Popular culture

Bad boy or tennis perfectionist? Showtime’s ‘McEnroe’ is a candid exploration of a complex star

Ask a bunch of people who John McEnroe is in 2022 and you’ll probably get at least a few different answers. Tennis fans will undoubtedly identify him as one of the greatest to ever play the sport as well as one of its best commentators. Gen Z might choose him as the inexplicable but eerily perfect narrator of Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy “Never Have I Ever.” Others might only know him by name and/or reputation – his outbursts on the pitch are infamous and securely preserved in popular culture.

Fact is, we all think we know John McEnroe, but writer-director Barney Douglas’ new Showtime documentary, “McEnroe,” tries to set the record straight by painting an intimate portrait of a complicated perfectionist whose unparalleled skill and intense demeanor have taken him to the top of the sport while making him a polarizing figure both on and off the pitch.

Less a hagiography and more a dive into the psyche of an elite athlete who, like so many before and after, was thrust onto the world stage at a relatively young age, the hour and 43 minute film is a slyly charming confessional from one of the bad boys in sports. It combines extensive archival footage and home videos with candid interviews of John, his brother Patrick (with whom he often covers tennis matches), his wife Patty Smyth and his adult children. Even fellow tennis greats Billie Jean King and Björn Borg are on board (the latter from his jealousy-evoking lake house), offering their own unique insights into an existence most of us will never understand and can never understand. The result is a revealing look at the life and career of a man who is far more than the tabloid headlines about him ever suggested. But in some ways, the movie could go even further.

Set against the backdrop of a single night as McEnroe roams the streets of his hometown of New York, “McEnroe” begins like most documentaries: at the beginning. We learn how John started playing tennis at a young age at a club near his home, how the sport saw a significant rise in popularity in the 1970s alongside the likes of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase, Vitas Gerulaitis and, of course, Borg (the hair depicted in this particular sequence is worthy of its own documentary).

From there, it chronicles McEnroe’s rise through the tennis ranks, from his first Wimbledon appearance as an 18-year-old qualifier in 1977 to his bitter five-set loss to Ivan Lendl in the Wimbledon final. ‘French Open in 1984. In the minutes between, we are treated to ruminations on greatness – what it is and what it means – and insight into McEnroe’s friendship with Gerulaitis and rivalries with Connors and Borg (the iconic 1980 Wimbledon final definitely gets its due). There’s also plenty of time devoted to McEnroe’s relationship with his father, who eventually became his manager, and the role the eldest played throughout his son’s life.

John McEnroe (USA) in action with a raised racket at the 1980 Championships, at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. (AELTC/Michael Cole)

The film does all of this with a cheeky sense of style. There’s almost a “Succession”-like quality to the opening credits, and the graphics that mimic or reflect McEnroe’s temperament are certainly goofy, but they also make sense in the context of this being a documentary about a man known primarily for his explosive personality. (if anyone can get away with using the visual effects of a thunderstorm brewing in the desert, it’s probably John McEnroe). Meanwhile, the sound editing during the 1984 French Open sequence probably deserves an award for how it completely immerses viewers in the experience.

But if there’s one flaw in “McEnroe,” it’s one that plagues too many documentaries like this: it tries to fit a lifespan into a shorter runtime than the last finale of ” Stranger Things”. Despite his subject’s willingness to talk openly about his life, his frustrations, his famous on-field antics and even his drug use (“The cocaine…let’s just say it didn’t help,” says -he at some point), there is still a lot of unsaid.

As one of the greatest tennis players of all time (which is saying something considering we live in a world in which Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have taken the sport to new and ridiculous), McEnroe probably would have benefited from having more time to dig into the exciting details of his storied career, especially since much of what is known about him, especially by younger audiences , only makes the headlines. A 10-episode docuseries à la “The Last Dance” is unnecessary, but to limit McEnroe’s rapid rise, eventual downfall, and the shockwaves that reverberated throughout his personal life and professional at anything less than, say, the runtime of “Avengers: Endgame,” means a lot will have to be left out.

When you try to unpack a man’s life and career with the intention of understanding his psyche – especially one as complex as McEnroe, who was once called “Superbrat” by British tabloids but is now one of the most respected in tennis. experts – seeing the changes that have taken place over time is key to understanding the man. So while it’s an entertaining celebration of a sports prodigy that will appeal to a variety of viewers, “McEnroe” doesn’t feel quite complete.

The good news is that what’s included in the film makes for an engaging viewing experience, especially the time spent on McEnroe’s relationship with Borg. Known as Fire and Ice due to their vastly different behaviors on the pitch, their rivalry provides some sort of backbone amid the timeline documentary, as we relive various matches and how they pushed each other. others to be the best until The timeline finally reaches Borg’s sudden retirement at the age of 26 in 1983. His abrupt departure from the sport left a void that greatly affected McEnroe, and the fact that Borg agreed to d Being interviewed for the film reveals as much about his personal relationship with McEnroe today. as he does about their fierce battle on the ground decades ago.

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Meanwhile, interviews with McEnroe’s adult children remind us of a world we the public have never been privy to: a celebrity’s private life that continues long after the game is over or quitting. cameras. And it’s those fresh, eye-opening moments that make “McEnroe” so worth watching, as we see how his former controversial subject’s actions and relationships have affected their lives and their relationship with him as well. They ultimately remind us that no matter what we thought we knew about him, we never really knew John McEnroe. And while we might know a little more now, there’s still so much we’ll probably never quite understand.

“McEnroe” is currently available on Showtime on demand/streaming and premieres Sunday, September 4 at 7 p.m. ET on Showtime. Watch a trailer, via YouTube.