You Cannot Be Serious

You Cannot Be Serious

by John McEnroe, James Kaplan

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A no-holds-barred, intimate memoir by John McEnroe—the bad boy of professional tennis.

John McEnroe stunned the tennis elite when he came out of nowhere to make the Wimbledon semifinals at the age of eighteen—and just a few years later, he was ranked number one in the world. You Cannot Be Serious is McEnroe at his most personal, an intimate examination of Johnny Mac, the kid from Queens, and his “wild ride” through the world of professional tennis at a boom time when players were treated like rock stars.

In this “bracing serve-and-volley autobiography” (The Boston Globe) he candidly explores the roots of his famous on-court explosions; his ambivalence toward the sport that made him famous; his adventures (and misadventures) on the road; his views of colleagues from Connors to Borg to Lendl; his opinions of contemporary tennis; his marriages to actress Tatum O'Neal and pop star Patty Smyth; and his roles as husband, father, senior tour player, and often-controversial commentator.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101204405
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/10/2002
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 615,977
File size: 588 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John McEnroe has 77 career singles titles and 77 doubles titles to his credit. Widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, he won seven Grand Slam singles titles (three at Wimbledon and four at the US Open), nine Grand Slam men's doubles titles, and one Grand Slam mixed doubles title. He also won a record eight year-end championships, 19 Grand Prix Super Series titles, and finished his career with 77 ATP-listed singles titles and 78 in doubles.

JAMES KAPLAN’s essays, stories, reviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and New York. His novels include Pearl’s Progress and Two Guys from Verona, a New York Times Notable Book for 1998. His nonfiction works include The Airport, You Cannot Be Serious (co-authored with John McEnroe), Dean & Me: A Love Story (with Jerry Lewis), Frank: The Voice, and Frank: The Chaiman. He lives in Westchester, New York, with his wife and three sons.

Read an Excerpt


I HATE ALARM CLOCKS. That incessant ticking drives me nuts. And so September 11, 2001, began like any other morning in the McEnroe household, with my seven A.M. call from 540-WAKE. I quickly hung up the phone, let my wife Patty sleep, and dragged myself out of bed to go rouse five of my six children-Ava, the baby of the family at two, was still too young to be part of this daily ritual.

We live at the top of a big apartment building on Central Park West, in what I happen to believe is the best apartment in the most beautiful building in New York City. I think about that, appreciate that, every day. Our house is the top four floors; the kids' rooms are on floors one, two, and three. I smiled as I moved from room to room, mussing hair, scratching backs, patting cheeks. And as my kids fought for that extra minute or two of sleep before the reality of a school day set in, memories of my own boyhood bubbled up.

In my mind's eye, I was fifteen again, just embarking on my four years at the Trinity School on Manhattan's Upper West Side. My mother was struggling to get me out of bed in my upstairs room at 255 Manor Road, Douglaston, Queens, enduring an early-morning grumpiness-sorry, Mom!-caused by the prospect of a commute my own kids couldn't even begin to imagine.

First came the fifteen-minute walk to the Douglaston train station-a walk I made every morning until the glorious day I turned seventeen and finally got my driver's license. Then I'd catch the 7:20 train, show the conductor my monthly pass, and settle in for the thirty-minute ride to Penn Station in Manhattan.

For you out-of-towners, Penn Station is directly under Madison Square Garden, which was a frequent destination for me as a kid: the home of my beloved Knicks and Rangers; the site of the first rock concert I ever attended (Grand Funk Railroad!); as well as of one of the highlights of my adolescence, the New York stop of Led Zeppelin's 1975 world tour. Some of my greatest tennis triumphs, both in singles and doubles, would also take place there just a few years later, in the Masters tournament, just after Christmas.

Getting off the train, I'd walk through the crowded tunnels and catch the subway-the Seventh Avenue IRT, number 2 or 3 express-for the twenty-minute ride to the Upper West Side. Sometimes I'd be traveling with John Ryerson, another Trinity student who commuted from Douglaston, and occasionally John and I would hook up with another classmate, Steven Weitzmann.

