Tuesday, August 06, 2002

McEnroe confessional sometimes painful

But tennis insights should thrill fans

By Neil Schmidt nschmidt@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One trait that made John McEnroe stand out (and alone) in the tennis world was the manner in which he met the media after his matches. It was as if he had plopped down on a psychiatrist's couch. He was uncommonly revealing, regaling reporters with tales of his inner turmoil.

        It's no surprise then that You Cannot Be Serious, his autobiography, reads like an unedited transcript of conflicted thoughts.

        Now a television commentator, Mr. McEnroe won't be in town this week for the Western & Southern Financial Masters, but at 43 he remains the game's most outspoken presence. This book will win him few friends in the sport but he should be credited for being consistent in his criticisms of himself and others.

        At times, his confessional tone feels too raw. Every crying jag is recounted — and there are many. Sometimes, it comes across as a man who can't get a grip. Other times, though, it's hard not to feel sorry for him, as when he talks about the end of his marriage to actress Tatum O'Neal coinciding in 1982 with the end of his career. Mr. McEnroe, committing to playing in three year-end tournaments, spent the changeovers crying into a towel.

        The book traces Mr. McEnroe's life from childhood prodigy to semi-retired adult raising six children. Obviously, the focus is on the tennis, and fans of the sport should delight in the details. Mr. McEnroe has an uncanny recollection of matches even a quarter-century old.

        He writes of his fitful ascension, knowing he was talented enough to become No.1 but fighting insecurity at every step. Of particular interest are descriptions of his rivals. Of Bjorn Borg, he writes, “I thought he was magical — like some kind of Viking god who'd landed on the tennis court.” Jimmy Connors was his most vexing foe, and he exchanged trash talk with Mr. Connors during most of their matches. He gives grudging appreciation of Ivan Lendl's work ethic.

        A highlight is the six pages devoted to the 1981 Davis Cup finals in Cincinnati, played at then-Riverfront Coliseum, in which he led a narrow, wild victory over Argentina.

        Mr. McEnroe admits to still being haunted by the 1984 French Open, when in the midst of his finest season he blew a two-set lead in the finals against Mr. Lendl.

        There is much discussion but no apparent explanation for his famed on-court outbursts. He seems to have an excuse for each occasion.

        Mr. McEnroe is regretful for his time away from Ms. O'Neal, and how it may have contributed to the failure of their marriage. He laments the falling out he had with friend/doubles partner Peter Fleming. He is penitent even for mistakes in his current marriage to rock singer Patty Smyth.

        His bullheaded attempts to launch a music career are amusing. Mr. McEnroe even includes his top 25 rock 'n' roll moments at the back of the book, and he hints at a political career.

        Love him or hate him, Mr. McEnroe raised his sport's profile. And his honesty, though sometimes painful, is admirable.


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