Few athletes were as dominant and controversial as tennis star John McEnroe.
His life off the court and career on the court are both explored in the gripping new documentary “McEnroe,” which premieres on Showtime this Friday.
“I went and met him and started digging into his life, thinking, wow, this guy is fascinating and one of the greats, and that’s kind of been forgotten and washed over by some of his antics,” Director Barney Douglas told WTOP. “I felt there’s a lot to dig into as a filmmaker.”
The film features new sit-down interviews with McEnroe, who admits that he didn’t think tennis was cool as a kid until he saw Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis and Björn Borg.
“He got sucked in by the Connors and Björn Borgs, this Greek God, even though he was Swedish, with girls chasing after him, screaming like he was a member of The Beatles,” Douglas said. “Obviously this caught a young John’s eye … you’d drink afterward, you’d go out, party hard, you could swear on the court and get in contact with the crowd.”
Indeed, the name John McEnroe instantly conjures images of outbursts, slamming tennis rackets and shouting at line judges, “You’re pathetic!” and “You cannot be serious!”
“Sometimes it drives people crazy, sometimes it resonates with them, but I think what people really appreciate is behavior that is authentic and not Machiavellian,” Douglas said. “He doesn’t try to make you like him, he just is who he is … I didn’t realize what a truly great, magic player he was — and that has been overshadowed by his outbursts.”
Visually, the film uses “Tron” graphics to show how McEnroe saw the court.
“The way that John’s brain worked, he could mathematically break up the court and play percentages,” Douglas said. “When he felt something was out or not, and the umpires make these mistakes, you can see why it tapped into his frustrations because he mathematically knew the percentages!”
Through interviews with tennis legends (Billie Jean King) and rockstars (Keith Richards), the film paints a picture of McEnroe’s legacy in pop culture and sports: “McEnroe won 155 combined titles, majors, doubles, singles, which is still to this day the most of any (men’s) tennis player, which makes you realize where he stands in the pantheon of the greats.”