Growing Up With Superbrat

By Jonathan Yardley ,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, April 26, 2005


By Tim Adams

Crown. 173 pp. $16

Whether John McEnroe really was the world's best men's tennis player in the late 1970s and early 1980s is open to debate -- by, among others, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Ilie Nastase -- but there can be no doubt about one thing: He was the loudest, rudest and most churlish. The newspapers called him "Superbrat," and with plenty of reason. By 18 he was internationally known as a teenage rebel, an image he worked hard -- sometimes deliberately, sometimes impulsively -- to cultivate. He had many fans, who relished his in-your-face derision of the adult establishment, and many detractors, who found him simply insufferable.

It may be true, as the British journalist Tim Adams suggests in this brief but provocative inquiry into the McEnroe phenomenon, that his heyday was the last time that men's tennis was worth following. The metal racket had not yet become commonplace on the pro tour, which meant that the subtler play mandated by the wooden racket still predominated, and players' uniforms had not yet turned into billboards for advertisers, which preserved at least a shred of the game's traditional dignity.

But only a shred. The era of the crybabies by then was upon us. Tantrums were thrown, rackets hurled and/or shattered, line judges vilified and spat at, referees insulted. A match between McEnroe and Connors could produce stellar tennis, but who possibly could root for either of those louts? My introduction to the game had been in the 1950s at the hands of Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, Jaroslav Drobny, Frank Sedgman, Vic Seixas and, above all, Ken Rosewall -- each and every one a gentleman. With memories of them still vivid, watching McEnroe et al. was close to self-inflicted torture.

Tennis, Adams argues, "in its balance between extreme action and contemplative inaction, and its relentless examination of the individual, is . . . the most mentally fraught of sports." Borg, as McEnroe perhaps somewhat enviously acknowledged, had what Adams calls "patience and calm and something like grace," while Borg saw in McEnroe "spontaneity and instinct and . . . a source of constant surprise." That is a more generous judgment than many of us would have made at the time, but Borg may have understood McEnroe's complex mental makeup more keenly than did those of us in the stands or at our television sets.

For a while the rivalry of McEnroe and Borg was the most exciting in men's tennis, and their stupendous final match at Wimbledon in 1980 -- which Adams describes in careful, loving detail, focusing on the incredible fourth-set tiebreaker won by Borg 18-16 -- was one of the great matches of the time. Adams thinks that when Borg took early retirement after the U.S. Open of 1981 -- he was all of 24 years old! -- tennis became less interesting to McEnroe and the temptations to truculence more inviting. McEnroe missed "the real shot at perfection or fulfillment, which his games against Borg had offered," and:

"Great tennis players, like great chess players or great boxers, cannot exist in isolation: They require a rivalry, an equal, to allow them to discover what they might be capable of. . . . McEnroe tried, every time he met Borg, to persuade him to return to tennis, but he never really got even an explanation for the Swede's retirement. . . . 'There was this void,' he said, 'and I always felt it was up to me in a sense to manufacture my own intensity thereafter.' "

It may be true, as Adams suggests, that at times McEnroe captured "the idea that the game was just that, a game, something you played at, and were forced instinctively to make up as you went along, whatever the psychological consequences of this effort," but the view from the stands suggested that he took it all too seriously, yelling at linesmen, stomping around the court in fits of rage, whining and bitching and moaning. Nowhere did his behavior seem more inappropriate than at Wimbledon, that citadel of starchy British snobbery and self-regard. Wimbledon "was, traditionally, as much a playground for the entrants in Who's Who as those in the singles draw, and the Victorian distinctions between Gentlemen and Players remained somewhere near its heart."

Then along came McEnroe, who "demonstrated on court the kind of naked self-obsession that seemed to characterize the decade that followed -- while he was playing there was no such thing as society." He quickly "was made both a poster boy for the decline in public behavior in Britain -- the emergent hooligan culture -- and one of the first tabloid sacrifices to the ever-growing public appetite for celebrity gossip." There was this, too:

"What the newspapers, or the Wimbledon commentators, were slow to pick up on, however, was that much of Britain, far from being shocked by the behavior of McEnroe, actually enjoyed and identified with it. He voiced some of the nation's own frustration and anger at the way our institutions were run -- often amateurishly -- by the same old boys' club of peers and grandees. . . . Borg, with his reserve and never-say-die determination, looked a lot like how England once thought it wanted to be; McEnroe, restless, self-obsessed, had begun to look increasingly like how it was."

Citing Christopher Lasch's influential "The Culture of Narcissism," Adams argues that McEnroe was "a model of contemporary 'Psychological Man,' who was defined as being 'plagued by anxiety, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, [and struggling for] peace of mind under conditions that increasingly mitigated against it.' That struggle was dramatised for the viewing public every time McEnroe stepped onto court." Citing another late-20th-century deep thinker, Robert Bly, "the American commentator, poet and chest-thumping Iron John," Adams argues that McEnroe also dramatized another phenomenon: "the modern process by which 'adults regress towards adolescence and adolescents, seeing that, have no desire to become adults.' This scenario, he suggested, resulted from the shift from a 'paternal society' to one in which 'impulse is given its way.' "

This may seem to read quite a lot into the behavior of one petulant, willful athlete, but it makes sense. The Lasch and Bly interpretations of the contemporary Western world are observably true, and the widespread enthusiasm with which McEnroe was greeted by young people and self-styled rebels leaves little doubt that he was an antihero to an anti-establishment age. Indeed, when a little shoe company called Nike took him on as its spokesman, its slogan -- "Just Do It" -- became a motto for a generation that "could play, in this way, at work and in society, like McEnroe: by no rules but his or her own."

Incredibly, McEnroe stayed on the tour for fully a dozen years after Borg's retirement. When he finally quit, in 1993, "it looked a little as if it had been the artificial confines of the game itself that had created his extremes of self-absorption all along. Now, off court and able to achieve a distance from its strictures, he seemed suddenly free to grow up." This, to an impressive degree, he has done. He has developed a serious interest in art, he is an apparently loving and attentive father to six children from his two marriages, and he has become a smart, funny commentator for televised tennis matches. Adams, whose study of McEnroe is smart, too, and perceptive, and smoothly written, is a few years younger than his subject. He writes:

"McEnroe has proved, far more gracefully than anyone might have expected, that, chalk dust or not, the lines are not the only thing after all. As a result, I'd say, he has achieved that very rare accomplishment, at least among celebrities: He has escaped his image, perhaps even his fate. In some ways, as a result, he may have allowed some of us to half-believe . . . that we have grown up with him."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company