John McEnroe never had a chance — he was too loud for our liking. By the early ’80s, the years of McEnroe’s prime and our confused adolescence, we had moved on from our one-time favourite angry, young man to the actor who played Vijay in most of his movies and who showed how a quiet anger was a powerful force. Much to our horror, he went ahead and got involved in politics. We lost touch then, and till date, continue to drift apart. McEnroe was also angry and young. But he tried way too hard to be a rebel and an underdog. He failed, and was consequently a put-off.
Tennis did have a Vijay look-alike. He was a tall Swede who spoke less and, most importantly, remained unperturbed when surrounded by trouble. Bjorn Borg was the ultimate apogee of cool. Borg improved upon the good-old “strong & silent”, enhancing it by adding sophistication. The golden locks dancing nimbly on his shoulders, the sharp nose that angled the way Pythagoras would have theorised on, that unruly philosopher’s stubble on sunken cheeks made for a persona that’s usually bestowed on those born with the “crown of light”. Borg on his knees after winning his fifth straight Wimbledon — now a movie, Borg vs McEnroe — resembled Christ, even in those ’80s micro tennis shorts. Such was the power of the Stockholm Saint that our pliant minds adopted everything Swedish. Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd, Mikael Pernfors, Jan-Ove Waldner, Tomas Brolin, ABBA, Ace of Base, Roxette, even Olof Palme… we spared none. So deep-rooted was this fixation — call it a variation of Stockholm Syndrome — we backed Sweden even when India played them in the Davis Cup final in the late ’80s.
In contrast, McEnroe made you despise everything American. He was undoubtedly the world’s best tennis player, but he was also a bully. At the 1990 Australian Open, he ranted at a middle-aged lineswoman while standing just a racket swing away from her. He stared at her uncomfortably long, bouncing the ball on the strings all the time. McEnroe mirrored the American stereotype of that era — the boorish superpower of post-Vietnam.
He would regularly call umpires names, “jerk” being the more pleasant of his choicest salutations. Borg would question a line call with a polite inquiry: “Are you sure?”, McEnroe would start with “You can’t be serious?”. The infamous booming bark would be the title of his 2002 biography.
Fifteen years later, he lets go a weak second serve, called But Seriously. Bio-sequels, as a rule, throw up a fundamental question. Does he really need two books to tell his story? He has had an eventful life — seven Grand Slams, married to an actress first and later to a singer, smoked pot with the famous, partied with the A-listers, played the guitar with rockstars, hosted a popular talk show, appeared in movies, indulged in an art collection — but, still, two biographies?
After wasting a few perplexed minutes wondering what the serial umpire-abuser was doing sitting on the chair he abused all through his career — that’s the cover — the first few pages are flipped guessing what’s in store. Was the book about the so far unchronicled 2002 to 2017 phase of his life or is it the re-heated left-overs from the last book? The third paragraph of the first chapter clears the air. “This is going to be much more than a chronology of everything that’s happened to me since the last one… I’m going to intercut a straightforward account of my life as it’s unfolded with stories about the past experience that made me the person I am.”
This is followed by probably the most honest disclaimer you would ever hope to read in a celebrity biography. “I’ll be dropping so many names in this book it’ll make your head spin!”. And, just one tap of the space bar later, he tries to wrap the warning with lame humour. He writes: (“Just kidding…sort of”). No, he isn’t kidding and like all “sort ofs” this one, too, is a lie.
It’s a book where the reader is given to feel like a by-stander on the fringe of a red-carpet outside an auditorium that, by some magical coincidence, is jointly hosting the Oscars-Grammy-Emmy the same evening. Going through each chapter is like making your way through a melee of celebrities. Tom Hanks, Elton John, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Chrissie Hynde, John Cusack, Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Arnold Schwrzenegger, Phil Knight, Muhammad Ali, among others, have walk-on parts. Written in a bland colloquial tone, it also has long boring sections about his second wife’s version of how they met, the politics of the talk show world, and a long chapter on the art world’s con job.
There’s tennis too.For example, how Donald Trump offered him $1 million to play Serena Williams and running into Bill Clinton at Wimbledon while commentating. The name dropping will make you dizzy, he had said at the start. But seriously, this qualifies as OD. Surprising for a man of his wealth and eminence, McEnroe seems obsessed with being in the company of the rich and famous.
However, his honesty jumps out of the pages. He writes in detail about how he was in awe of his more popular peers — Vitas Gerulaitis and Borg — not just because of their tennis skills but for their long blond hair and indefinable charisma. Later in the book, he ends a chapter with lines that sum up his disappointment over the kind of memories he evokes among masses. “The funny thing is, along with Adam Sandler’s Mr Deeds, that episode of Curb remains one of the things that a lot of people must know me for. Not the tennis. Not the commentary. Just those two short moments on screen. Go figure.”
Sadly, even those who remember his tennis hardly talk about the smooth sweep of his strokes, his measured rush to the net, the knack of perfectly middling the ball and those angled left-handed serves.That’s a self-inflicted wound. The book hints that his outbursts, too, were premeditated and measured. “I knew how far I could push the envelope… because the tournament directors never had the nerve to default one of their star players… I wasn’t stupid either… if I totally lost control, I knew it would be tough to recover.” Textbook bully, those lines scream out.
On most days during his career, the voice of his racket got drowned by abuse and invectives he hurled at the chair. Biography II, too, has failed to change McEnroe’s legacy. He will remain the one who legitimised obnoxious. After a point, he thought it was his duty towards the paying public to put on a show between rallies, where the officials played the unwitting and silent props.
McEnroe will always be remembered as the man who inspired a generation of tennis players to not just belt the living daylights out of the ball but to also smash their wooden rackets to pieces. He also made Borg look better, almost like Vijay.