everything in general, McEnroe said with a big smile, “Let’s have some fun here.

John McEnroe will be the lead television analyst for the US Open, which takes place in Flushing Meadows, Queens, from August 31st through September 13th.