But Seriously

John McEnroe

Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE predictable but forgivable reaction to John McEnroe’s second autobiography may be a chorus of: “You cannot be serious.”

This is not because this is his second biography. Sportsmen have two lives and while his first, Seriously, brilliantly and insightfully focused on the great tennis player and his struggles to succeed on court and in life the second is an attempt to chart life since.

The protest, rather is because But Seriously fails in a spectacular manner. It is an extraordinary mishit. It is almost a triumph to take such a personality and such a life and make it banal and boring. It is as if McEnroe has dictated his thoughts and they have been subsequently rendered on the page by Alan Partridge.

McEnroe is an engaging, intelligent and energetic talker. I have been in too many interview rooms with him to renege on this assertion. He also lives an interesting life. He is an art dealer, a father of six, a tennis legend, a one-time coach to a grand slam finalist, a musician with friends such as Keith Richards, a talk show host, a co-actor with such as Larry David and Adam Sandler, a tennis commentator of genuine depth and pithy comment.

These ingredients should all produce a soup of spice and substance. Yet blandness prevails. Here follows some evidence.

On appearing on Curb Your Enthusiasm: “I’d learned another lesson about this acting thing: it really is all make believe.” Or on a pal: “Paul McCartney himself is a living legend.” Or, most wonderfully on his hotel in Chelsea where he stays when covering Wimbledon: “One of the things I like about it is that it has got a great pool and a good gym.”

TripAdvisor may covet these words but the reader is entitled to feel short-changed. It is symptomatic of an enduring prolixity. McEnroe, for example, takes three pages to detail the death of his dog but, in truth, the book is on life support long before that.

There is no form, no flow. It seems to have been arranged in a rough chronological fashion but it meanders in terms of subject and focus.

The verdicts on the top players are sound but hardly surprising and one longs for McEnroe to open up more on the experience of hitting with Rafa Nadal or his satisfaction in coaching Milos Raonic.

Crucially, the subject of life after tennis lacks any cohesion and often descends into anecdotes so stultifying they would get him barred from the snug in a village pub. Paul Simon gives him a guitar, Chrissie Hynde invites him on stage, Keith Richards asks him about tennis. These are sentences rather than topics for further elucidation. The dearth of originality is summed up when McEnroe opines: “They are very different disciplines – rock 'n' roll and sport.”

This line could form the opening of This is Spinal Tap: Wimbledon but irritation gives way to something stronger when other subjects are addressed and dismissed carelessly, superficially.

This is particularly galling given the range and depth of possible material. McEnroe is a serious art dealer. One can smile at his self-deprecation in turning down the chance to buy a Jean-Michel Basquiat for $9000 only to cringe when it is valued at millions some time later. But his love of art is never fully explained in the book and his undoubted astuteness in the market and in matters of taste are never fully developed.

Similarly, McEnroe’s singular character remains largely unexplored. There are testimonies from his wife and daughter but the legend remains obscured in a mist of half-formed thoughts and deft evasions. There is a sense that McEnroe wants much to remain private, particularly as regards to a son with drug issues. This is understandable but accepting a commission to write an autobiography surely carries responsibilities of disclosure and frankness.

Or perhaps not. Top athletes have become accustomed to doing it their way or not at all. McEnroe has trousered a large advance and is doing press interviews to support the project. These, generally, are more spiky, informative and entertaining than the book they seek to promote.

Those of us who like and admire McEnroe are left to scour the book for the merest glimpse at the interior life of the great man. He emerges as a loving but disciplined father, a wary and bruised son, and an athlete who has retained his competitive edge. The last run through the book like a sedative through the veins.

McEnroe details encounters on the post-great tour with fortysomethings or fiftysomethings such as Ivan Lendl or Bjorn Borg. Borg, he muses, doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or loses. There is no reflection on whether the Swede might be correct in this stance. There is no thought that perhaps the serious tennis for Borg was in the 1970s and early 1980s when he was winning 11 grand slam tournaments and that playing McEnroe in a sports hall in Nowheresville, Illinois, might be a matter of fun rather than desperate trial.

This lack of self-awareness is a human trait not restricted to former great tennis players but there are moments when one gasps at McEnroe’s absorption in McEnroe. Once the co-host of his talk show cancelled late. McEnroe aimed barbs at him on air the next day over missing the show and was miffed at his co-host’s surliness.

McEnroe notes the absence was caused by “an unexpected death or something”. What? He did not know the severity of the event that caused his co-host to call off? Was the “unexpected death” that of a mother or a hamster? Was the “or something” a sudden illness or a stubbed toe or a foiled abduction attempt by an alien?

We will never know. If John asked, he didn’t care enough about the answer to remember. That lack of care, that absence of effort taints But Seriously. This is all not quite the pits but it is a pity.