McEnroe: too much baseline, not enough drop shots

Barney Douglas’s documentary delivers few net benefits, courting fans with vintage footage but failing to serve up new insights into the star’s psyche.

15 July 2022

By David Parkinson

John McEnroe in McEnroe (2022) © Paola Franqui
Sight and Sound

The Open Era in men’s tennis was less than a decade old when a hot-headed left-hander from Queens gatecrashed Wimbledon. With his red headband and redder mists, John McEnroe was to his sport what John Lydon had been to pop music. It’s apt that Barney Douglas’s documentary should end with the prescient Public Image Ltd lyric, ‘I’m not the same as when I began.’

A closing caption declares McEnroe to be the most decorated male player since 1968, with 155 singles and doubles titles to his credit. The statistic is misleading: he is only fifth on the list when it comes to singles alone and he is one of eight whose total of seven Grand Slams has been surpassed by 15 others.

Yet, decades after ‘Superbrat’ began to mellow(ish) into one of tennis’s most authoritative pundits, McEnroe retains the subversive inclination that makes him a more compelling and complex personality than any of his peers. Douglas isn’t the first to notice this. McEnroe’s rivalry with Swede Björn Borg was recalled by HBO in McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice (2011) and Janus Metz Pedersen’s drama, Borg vs McEnroe (2017). His playing style was analysed in Gil de Kermedec’s supreme study of sporting prowess, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (2018), while longtime colleague Sue Barker coaxed him into letting down his guard in the BBC’s John McEnroe: Still Rockin’ At 60 (2019).

So what’s left for Douglas to fathom? As with The Edge (2019), his insight into the pressures of playing Test cricket, Douglas seeks home truths by analysing the elite sport psyche. He also prompts McEnroe to discuss his relationships with his manager-father and wives Tatum O’Neal and Patty Smyth. But the former champ is too adept to let slip any startling revelations. Indeed, Douglas seems to have put less thought into his line of off-camera questioning than the computerised graphics employed to convey McEnroe’s emotional topography and the arch linking sequences of the pensive sixtysomething taking a dark-night-of-the-soul stroll around New York.

Editor Steve Williams deftly links the archive clips to remind us that, even when McEnroe was at the peak of his perfectionist powers, he was often more the victim of self-doubt than class-driven antagonism. Footage from around his mid-’80s sabbatical is particularly instructive: it shows McEnroe edging towards Borg’s conclusion that winning at all costs was no longer worth the strain.

Thirty years after quitting the professional tour, McEnroe concedes he still may not be at peace. But at least he’s no longer in pieces.

► McEnroe is in UK cinemas now.

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