I loved the subway. I still do. Being clumped in with masses of my fellow citizens has never bothered me a bit: I'm a New Yorker, after all, through and through, and getting up close (if not personal) is just part of the gig. For another thing, while I get motion sickness reading in a car, the subway doesn't affect me the same way (not that John and Steven and I did a lot of reading down there; I recall a number of paper-clip fights-sorry, IRT passengers of 1974!). I've also always enjoyed that feeling of rocking and rolling through the dark-it's comforting, in a way that's hard to describe.

I'd get off the subway at 96th Street, climb the steps up to Broadway, with its honking taxi horns and endless street life, and walk the five blocks down to Trinity, at 139 West 91st, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues-the very same place to which I now drive Ruby, Kevin, Sean, Emily, and Anna every morning after breakfast.

It's funny-our apartment isn't much more than a half-mile from Trinity, yet despite (or maybe because of) my own arduous commute as a boy, I like to drive them to school. I enjoy having the extra time with them, and I admit it-I like to indulge my children a little. Can you blame me? Having me for a father makes their lives both easy and difficult at the same time, and it's harder than I can tell you to strike exactly the right balance. I want my kids to be happy and secure and comfortable, to have everything-including what I call the fire in the belly. That's what got me to where I went then, and to where I am today.

But I made that long commute to school, and they get a ride. Am I too easy on them?

I got down to the kitchen around seven-thirty that morning and began lining up the breakfast fruit: apples, grapefruit, strawberries, and cantaloupes. I'm a big believer in eating fruit every morning, and like my parents, I work hard to prepare it for my kids: peeling apples, slicing the grapefruit just right, cutting and de-seeding the cantaloupe.

A few minutes later, the five of them descended like a swarm of locusts, and made quick work of the fruit I'd prepared so carefully, without so much as a mumbled thank-you (unfortunately, I've been known to be guilty of this now and then myself). Then they wolfed down cereal, waffles, and eggs before we swooped out the door a little after eight.

I got back to my house around 8:45 and decided to switch on one of the morning talk shows. I'm not quite sure what made me do it that Tuesday morning: I usually like to start my day with coffee, a bagel, and the Times. Today, though, I was ready, clicker in hand, for some Diane and Charlie, Katie and Matt, maybe even a little Bryant. I'm a restless clicker.

Then came the news.

There was a fire, they said, in the World Trade Center. Bad luck, I thought, but things appeared to be under control. It was now just past nine, and I was getting ready to head downtown for my weekly therapy session. Anger-management counseling is what the courts call it-or, more specifically in this case, what my ex-wife's lawyer calls it. I've been doing it now for about a year, and while I'm not sure I would've chosen to go if the terms of my divorce hadn't strongly suggested it-and while I don't exactly come out of every session full of calm insight-I have to admit the therapy has done a few things for me. More and more, I'm able to count to ten in certain situations that once would've gotten me going.

What I heard next, though, made me more scared than angry. As I was about to leave, I heard that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower, and that the fire in the north tower reported earlier had also been caused by a plane. It was suddenly clear that we were in the midst of some kind of terrorist attack. My heart was knocking like a hammer.

What should I do? I had absolutely no idea, except to proceed with my usual Tuesday-morning routine. I believe now that I must have been in some kind of shock. When I walked into my therapist's office, I said, almost casually, "Did you hear two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center?" He stared at me, seeming to wonder for a second whether I was serious or not. And then-incredibly enough-we proceeded to have our regular session, without another word about the attacks.

Somehow, the enormity of the situation hadn't yet sunk in. Perhaps it had something to do with my years of traveling as a tennis player, when I'd been forced to put plane crashes out of my mind just so I could keep flying every week. As a group, tennis players never discuss this kind of thing, the way race-car drivers don't like to talk about fatal wrecks. Besides, when you're young, you feel invulnerable.

I don't feel invulnerable anymore.

