Review: In McEnroe, the Tennis Great Reflects on a Career Driven by His Exacting Strategy and Explosive Temper

Told with more compassion and pathos than perhaps even John McEnroe would grant himself, the documentary McEnroe profiles one of the greatest tennis players the game has ever produced. With remarkably candid and open interviews with the subject, as well as many of his now-grown children, his brother, his wife (singer Patty Smyth), rival/friend Bjorn Borg, tennis great Billie Jean King, and even musician Keith Richards, the film digs deep into McEnroe’s personal history and his style of playing on the court, including a surprisingly close examination of the notorious tantrums that made him both an annoyance or a hero, depending on how you view him.

McEnroe uses a bizarre but somewhat effective motif of the subject walking his native, neon-soaked streets of New York at night (perhaps this was meant to be the city in the early 1980s, when McEnroe was at his peak), seeing the world as a series of patterns to be conquered and mastered, much as he did on the court. He always knew exactly which square on the tennis court grid he wanted the ball to land on. Some speculate that he may be on the autism spectrum, but regardless, he used his unique way of seeing the world as a means to win at tennis. His overly attentive father pushed him hard, and rarely enlisted any type of positive affection to encourage his son to do better. Instead, he was one of his biggest critics when he didn’t win, and he ended up becoming his business manager for many early years in McEnroe’s career.

Much like his son, the elder McEnroe frequently lost his temper, but when he drank (which was nearly every day), he was a happy drunk, and it was during those times when he was most like a loving father instead of a coach or adviser. The film also swings through McEnroe’s rise to fame, becoming friends with much cooler and more connected players like Vitas Gerulaitis, who inspired him to play guitar and live a wilder lifestyle off the court (Gerulaitis was a regular at Studio 54). In terms of on-court accomplishments, McEnroe spends the most time examining several matches with Borg, whom McEnroe saw as his arch-rival but also a genuine friend, one of the few people who knew what the view at the top was like and how magnificent and treacherous it could be. But for all the advice Borg could give him, McEnroe had to learn the hard way, which he certainly did during his first marriage to actor Tatum O’Neal, ill-timed to the beginning of McEnroe’s professional downfall.

Director Barney Douglas isn’t quite trying to tell the entire story here (he basically ignores McEnroe’s entire career as a successful tennis broadcaster), but he succeeds in painting a fairly complete, intimate portrait of this complicated man who has spent a great deal of his post-tennis life trying to find meaningful connection, as well as be a better father, husband, and person. He seems himself as both from New York but also embodying it in both his anger and newfound empathy. The sports highlights almost take care of themselves in terms of the highlights of McEnroe’s life, but it’s the more confessional material that is truly compelling and eye-opening in many ways.

The film is now on all streaming and on demand platforms for Showtime subscribers, before making its on-air debut on Sunday, September 4.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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