Tennis veteran John McEnroe is 'mellow' – seriously

Former world number one and bad boy of tennis John McEnroe claims he's mellowed – sort of. The former 'superbrat' talks to Hannah Stephenson about fatherhood, fame and finding love second time around.

John McEnroe voices his opinions during a tennis match against fellow American Jimmy Connors at London's Wembley Arena in 1981.
Hannah Stephenson

HE USED to be known for his on-court rages and Wimbledon umpire-baiting catchphrase "you cannot be serious!" as much as his superlative tennis skills.

Even today, three-time Wimbledon singles champion and respected BBC commentator John McEnroe is still courting controversy, whether it be labelling Andy Murray a 'distant fourth' behind Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or declaring that Serena Williams would be ranked '700 in the world' if she had to play on the men's circuit.

Yep, McEnroe (58) is still causing a stir with his down-the-line observations – but he's long since learned to volley away criticism and serve up some self-deprecating humour too.

"I've mellowed," says the former tennis ace when we meet to discuss his second autobiography, But Seriously.

"I'm not mellow compared to the average person, but I'm certainly a lot mellower than I was."

McEnroe's first book, 2003's Serious, charted his childhood and early days of tennis – which progressed to seven Grand Slam singles titles, the 'Superbrat' reputation and a tumultuous eight-year marriage to actress Tatum O'Neal (daughter of 1970s Hollywood star Ryan) marred by her addictions, his hot temper and a prolonged custody battle for their three children.

Now, the follow-up deals with his struggles to reinvent himself as a father, art collector, musician and broadcaster, his relationship with second wife Patty Smyth and his efforts to be the best father he could to his six children – which also include two daughters and a step-daughter with Patty.

By his own admission, McEnroe was a strict disciplinarian like his late father, a lawyer, which hasn't always gone down well:

"I'm sure if you asked some of my kids, they wouldn't say I'm mellow," he admits.

"I find it ironic that I'm the one more often than not calming Patty down. If you don't mature and mellow and have a better overview and perspective of things at 58, you are going to be a kid your entire life."

The pair met in 1993 when he was at a low ebb while going through his divorce.

"If there's any credit for the faint possibility that I might have become a slightly better, less selfish person over the last 20 years or so, the bulk of that should go to Patty," he writes.

Immediately after retiring from professional tennis in 1992, McEnroe admits he filled the space by smoking marijuana: he stopped when he discovered his teenage children were pinching his stash – but Tatum accused him of being a drug addict during their custody battle.

"I was going through a difficult time in my personal life. Sometimes it's hard to look in the mirror and face up to things," he says now.

Two years ago, his eldest son Kevin was arrested for what was thought to be possession of cocaine and prescription drugs. Although the substance found on him was baking soda, his father asked himself what he'd done wrong.

"I felt terrible. His mom had been arrested close by and I couldn't believe it had happened. I was very shocked.

"Kevin was always such a good person that it's been painful to watch him struggling, but I'm proud of how hard he's worked to get his life back on track over the last couple of years."

Relations with Sean, his second son who has always gravitated towards his mother (and changed his surname to O'Neal), are more difficult.

John says he wishes he'd been more sympathetic about the impact of being the son of a high-profile couple in the midst of a painful divorce.

"I wish I'd been more sympathetic as to how he was feeling. He's 29 and it seems like we've been unable recently to see eye to eye.

"We speak infrequently. We're in touch through texting or emailing, but I'm hopeful that changes tomorrow.

"I've tried my best," he continues. "On some levels, I haven't been as sympathetic to what it's like to grow up as the son or daughter of John McEnroe and how people look at them.

"I tried to discipline them on some level that they were normal kids. I felt I was doing a reasonably good job. But there's always two sides to a story."

In a recent interview, Kevin said his father was a tough disciplinarian and indicated he was still seeking his father's approval.

"A lot of kids do that. At some level I had that with my own father. I mean, how many Wimbledons is enough? How many years do I have to be number one?

"I tell this story where my dad finished second in law school out of 450 people and my mom said, 'Why weren't you first?'

"I'm like my parents. That's in part why I became who I am."

As for fame, he reflects: "If a whole day passed when someone didn't say, 'You cannot be serious!' to me, that would be amazing – half an hour going by without it sometimes seems unlikely.

"My feelings about that are a strange juxtaposition of embarrassment and pride: On the one hand, that this is what I represent to people; on the other, at least I represent something.

"Ultimately, pride wins out."

:: But Seriously by John McEnroe is published by Orion, priced £20

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access