This captivating documentary gets John McEnroe, 63, up close and personal, but the tennis footage is still the thing.

Reviews by Joyce Glaser McEnroe (July 15, 2022) Certificate 15, 103 mins

American tennis champion John McEnroe still holds the record for most combined titles in the Men’s Open era (155, including doubles). He may also hold the record for the number of films made about him in the last 5 years – almost a quarter of a century since his retirement. To Borg versus McEnroe (2017) and In the realm of perfection (2019) both emphasized McEnroe’s determination to do whatever it took to win and challenged that mantra.

Barney Douglass McEnroe explores that question and shows how the “super brat” of pro tennis coped with his insatiable pursuit of perfection, a perfection that eluded him even when he was world number one. We get access to McEnroe, the man alone with his past; the father (McEnroe’s five children appear in the film); and husband (musician Patty Smyth, not Tatum O’Neal) ponder McEnroe, the tennis pro. Smyth (not THE Patti Smith) sums up the film’s goings-on: “I married a bad boy who became a really good man.”

McEnroe’s continued popularity and familiarity forty years after his Grand Slam victories (three Wimbledon and four US Open tournaments) is not solely due to his presence as a commentator on the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage (obviously on the decision to leave anti-vaccination opponent Djokovic to prevent them from playing in Australia and the US and Wimbledon decisions to ban the Russian players). His off-court personal life was as colorful as his on-court bad-boy antics, for which he is still remembered, somewhat to his annoyance.

People of a certain age will recall that McEnroe lived a celebrity lifestyle more befitting of a movie star or rock star than an athlete. After defeating New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis at the US Open in 1979, Vitas, a playboy and bon vivant four years McEnroe’s senior, invited McEnroe to Studio 54. We see the two friends filmed together on MTV, clearly under the influence. McEnroe played guitar, hung out with Ronnie Wood and had a child with Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal. They married in 1985, during his first hiatus from tennis, the result of a hiatus after his prime in 1984. Their high-profile divorce, two more children, and nine years later, allegedly caused by O’Neal’s addiction struggles, coincided with McEnroe’s retirement.

McEnroe began life more humbly in Douglaston, Queens, coached by his military father (turned-lawyer) at the local tennis club and at school by his tiger mother, who expected a perfect report card. He was recognized early on for his talent in mathematics and tennis, as well as for his temperament. But McEnroe didn’t want to be a professional tennis player until he was impressed by the idylls he would soon conquer: Jimmy Connors, Borg (“like a Viking god”) and Gerulaitis, and by the lifestyle: travel, money and girls.

As an 18-year-old amateur, McEnroe won mixed doubles at the 1977 French Open and then made it to the semifinals as a qualifier at Wimbledon, where he nearly defeated Jimmy Connors in a four-set match. His future was assured as commentators noted his spectacular hand-eye coordination and smart plays at the net.

“Don’t worry about the referee; You’re better than them,” his father, who became McEnroe’s manager, told him. McEnroe took this to heart and paid the price with fines and tournament bans. These are downplayed in the film, with McEnroe telling us his bad-boy image has been exaggerated and misunderstood.

McEnroe’s attacks on the referee (“You can’t be serious” was his most famous but not his worst) were misguided criticisms of himself in the center court pressure box. Like Bjorn Borg, he tried to remain calm but ultimately failed . He finds the perfect manners of a Pete Sampras and Roger Federer and the deadpan demeanor of Novak Djokovic admirable but unnatural.

The consensus is that McEnroe’s pursuit of perfection – commented on in the film by Borg and Billie Jean King – led him to say, “I’m the best player in the world. Why doesn’t it feel great?’ was instilled by his driven parents. But it might be what you need to keep the momentum going after becoming the youngest man in history to win the US Open. Whatever the reason, when he admits “I felt like I was doomed,” despite his achievements, you understand what it’s like to be a top athlete who feels only as good as your last game while you’re at it already worried about losing the next one.


Douglas’ film has the advantages and disadvantages of getting very close to the now 63-year-old family man. The behind-the-scenes glimpse into the private life of tennis’s well-groomed Elder Statesman, who lives well on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and his private reflections are revenge for the hagiography, especially at the end when today’s superstars are paraded in front of the camera and the praising players, they never played but maybe hit. what will they say

While McEnroe criticized Borg for retiring at 26 (and depriving the game of that unparalleled rivalry), little is said in the film about McEnroe’s twilight years from 1986 to 1994, during which he failed to win any major games. How does that feel? The lack of debate over whether to be Ashleigh Barty or Roger Federer is interesting and relevant as Borg’s retirement deprived McEnroe of an opponent who forced him to improve his game.

“You have to do whatever it takes to win at all costs” is a lesson young McEnroe learned from Borg, but 40 years later both have realized the cost might be prohibitive. Despite all this privileged introspection, the best thing about the film are the archive segments and in particular the contest between McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, a contest that dwarfs that of Nadal and Djokovic for sheer intensity and brevity. Bjorn Borg’s win at Wimbledon in 1980 is arguably the greatest game of all time, followed by McEnroe’s win in 1981.

This captivating documentary gets John McEnroe, 63, up close and personal, but the tennis footage is still the thing.

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