The mouth still roars
But Seriously by John McEnroe Little, Brown, 288pp
For the umpteenth time, John McEnroe has stirred up controversy the best way he knows how – with his mouth. During a promotional tour of his new memoir, But Seriously, the 58-year-old American tennis legend said that 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams would be ranked “like 700 in the world” if she played on the men’s tour.
That crack prompted criticism from the media, tennis fans and even McEnroe’s daughters. But McEnroe is standing by his comments even while reiterating his respect for Williams. It’s vintage McEnroe, who prides himself on being candid.
The same spirit appears throughout his new book, a follow-up to his 2002 bestseller, You Cannot Be Serious. He opines on a variety of subjects, including tennis (“As far as I’m concerned, doubles is on life-support”), art, music, religion and politics (“I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal”).
McEnroe, the self-appointed “Commissioner of Tennis”, appears nostalgic and even reflective on some of his past behaviour and comments, especially when it comes to issues with his family. In several chapters, he comes off as a self-deprecating husband and father, but it wouldn’t be authentic McEnroe if the book were about being sorry.
“If there’s one thing I’ve always done, it’s speak my mind,” he writes. “It’s got me into trouble in the past, as everyone knows, but at least people know what I’m thinking.”
From the first chapter, McEnroe makes a few things clear: he takes tennis very seriously, even keeping count of his record on the senior tour; and his family, particularly his second wife, musician Patty Smyth, and his six children have been instrumental in softening his cantankerous personality.
Recently McEnroe has begun to refer to himself as a feminist and take an interest in women’s rights issues, something he says he started to care more about because of his four grown daughters.
“Thanks to my daughters in large part, I now realize how important it is for young girls to have the same opportunities as boys to take part in physical activity,” he says. “I am proud to be a feminist.” In the same chapter McEnroe defends equal prize money for female tennis players, and he praises Serena and her sister, Venus, for the challenges they’ve overcome as black female athletes.
McEnroe, a seven-time grand slam champion, expresses confusion as to why the subject of him playing Serena continues to come up. He recalls that the first time it happened was in 2000 when Donald Trump offered $1m to the winner between McEnroe and Serena or Venus. Neither Williams sister accepted Trump’s offer, yet that doesn’t prevent McEnroe from offering his opinion on the hypothetical matchup: “Don’t tell anybody, but I may still be able to [beat Serena].”
But the most tender and vulnerable moments in the book arrive when McEnroe writes about not being appreciative enough of his late father, his son Kevin’s arrest for alleged cocaine possession, and his own battles with drug use.
“Hopefully, over the past few years I’ve made some progress in grudgingly figuring out how to become a better person, and am now known for more than just hitting a tennis ball and getting upset and yelling at linesmen and umpires,” McEnroe says early in the book. “But I’ll leave that for you to judge.”