One of the greatest tennis players of all time, John McEnroe is certainly renowned for his numerous accolades – but he is perhaps most frequently remembered for his infamous mid-match outbursts when contesting the judges’ decisions, and for the attitude he displayed during interviews and public appearances. Director Barney Douglas takes on the challenge of narrating the life of the tennis star and of analysing his talent and his behaviours through archival footage and interviews.
The documentary begins with McEnroe reflecting on his career and looking back at his childhood. His go-getting mindset and strong ambition were already apparent in first grade when he would get upset for receiving an A- instead of an A+. The desire to be the best was instilled in him by his father who expected nothing but perfection from his gifted son. This helped kickstart McEnroe’s career, but his complicated relationship with his father, who was also his agent for many years, remained a constant issue that he never got to untangle.
The first half of the documentary mainly looks at the athlete’s skills and his stardom. Although he was hot-headed, his mathematical mind made him approach the game methodically: he remembers looking at the court as if it were a chessboard. His rivalry (turned friendship) with Bjorn Borg is of course central to the narrative. Borg himself appears on screen to share his side of the story and look back at his early retirement and the way it negatively affected the ever-competitive McEnroe.
McEnroe attracted just as much attention outside the tennis court as he did when playing. He was a sort of rockstar figure who played guitar, answered journalists brazenly and attracted a lot of paparazzi attention for his marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal. The second part of the biographical account delves into his private life and particularly his role as a father. His divorce from Tatum meant that he was absent from his children’s lives, but he felt he got a second chance at building a happy family when he met his current wife, singer Patty Smyth.
The documentary mentions all the family dynamics that contributed to shaping the tennis star’s character and his career, and it is fascinating to see how his story unfolds. While Douglas does cover everything that influenced McEnroe, however, it seems that even a documentary that sets out specifically to contain him in a linear narrative fails to pinpoint what really lay beneath his greatness and his waywardness. Ultimately, the man himself remains elusive.
McEnroe is released nationwide on 15th July 2022.
Watch the trailer for McEnroe here: