37 Psychiatrists, cocaine and infidelity could not remedy my anger issues, says John McEnroe — however getting older did
HIS outrageous temper made him one of the most controversial sports stars on the planet – and John McEnroe says even 37 therapists couldn’t solve his anger problems.
In a searingly candid documentary, the three-time Wimbledon winner admits he’s been unable to enjoy his success – and how infidelity and cocaine ruined his marriage to his movie star wife.
Three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe admits he was unable to enjoy his 1980 success in a searingly candid documentaryPhoto credit: Getty – Contributor
Discussing his shattered marriage and drug addiction, he reveals 37 therapists couldn’t solve his anger issues, here with Tatum O’NealPhoto credit: Getty
McEnroe’s volcanic anger led to the emergence of his ‘You can’t be serious’ catchphrase in 1981 when a serve was ruled out in the first round of the SW19 tournament.
And in the same year he raged at referees, spectators and reporters at Wimbledon: “You are the abyss of the world! Vulture! Garbage!”
Now the seven-time Grand Slam champion, who once smashed a drinks tray with his racquet, admits he’s ashamed of his past.
McEnroe, 63, looks at footage of his worst behavior and says: “What are you? A bloody idiot?”
In the documentary, simply titled McEnroe, the man who dominated the game in the early 1980s speaks openly about his personal failings.
He admits to using cocaine and cheating on his Oscar-winning first wife Tatum O’Neal before their explosive divorce.
And he speaks openly about the bitter dispute with his alcoholic father, John McEnroe Sr., whom he dropped as his agent in 1986 just as his career went into freefall.
“I was crazy”
Having seen many psychologists, none of whom could contain his anger on center court, age has made him a calmer person and a more relaxed father to his five children.
But when they were younger, he admits, “I dabbled in tennis when I could have been a better dad.” Success on the court didn’t bring him happiness.
To understand why he felt nothing when he was world number one for four years, he asks: “I didn’t do my job well enough. In fact, I’ve done a great job.
“At this point I’m the best player that has ever played. Why doesn’t that feel great?”
McEnroe insists that growing up in New York, there were no demons to defeat to become the best.
Although his lawyer father was a heavy drinker, McEnroe says he was generally a “happy” drinker. Instead, it was his own desire for perfection that made him the hottest teenage tennis player in 1977.
But his younger brother Patrick, who was also a tennis pro, says John is similar to their father.
He says: “They were both very motivated. They both had a tendency to lash out.”
John arrived at Wimbledon as a wildcard at 18 and reached the semi-finals where he lost to legend Jimmy Connors in four sets.
Connors blanked the youngster as he said “nice to meet you sir” ahead of their match.
McEnroe says, “I learned from him, you gotta be a little ap***k out there.”
Tennis exploded in popularity with handsome Swede Bjorn Bjorg followed by screaming female fans.
McEnroe says, “It was amazing to travel the world, make money and meet girls.”
The formerly “boring, shy straight kid” started hanging out with movie stars at New York’s hedonistic nightclub, Studio 54.
And as his life off the tennis court got wilder, so did his behavior on it. In 1981 he was defeated by Bjorg in the Wimbledon final in one of the greatest matches of all time, but beat the Swede the following year.
I had to prove I could win it and I could really tell them to fuck themselves.
McEnroe was driven by a desire to silence his critics, saying, “I had to prove I could win and I could really tell them to fuck themselves.”
But he almost missed that opportunity after officials threatened to throw him out for yelling at a referee and berating: “You can’t be serious”.
McEnroe recalls telling himself to keep calm, but suddenly “boom – everything went out the window” when a close decision went against him. “I was crazy,” he admits.
“Nervous energy flying everywhere. Intensity, anger.” T
The All England Tennis Club traditionally awards honorary membership to Wimbledon winners, but because of its outbursts that didn’t happen in 1981.
Instead, McEnroe went to the club in London instead of attending the club winner’s event. Bjorg’s retirement from the game at just 26 after losing to McEnroe in the US Open final that same year deprived him of the opponent who upped his game.
During the 1984 tennis tour, McEnroe won 82 games and lost three – a record that remains unbeaten.
But privately his life was out of joint. McEnroe admits, “Nowadays they take performance-enhancing drugs. We took performance-reducing drugs. Putting smoke in your mouth is not the best thing.”
He befriended Rolling Stones guitarist and legendary drug addict Keith Richards, who appreciated the tennis rebel’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Richards said, “Who doesn’t mind yelling at a referee, man?”
When McEnroe was at his tennis peak, he fell in love with Tatum – the daughter of screen stars Ryan O’Neal and Joanna Moore.
Tatum, 58, shared her amphetamine-addicted mother’s addictive personality and used cocaine with McEnroe.
He admits that the Class A drugs “didn’t help” their marriage, adding, “It’s my own fault.”
After marrying in 1986, they had three children — Kevin, 36, Sean, 35, and Emily, 32 — but ended up dating other people.
McEnroe admits, “I don’t think infidelity helps. I think this is the end of the end.”
The ranks had a deep impact on their children. His son Kevin regrets that when McEnroe said during an argument “at least I’m consistent,” the then-boy replied, “Consistently an a***hole.”
His father is also troubled by his parental flaws. McEnroe says, “I wanted to be there for them, to make them feel loved.”
In 1992 he separated from Tatum, who later became a heroin addict.
There was also a painful falling out with his father, John Snr, who refused to be dropped as his son’s agent in 1986.
‘stabbed in the back’
McEnroe says, “He took it terribly. It was like I stabbed him in the back.”
His alcoholic father died in February 2017 while their feud was still smoldering, and in August of that year his beloved mother, Katherine, succumbed to cancer.
After taking a six-month hiatus from tennis the year he left his agent father, McEnroe never reached the same heights in singles play.
But he continued to win in doubles, securing his fifth Wimbledon title in 1992.
Away from the cauldron of Center Court, McEnroe found a more settled life with his second wife, rocker Patty Smyth.
The singer, who had a number two US single called Sometimes Love Is Just Not Enough, married McEnroe in 1997.
A year later, he was given sole custody of his three children because of Tatum’s severe drug problems. Patty, 64, admits, “Taking care of his three children has been a challenge.”
The couple have two daughters of their own – Anna, 27, and Ava, 23 – and Patty has largely put her music career on hold to be a full-time mum.
She tells the McEnroe creators that people “don’t know” her husband. Patty says he might be on the “spectrum” because he likes his “routine,” suggesting she thinks he has autism.
His 25-year-old wife admits that “when he screams it’s freaking scary,” but insists, “I married a bad boy who turned out to be a really good man.”
In the film we see the doting father laughing with his children and accepting the gentle joke.
It’s clear that McEnroe has worked to fit into a world unaccustomed to such an open-ended character.
Any player who has received one of his reviews as a commentator for the BBC at Wimbledon will understand his own assessment of his personality.
He caused controversy by saying Wimbledon was “too much” for Emma Raducanu last year and this week he snidely remarked “it must be exhausting” for Rafael Nadal’s rivals, coming back from the Spaniard’s foot injury Listen.
He concludes, “I’m not very empathetic — that’s my biggest flaw.”
- McEnroe hits theaters July 15.
He admits to using cocaine and cheating on his Oscar-winning first wife Tatum before their explosive divorcePhoto credit: Getty
He also talks about the bitter argument he had with his alcoholic father, John McEnroe SrPhoto credit: Getty
He reveals that age has made him a calmer person and a more relaxed father to his five children John in 1979Photo credit: Rex
The tennis raising the trophy over his head after winning the 1981 Wimbledon ChampionshipsPhoto credit: Allsport
He and Sweden’s Bjorn Borg went into the net before the final of the men’s singles tournament at Wimbledon in 1980Photo credit: Getty
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on Center Court before the men’s singles final at Wimbledon 1984Photo credit: Getty
John befriended Rolling Stones star and legendary drug addict Keith Richards, who appreciated the tennis rebel’s rock ‘n’ roll attitudePhoto credit: Getty – Contributor
McEnroe found a more settled life with his second wife, rocker Patty Smyth
The couple have two daughters of their own – Anna, 27, and Ava, 23 – and Patty has largely put her music career on hold to be a full-time mumPhoto credit: Getty Images – Getty