LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the early to mid-1980s, John McEnroe was the top ranked men's tennis player in the world, winning Wimbledon three times and the U.S. Open four. He also became known for his outbursts, like this one on the court when he thought umpires had missed a call.
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JOHN MCENROE: You can't be serious, man. You cannot be serious.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His first memoir was named after those iconic lines. And now he's got a follow up. It's called "But Seriously." And don't tell him he doesn't have a sense of humor. John McEnroe joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program.
MCENROE: Glad to be here, Lulu. Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So one of the really fun aspects of this book is looking at the players that you clearly didn't like - I would hazard a guess Jimmy Connors is one of them...
MCENROE: (Laughter) Yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And the ones that you have had an enduring friendship with, like Bjorn Borg. And you mentioned that he gives you a gift every time he comes to the United States.
MCENROE: Yes. He's - it's been tremendous that I've had this not only friendship but iconic match and matches that people have talked about. And yes, he does always bring me some of his underwear.
MCENROE: I think that's...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you wear it?
MCENROE: ...what you were getting at, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was getting at the underwear. I was getting at the underwear. And you wear it?
MCENROE: I do wear it. I do wear it proudly. And, you know, he's done great because, initially, he had some struggles with his first clothing line. But this one's been fantastic and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's come...
MCENROE: ...Anything I can do to help.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that you and Borg have in common is that you say that he saw winning as everything. But you seem to have changed. At least when I'm reading this book, you know, you seem to not take yourself too seriously now.
MCENROE: Well, believe it or not, I didn't take myself too seriously back then, although maybe I made a lot people...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's hard to believe.
MCENROE: Yeah, it is hard to believe. To me, where we went off and verged in separate paths - that even though I'm extremely disappointed that the last seven years of my career, I didn't play as well as I thought I was or get better and keep improving, I didn't want to quit tennis at 26 years old or 27, when I had my first child. And he chose, at 25, to quit, which to me would seem crazy 'cause at that age, very rarely would you know what you'd want to do to follow up something as intense as what he had been doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, this is an interesting point because this book seems to be about reinvention. In the book, you describe post-pro life as - and I'm quoting here - "the dark side of that dividing line, the one where you have to find your own path, where it's often unclear where you should be going, where many athletes stumble and fall."
Is that what it felt like for you, at least at the beginning, when you decided that you were going to cross that line?
MCENROE: Well, at the beginning, I was actually going through what turned out to be a separation and divorce from my first wife.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tatum O'Neal.
MCENROE: So I was unable to really even think about anything else. We had three kids together, and my head was all over the place. And I couldn't even think about playing tennis and the transition that I was anticipating I was going to be making. And so for a period of years, it was - for quite a few years, for me, I was sort of lost but was open enough to experiment with some different things and to sort of keep somewhat close to some of the things I knew I wanted to be at least a part of my life and then try to slowly but surely experiment so I could find myself again, which isn't easy when you've peaked in your career at 26 years old.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, let me make a list here of all the things that you did on this road - talk show host, musician, art collector. You've been in movies and TV shows. Of all the things that you did, what was the thing that you liked the most?
MCENROE: Yeah. I would love to have been, like, a good guitar player in Patty's band.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The great singer Patty Smyth.
MCENROE: But that was not going to happen. Someone...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She told you that she absolutely doesn't play with people that she's in a relationship with. So pretty early on...
MCENROE: Which I - yeah. Well, that's one thing she said. She also said, look, I want to play mixed doubles with you at Wimbledon. And I said, well, you don't play tennis. And she said, exactly.
MCENROE: So that sort of humbled me. But unfortunately, I'm not a great musician, so I need to be around people that could sort of lift my game.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are parts of this book where your wife, Patty Smyth, gives her perspective on you, about why people loved you on the court and your outbursts. And she says it's because you were expressing what people felt that they couldn't. Did you feel like that's what you were doing?
MCENROE: I think that as I look back and you have some perspective. I would say, to some extent, the answer was yes when I was in the middle of it. I mean, certainly now when I play - I mean, if I don't yell at an official or do something, they dock my pay.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) People feel cheated, people that come to see you.
MCENROE: I get a bonus. Yeah. I used to get fined for saying something to the ump. And now I get fined if I don't say something, which is sort of pathetic in a way. But it's sort of amazing that, 40 years later, people are still sort of - (screaming) you can't be serious. You know, if a day goes by where I don't hear that at least a couple times, it's a miracle.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the burning question that people, when I said I was going to speak to John McEnroe, that they have is, why isn't there a better American male player right now?
MCENROE: How much time do we have?
MCENROE: We - there's a lot of reasons. But the biggest one to me is that the cost of it - the cost to play, the cost to train, the cost to get a court - all of this factors into the difficulty of getting a champion. The truth is That the best athletes now - and the game has become more athletic than ever and quicker. You need to be more athletic. And our best athletes mainly are playing in basketball or football, say.
And for example, if you take the court - size of a tennis court and you decide you want to use it for a soccer field, say, you could fit a lot more kids. So just the numbers - when you talk about schools, they say, well, it's better if we get a - put a little soccer field there and we get 20 kids running around, kicking a ball 'cause you can just kick it, and people think they know what they're doing, whereas tennis doesn't come as easily as that. It's way more difficult.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're talking about male players. But there is, of course, wonderful female players. Let's talk about Serena Williams. You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.
MCENROE: Best female player ever, no question.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some wouldn't qualify it. Some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
MCENROE: Oh, she's not - you mean the best player in the world, period?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, best tennis player in the world - you know, why say female player?
MCENROE: Well, because if she was - if she played the men's circuit, she'd be, like, 700 in the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You think so?
MCENROE: Yeah. That doesn't mean I don't think Serena's, like, an incredible player. I do. But there's, you know - the reality of what would happen on a given day - Serena could beat some players, I believe, because she's so incredibly strong mentally. But if she had to just play the circuit - the men's circuit - that would be an entirely different story. So maybe at some point, a women's tennis player, you know, can be better than anybody. I mean, I just - I haven't seen it in any other sport, and I haven't seen it in tennis. And I suppose anything's possible at some stage.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where do you go from here? You know, you've had such a varied road, such huge success. What's next? What do you want?
MCENROE: I feel strongly that I need to sort of make sure that I enjoy the upcoming 10, hopefully 20 years of my life and just appreciate the ride that it's been and be able to continue to sort of find ways to sort of find that inner peace in a way because that's difficult for me. I'm a - I sort of grew up a perfectionist, getting pushed, pushed, pushed a lot. And to me, especially when my dad passed away a few months ago, I started being, wait a second - you've got to just take a step back here and smell the roses a little bit more. So that - if any, that would be my No. 1 goal moving ahead.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: John McEnroe - his book is called "But Seriously." Thank you so much for joining us.
MCENROE: Thank you, Lulu, for having me. I appreciate it.
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