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 newly released 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, and the resulting uproar has dominated his appearances on late-night talk shows and sports-talk radio. But McEnroe is standing by his comments even while reiterating his respect for Williams. It’s vintage McEnroe, who prides himself on being candid and unapologetic.
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 behavior 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 head-to-head 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 older sister, Venus, for the challenges they’ve overcome as black female athletes. “It’s what they’ve achieved in terms of breaking into what remains a white, middle-class sport that is most impressive,” he says.
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 $1 million 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].”
McEnroe also spends plenty of pages name-dropping his famous non-tennis friends (Lorne Michaels, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are just a few), his failed forays into television hosting, his Catholic upbringing, his appreciation of former rival Bjorn Borg, and his second life as an art collector and aspiring musician.
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 (which turned out to be baking soda) and his own battles with drug use. McEnroe sometimes graces the pages with his children’s words, too. He includes an essay by his daughter Anna in which she describes the pressures that come with having the last name McEnroe, and the book ends with a touching poem by daughter Emily to her father.
“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.”
Kelyn Soong works in the Washington Post sports department and contributes to the Early Lead and D.C. Sports Bog.
By John McEnroe
Little, Brown. 288 pp. $29