Master of the unexpected
Being John McEnroe
Tim Adams Yellow Jersey, 128pp, £10
If you're put off by the £10 price tag on this little book, don't be; it's terrific. On one level, it's about the author's fascination with a tennis player. But it's much more than this; it's a book about how the world has changed in our lifetime. John McEnroe was a tennis player with a difference - one who wanted to express his feelings. At first, he was hated, and then after a while he was loved. At first, he loved himself, and then after a while he slid into depression. Like Holden Caulfield, says Adams, he was "unable and unwilling to grow up, full of complicated genius and unresolved conflict, constantly railing against the phonies".
Adams describes McEnroe by first explaining how he was different from his great rival, Bjorn Borg. Borg was steady; McEnroe was mercurial and unpredictable. Borg re- lied on power; Mc-Enroe on surprise. Borg, says Adams, played like an automaton, switching off his conscious mind as he paced around at the back of the court. McEnroe, on the other hand, was fully conscious at all times; you could see him thinking as the ball came towards him. His was a risky game, but it paid off. "It sounds strange," said Borg, "but he has more touch than Nastase. He is a master of the unexpected. I can never anticipate his shots."
McEnroe, then, was the same sort of sporting genius as Muhammad Ali or perhaps Gazza; he relied on instinct and individuality rather than brute strength or hard work. He trained much less than the other players on the circuit and developed his own personal way of doing things, such as his famous twisty service which "seemed to give him time to think, or at least to gather his wild and whirling thoughts". As Clive James once put it: "You have to realise that McEnroe is serving around the corner of an imaginary building."
As a player, McEnroe was certainly fascinating. "You could begin to argue," writes Adams, "that his matches were like action paintings, or jazz solos, or the creative efforts of a writer faced always with a blank page." To Clive James, he hit the ball with "a sniper's caution"; to his opponent Arthur Ashe, he was "a stiletto", who "just slices people up . . . It's slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you've got blood all over you, even though the wounds aren't deep. Soon after that you've bled to death."
But if McEnroe was a great player, it was his temper tantrums that made him a global icon. Imagine that; he was a man who could hit a ball with more guile and subtlety than anyone on earth, but the thing about him that people came to love was his inability to control himself. "The way I acted on a tennis court was more the way people acted in life," he said. As Adams points out, McEnroe's behaviour struck a chord that soon took on a global resonance. He was the ultimate individual. By the late 1970s, "he demonstrated on court the kind of naked self-obsession that seemed to characterise the decade that followed - while he was playing there was no such thing as society".
In a sense, then, McEnroe became the patron saint of the 1980s. One interesting development in his career came when Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, enlisted his services as the face of the company. McEnroe was exactly the sort of player Knight was looking for - "the kind of athletes that embarrass grown-ups were entirely acceptable Nike guys," he said. As Adams points out, Nike became a model for the 1980s and 1990s economy because the company didn't just sell shoes and tracksuits - it sold emotion. And John McEnroe was emotion personified. He was exactly like "the ideal consumer: perpetually dissatisfied, restless, and constantly seeking personal gratification".
Naturally, there was a terrible price to pay. For one thing, the economy of the tennis circuit began to depend on McEnroe's outbursts - this is what people came along to see, so McEnroe began to get away with more and more tantrums. "The more that professional tennis money depended on me," he said, "the more things seemed to be under my control." Like many celebrities, he began to be imprisoned by his image. And for another thing, he missed Borg. Without the Great Plodder, the Superbrat could never quite be himself. "There was a level of respect there that I never really reached with anyone else," he said.
This is a wonderful essay on individuality, as well as a cracking book about tennis. There is some classy analysis about other tennis champions such as Becker, Lendl, Agassi and Cash; and interesting material on McEnroe's marriage - in Tatum O'Neal, he did not find a substitute for Borg but another version of himself. The marriage didn't last. Finally, this is a book on the loneliness of genius. When he finally became champion of the world, McEnroe said: "I'm the greatest player who ever lived. Why do I feel so empty inside?" Truly a modern hero.