John McEnroe’s still courting controversy

John McEnroe
John McEnroe

He used to be known for his on-court rages, coining the phrase ‘You cannot be serious!’ at a Wimbledon umpire in 1981, a line which became as connected to him as his numerous tennis victories.

More than 35 years on, John McEnroe, three-times Wimbledon singles champion and respected BBC commentator, is still courting controversy.

First he said Andy Murray was a ‘distant fourth’ behind the three main rivals in his career, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and most recently declared Serena Williams would be ranked ‘700 in the world’ if she had to play on the men’s circuit.

Yep, he’s still causing a stir with his down-the-line observations - but he’s long since learned to volley away criticism and serve up some self-deprecating humour.

“I’ve mellowed,” he says, gazing out of the window towards the Thames and the Shard, as we sit in his publisher’s London offices. “I’m not mellow compared to the average person, but I’m certainly a lot mellower than I was.”

The former tennis ace is here promoting his second autobiography, But Seriously.

His first, 2003’s Serious, charted his childhood and early days of tennis - which progressed to seven Grand Slam singles titles, the ‘Superbrat’ reputation and a tumultuous eight-year marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal, marred by her addiction battles, his hot temper and a prolonged custody battle for their three children.

Now, the follow-up deals with his struggles to reinvent himself as a father, art collector, musician and broadcaster, his relationship with second wife Patty Smyth, and his efforts to be the best father he could to his six children (he had another two daughters and a step-daughter with Patty).

By his own admission, he’s been a strict disciplinarian, like his late father, a lawyer, which hasn’t always gone down well.

“I’m sure if you asked some of my kids, they wouldn’t say I’m mellow. I find it ironic that I’m the one more often than not calming Patty down. If you don’t mature and mellow and have a better overview and perspective of things at 58, you are going to be a kid your entire life.”

After retiring from professional tennis in 1992, at first, he admits he filled the space by smoking more marijuana than he should have done.

He stopped when he discovered his children, then in their early teens, were pinching his stash, while Tatum accused him of being a drug addict during the custody battle.

He never pushed his children into tennis. However, he recalls how when he’d watch them at sports events, other parents expected him to react.

“Sometimes I’d sit there and not say anything, while parents are expecting me to explode. Then after the event, my kids would say, ‘God, you didn’t say anything!’ You can’t win.

As for fame, he reflects: “If a whole day passed when someone didn’t say, ‘You cannot be serious!’ to me, that would be amazing. Half an hour going by without it sometimes seems unlikely. My feelings about that are a strange juxtaposition of embarrassment and pride: On the one hand, that this is what I represent to people; on the other, at least I represent something.

“Ultimately, pride wins out.”

l But Seriously by John McEnroe is published by Orion, priced £20.