I got home just before ten and immediately became glued to the TV set. What I watched boggled my mind: first one, then the other tower collapsing, giving downtown Manhattan the look of a surreal war movie-panicked people running for their lives, mountainous clouds of dust-and, where we were on the Upper West Side, only eerie silence. Patty and I just stared at each other, stunned.

As the news came in, we started to worry about our kids. Our phones had gone out-what should we do? What should the school do? What was going to happen next? We came out of our stupor long enough to realize that if there ever was a time to round everyone up and cling together, this was it. I just wanted to hug my four girls and two boys, as much for my sake as for theirs.

Fortunately, Ruby, our sixteen-year-old, had her cell phone with her, and she was able to reach us; soon I was on my way, on foot, to pick up all the kids. As I walked uptown, still in a daze, I kept hearing sirens, seeing fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars shooting by. Other people looked dazed, too, standing around on the sidewalk, talking and staring. The city had been rocked, but it also felt as if it was starting to pull together in a strange new way.

For some reason, as I walked along, I thought about the 2001 U.S. Open, which had just ended a few days before. Now it suddenly felt like six months ago. As always, I'd worked hard doing my commentary for USA and CBS; as always, I'd loved the work. The tournament had ended on a down note for me: an exhibition match between Boris Becker and myself, which had been scheduled to follow the women's singles final between Venus and Serena Williams on Saturday night, had fallen through: Boris claimed an injury.

I had felt angry and disappointed, not just for myself but for Seniors tennis. The exhibition would have marked Becker's entry, at thirty-three, onto the Seniors Circuit-a tour into which I'd thrown myself wholeheartedly for the past six or seven years, but which had been struggling financially of late. Boris's almost casual withdrawal from a big match at the U.S. Open didn't seem like a good sign.

But all at once, all of that felt incredibly trivial and far, far away. I just wanted to see my children, right away, and take them home. Why, I wondered, did it take such a horrific event to make me appreciate what was really important?

ONE NIGHT LAST JULY (in what now seems like an infinitely more innocent time) I went to a Mets game with my son Kevin, his friend Josh, and Josh's father, who's a friend of mine. We took the subway both ways.

I wore a variation of my usual walking-around-New York outfit: leather jacket and baseball cap (Mets or Yankees, Rangers or Knicks). And the whole ride out there, and the whole way back, not a single person bothered me. As we got close to Shea, I saw a guy who seemed to be trying to maneuver to get my autograph, but I just pretended not to see him, and then the crowd pushed us out the door, and that was that.

Part of me really enjoyed being left alone. I thought, That's exactly what I want. Right? Then I thought, Well, maybe that isn't exactly what I want.

It's hard to describe what it was like to be in my shoes for the fifteen years I spent on the men's tennis tour. It was a pretty wild ride.

It didn't hurt that I happened to come along at exactly the right point in history. For a decade, from the mid '70s to the mid '80s, professional tennis went through a boom the likes of which it had never enjoyed before, or have since. The money in the game was unprecedented, as was the electricity. Starting with Bjorn Borg, tennis players became more than just sports stars. Back then, even rock musicians aspired to be touring tennis pros. (Of course, we all aspired to be rock musicians.)

Borg was three years older, but had turned pro at a younger age than I did, and there never seemed to be anything especially boyish about him-even if he did spend his spare time reading comic books. He was remote, soulful, self-contained: The less he showed of himself, the more the girls screamed.

From the start, when I came out of nowhere to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon at the age of eighteen, I was a bad boy in the public's eyes. (I read somewhere that when Thomas Hulce was studying for his role as Mozart in Amadeus, he looked at videotapes of me acting up on the tennis court.)

My friends on the tour called me Junior. (My dad is John Patrick McEnroe, Senior.) To the public, I was Super-Brat, McBrat, McNasty-all those snide nicknames-or just plain Johnny Mac, everybody's naughty brother or son or cousin or neighbor, the guy people loved to hate, or (maybe) hated to love. Tennis players had had tantrums before, had yelled at umpires before-Pancho Gonzalez, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors-but no one had done it quite the way I did.

