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‘…does a good job of recording the full force of a bull in an antiquarian china shop…’

It’s quite an achievement when a documentary project appears on the 2022/23 BAFTA long-list; that’s for the ten best docs in any given year. So Barney Douglas’ film about the famous American tennis player has already exceeded expectations; as many, from Ali McGraw to Will Smith, have found out to their cost, tennis is rarely big-screen box office, but McEnroe exactly is the kind of subject who justifies a 104 minutes of anyone’s time. Sure, there was a Borg vs McEnroe film, with no less that Shia LeBouef playing JP, but that was a fairly tatty, semi-tabloid affair, and if you want to get anywhere near the truth, a good old fashioned clip reel and some fresh interviews does the trick.

So why is McEnroe still a household name four decades after his peak? Around the early 80’s, McEnroe’s willingness to confront the establishment at Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis club made him an instant and enduring pop culture phenomenon. Everything from novelty records to comedy-send-ups resulted, as well as glib think-pieces about the dangeous new direction of society, but McEnroe rarely seemed to enjoy the joke; he was always serious in a way that others were not. Perhaps he might have thrived on better advice, but while McEnroe’s temper arguably lost him some key matches, it had the unintended side-effect of making him a potent anti-hero for generations to come.

Douglas has a complex protagonist to sketch, but a reasonably simple story to tell; McEnroe starts big with huge, well-publicised tantrums, then he manages to grind out the victories that made him a great champion of the game as he matured. There’s some new footage of JP wandering the streets of NYC which allow for some more personal VO, but it’s to everyone’s credit that there’s not too much Monday-morning quarterbacking about the rights and wrongs of his career, just a bald description of what happened and a somewhat rueful suggestion of why. There’s probably still a more expansive doc to be made on this subject, but McEnroe the movie will do for the time being.

Of course, McEnroe regularly explained that his outbursts and anger were actually directed towards himself rather than others, but given the stuffed shirts he regularly found himself up against, he can’t be the only culprit for these explosions of venom. So why did John McEnroe happen the way he did? Most sports are illicitly, unobtrusively fixed as much as possible to create a desirable result; McEnroe’s fury was directed at a system that wasn’t working for him, and which temporarily diminished his own sense of self as a result. The angry young man isn’t so angry these days, based on this evidence, but perhaps he should be; sports are still a fragile area when it comes to supposed fairness, and Douglas’ film does a good job of recording the full force of a bull in an antiquarian china shop.



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    • I would if I could, but I’m more a ‘swearing at the umpire, verbally threatening the staff’ kind of player…

  1. So I watched this last night and found it quite compelling, despite (perhaps because) of only knowing McEnroe as some tennis guy who yelled a lot. I’d never heard of Bjorn Borg and I thought the film shined best when sort of showing the difference between them. Borg was calm on the court, but in the end he quit early. McEnroe kept going – I wish they would’ve asked him point blank now if he understood why Borg quit early.

    He’s still never going to be my favorite sports figure – I’m much more attracted to the silent Borg model, but I appreciated his candor today and how he didn’t desire to paper over his wrongs.

    Well worth my time.

    • This IS the correct answer! Borg was the complete sportsman, a man who seemed able to raise or lower his heart rate by thinking about it! McEnroe developed to be a master player too, but his development was much more volatile. I wonder if I would feel the same about a McEnroe figure now, or whether I’d see him as a brat. I like my sporting heroes vulnerable, moody and explosive; I love how Andy Murray sulks and throws the match if it’s not going well, because it’s what I would do. I suspect a sporting figure like yourself would be more in the style of Borg…

  2. Watched him play throughout his career, and have been intrigued by watching him mellow a bit as an analyst now. That being said, I know “angry John” is still in there somewhere. On the court, an amazing talent who managed to overcome all obstacles, including himself. Sounds like it is worthy of a view.

    • It is. It’s quite personal, and I’d like to have more context, but like you, I think he’s a great example of someone breaking barriers, often at his own cost. A great subject and a good watch.

  3. I don’t know much about tennis and even less about McEnroe – I thought he was just throwing temper tantrums, which doesn’t do much for me. But I’m intrigued by your comments that he was fighting against the establishment. You’ve piqued my interest, as I love a good sports documentary. (The 30 for 30 about the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal comes to mind for me as a standout).

    • McEnroe had his moments of growing up in public. He raged against the machine. But the machine was worth his rage. He was a youth in revolt, but he was right about more than he was wrong about. It’s tough being tormented by the press when you’re a teenager, but he saw it through and became a great champion. He was young and talented enough to take no s**t from the nobodies who sought to boss him around. Well worth a look as a true sports icon, bigger than the game he played.

  4. Didn’t care for his bad boy schtick back in the day, and can’t say he’s warmed on me much. But then I never cared about tennis anyway. I like watching documentaries more and more but I doubt I’ll be drawn to this.

    Just rewatching the eight-hour OJ: Made in America program this week and being just as impressed by it as I was when it came out. Quite a trip down memory lane for anyone of a certain age. Don’t know if you saw it. Still has a 100% rating on RT last time I checked so probably not.

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