Ask a group of people who John McEnroe It’s 2022 and you’re likely to get at least a few different answers. Tennis fans will no doubt consider him one of the greatest to have ever played the sport and one of its top commentators. Gen Z might call him the inexplicable yet oddly perfect human Narrator of Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy Never Have I Ever. Others may only know him by name and/or reputation – his on-court outbursts are notorious and firmly entrenched in popular culture.
The point is: we all think we know John McEnroe, but show time‘s new documentary from writer-director Barney Douglas, titled “McEnroe,” seeks to set the record straight by painting an intimate portrait of a complicated perfectionist whose unmatched skills and intense demeanor propelled him to the forefront of the sport while also polarizing his character on and off the pitch.
Less a hagiography and more a delving into the psyche of a top athlete who, like so many before and after, burst onto the world stage at a relatively young age, the hour-long, 43-minute film is a sneaky, charming confession one of the bad guys of the sport. It combines extensive archive footage and personal home videos with candid interviews with John, his brother Patrick (with whom he often covers tennis matches), his wife Patty Smyth and their grown children. Even other tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bjorn Borg join the party (the latter from his jealous lake house) and offer their own unique glimpses into an existence most of us will never and never can understand. The result is a revealing glimpse into the life and career of a man who is much more than tabloid headlines ever suggested. But in some respects the film could go even deeper.
Set against the backdrop of a single night of McEnroe wandering the streets of his hometown of New York City, McEnroe begins like most documentaries: at the beginning. We learn how John started playing tennis at a young age at a club near his home, how the sport grew in popularity in the 1970s alongside the likes of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase, Vitas Gerulaitis and of course Borg (the hair featured in this particular sequence are shown deserve a documentary film of their own).
From there, McEnroe’s rise through the tennis ranks is chronicled from his first appearance Wimbledon as an 18-year-old qualifier in 1977 until his bitter five-set loss to Ivan Lendl in the French Open final in 1984. In the minutes in between, we’re treated to musings about greatness — what it is and what it means — and insight in McEnroe’s friendship with Gerulaitis and rivalries with Connors and Borg (the iconic 1980 Wimbledon final is definitely deserved). Much time is also devoted to McEnroe’s relationship with his father, who eventually became his manager, and the role the older man played in his son’s life.
John McEnroe (USA) in action with a racquet being raised at the 1980 Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. (AELTC/Michael Cole)
The film does all of this with a cheeky sense of style. There is almost one “succession”-like quality of the opening credits, and the graphics mimicking or reflecting McEnroe’s temper are certainly silly, but they also make sense in the context of this being a documentary about a man known primarily for his explosive personality (if anyone can escape using VFX of a thunderstorm brewing in the desert, it’s probably John McEnroe). Meanwhile, the sound editing during the 1984 French Open sequence probably deserves an accolade for how it fully immerses viewers in the experience.
But if there’s one flaw in McEnroe, it’s one that affects too many documentaries like this one: it tries to cram an entire life into a runtime shorter than recent “Stranger Things” Final. Despite the subject’s willingness to speak openly about his life, frustrations, famous on-court antics, and even his drug use (“cocaine . . . Let’s just say it didn’t help,” he says dryly at one point), there’s still a lot that feels unsaid.
As one of the greatest tennis players of all time (which is saying something considering we live in a world where Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have taken the sport to new and ridiculous levels) McEnroe probably would have benefited from having more time to play to delve into the exciting details of his eventful career, given that much of what is known about him, especially among younger viewers, is headline news. A 10-part documentary series à la “The last Dance” is not necessary, but to limit McEnroe’s rapid rise, eventual fall, and the shockwaves that reverberate through his personal and professional life to less than, say, the running time of “Avengers: Endgame”, means that a lot has to be left out.
If you’re trying to decipher a man’s life and career to understand his psyche – particularly a man as complex as McEnroe, who was once dubbed a “superbrat” by the British tabloid but is now one of tennis’ most respected experts – seeing the changes that have taken place over time is key to understanding the man. While “McEnroe” is an entertaining celebration of an athletic prodigy that will appeal to a wide variety of viewers, it doesn’t feel entirely complete.
The good news is what’s in the film makes for an immersive viewing experience, especially the time spent on it McEnroe’s relationship with Borg. Known as Fire and Ice for their very different behaviors on the pitch, their rivalry forms something of a backbone midway through the chronological documentary as we explore different matches and the way they pushed each other to be the best , reliving the timeline finally reaches Borg’s sudden retirement at the age of 26 in 1983. His abrupt departure from the sport left a void that greatly influenced McEnroe, and the fact that Borg had agreed to be interviewed for the film, reveals as much about his personal relationship with McEnroe today as it did when they fought on the pitch decades ago.
Want a daily roundup of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newslettercrash course.
Meanwhile, interviews with McEnroe’s grown children remind us of a world we, the public, were never privy to: the personal life of a celebrity that continues long after the game is over or the cameras are off. And it’s those fresh, insightful moments that make “McEnroe” truly worthwhile, as we see how the actions and relationships of its formerly controversial subject have affected her life, as well as her relationship with him. They ultimately remind us that no matter what we thought we knew about him, we never fully knew John McEnroe. And while we may know a little more now, there’s still so much we’ll likely never fully understand.
“McEnroe” is currently available on Showtime on Demand/Streaming and will premiere on Sunday, September 4th at 7pm ET on Showtime. Watch a trailer, via youtube.