People had an incredible reaction to me right from the start. Maybe my rages stirred up something that they'd had to bury or swallow as kids. I don't know. Whatever it was, the public really sat up and took notice.

Most people dream about being famous, but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. There were times when I would have loved to get away from my high visibility. I tried. Once I took a vacation trip to Fiji, thinking that surely, out there in the vast reaches of the South Pacific, I could become an anonymous American citizen for a few days. What I hadn't realized was that 90 percent of the tourists who went to Fiji were Australians-the world's biggest tennis fans. G'day, Mac!

To this day, I often feel as if my name is written across my forehead. It's hard to walk down a street anywhere (and especially in my beloved Manhattan, where walking down the street is one of my favorite occupations) without being spotted, and called out to, as if the person knew me in the fifth grade.

Most of the time, the experience is positive. Sure, I could live without being asked for my autograph in the middle of dinner. And the fact is, I don't really like to give autographs to anyone over eleven or twelve years old: What can my chicken-scrawl mean to anybody who's not a kid-besides money on the sports memorabilia market? (But don't get me started on that.) And my signature isn't worth that much.

But having someone come up and say, "Hey, John McEnroe, you're the greatest tennis player that ever lived!" is not exactly difficult to swallow. Or, "Hey, tennis isn't the same since you've been gone!" Or "That Davis Cup victory in ninety-two was amazing!" Or "I really appreciate your making that stand on South Africa." (Back in 1980, someone offered me a million dollars-an unbelievable amount at the time-to play a one-day exhibition against Bjorn Borg in Sun City. I turned it down-it didn't feel right-little knowing how many friends I would win in the process.)

I don't get tired of such compliments. I feel proud of having earned them. And-I admit it-there's a part of me that's addicted to the attention.

It's one reason-I'll also admit this-that I'm writing this book. It's not just to get attention, but to do some serious thinking about how much attention I actually need, and why I need it (as you've probably figured out by now, that title on the cover is really half-joking and half-serious). I truly do wonder sometimes: Will I be totally forgotten at some point? Will I end up walking around wishing for what I don't have anymore? People always seem to want what they can't have, which seems a rather pathetic part of human nature to me. Will I be the guy going around saying, "Hey, remember me?"

I hope not.

At worst, I know people have seen me as a kind of caricature: a spoiled, loudmouthed, ill-tempered crybaby. I don't deny I've acted that way a lot (though I've almost always instantly regretted it). However, I sometimes worry that as I get older, that caricature is getting more deeply etched-that maybe it's all I'll get to leave to posterity.

I worry when the best my own agent can seem to do for me is say, "Hey, are you interested in playing Anna Kournikova?" Am I really that much of a caricature that the best gig I can get now is playing Kournikova? Is that what it's come down to for me at forty-three years old? Is that what it's come down to for tennis? I think it shows how many problems there are for the game when the main topic of conversation at the 2000 U.S. Open seemed to be my comments about Venus Williams and whether I was going to play her. (And when I brought up the subject in the first place, in the course of being profiled for the New Yorker, was it just a way of promoting myself? I'm still not sure.)

I'll tell you right here and now, though, that I have a lot of other fish to fry besides playing Anna Kournikova or Venus Williams-and I know the same is true for them.

I feel there has to be some real seriousness in my life-in all our lives-since September 11th. It's as if we finally have to face the reality that we've been avoiding for a long time. Those beliefs we all depended on-"Buy any technology stock, it's going to go through the roof"; "No one would ever do anything to the United States of America"-have been shattered. I certainly hope something good will come out of all that's happened-that the new reality is one we can live with.

At forty-three, I'm a father of six. I don't want to be a caricature anymore-in some ways, I feel I've hidden behind that for a long time, or at the very least, I've gotten by without having to be particularly mature.

See, part of the magic of playing tennis for a living is that it lets you act like a kid for as long as you can keep going. Now, some of you will say, and I agree, that it's good to keep that kid in you, but every kid has to grow up sometime, or else wind up a case of arrested development.

