The mouth still roars

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Ke­lyn Soong

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.”

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