I always considered myself more well-rounded than most tennis players: I read, I thought, I looked at the outside world. But I always looked at it from a distance. It was hard to get away from the feeling that everything revolved around my own closed little universe, one I ventured outside of just to get perks-to get good seats at a concert, or meet people I would never have known if I weren't a famous tennis player. And I didn't venture out of it a great deal. In a lot of ways, I was really oblivious to the outside world. And let me tell you: Once you get away from the real world, it's very difficult to make that transition back into it. Look at all the ex-celebrities who wind up sick or angry or burned-out. Or dead.

There was a time-I'll admit it-when my head was so big it barely fit through the door. Having kids, I hope, changed all that for me. Having kids brings you down to earth right away, unless you let other people raise them, which I was never about to do.

Imagine that: Johnny Mac a forty-three-year-old father of six! When I first stepped out onto the world's stage, I was a chubby-faced eighteen-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair and a red headband. Today I'm a lean-faced man with thin graying hair, lines in my cheeks, a small silver hoop in my left earlobe, and a roses-and-thorns tattoo on my right shoulder. I can change a diaper, calm a tantrum, dry tears, make breakfast.

I'm still in good shape. I play tennis almost every day and work out on a stationary bike or jump rope when I can't find the time or want to mix things up. My vision is still sharp enough (around 20/15), and my reflexes quick enough, that on a given day, I can give anyone on the men's tour a run for his money for a set or two. My standards-as you may remember-are rather high on a tennis court, and I put enough work into my game so that I don't disgust myself out there. Until recently, I actually considered going back to playing Davis Cup doubles again, after a break of nearly a decade. But you'll have to ask my brother Patrick about that now.

On the other hand, I'm not kidding myself. No one knows his own body like a professional athlete, and I fully realize that the machine God gave me is nowhere near as flexible as it used to be, that I've lost the inevitable step or two along the way. As somebody who thinks almost obsessively in numerical terms (when I was a little boy I used to amaze my parents' friends by multiplying and dividing large numbers in my head), I'd say, objectively speaking, that I'm about 60 percent of the tennis player I was in my prime.

Which is not too shabby. But then again, I'm not really a tennis player anymore.


For one thing, I've been a tennis commentator for the last ten years, with enough pride in my work to feel that I'm at the top of my profession. This didn't just happen by itself. As you know, I've always had a certain facility for speaking my mind, but commentating demanded that I focus my thoughts, speak in complete sentences, and learn when silence was more valuable than talk. In short, it was (and still is) hard work. And so I had to learn the ropes.

Fortunately-as in my tennis career-I had great teachers. I've always been happier as a team player than as a solo performer, and my work with great broadcasters like Dick Enberg and Ted Robinson (and producers like Gordon Beck and John McGuinness, who gave me the freedom to be myself) has been a joy and an education to me. I believe that the joy comes through on television and over the radio-that my commentary has allowed people to see a different part of me, a far more lighthearted and self-deprecating side than I ever allowed myself to show on the tennis court.

I've done a lot of growing up over the past quarter-century. On the other hand, like most people-maybe even more than most people-I'm still a work in progress. Anyone who's seen me play on the Seniors Tour knows that even if my temper has lost a step or two, I can still get pretty far out there. It doesn't happen nearly as often as it used to-for one thing, because I don't play nearly as much as I used to-but now even a little bit feels like way too much (and the fact that people expect me to go too far doesn't make matters any easier).

I'm trying to work it out. One of the things I'm striving to come to terms with is the deep-down part of me that isn't completely willing to give up my anger. After all, I feel certain that it's part of what drove me to the top, and though I may not be at the top of my game anymore, that fire in my belly is still hot. Where would I be if I let it go out?

And what exactly do I need it for now?

PRIDE IS A FUNNY THING. While throughout my playing career, I had a lot to be proud of-and much to regret-I was never one to dwell on things. After all, I'm a serve-and-volley player: my whole game was, and still is, based on moving forward, always forward, then making the winning shot.

But once your career is over you're in a funny place if you've done reasonably well as a professional athlete, namely: Where do you go from here?

During my whole career, I basically went from one thing to another: The next thing always just came around the corner. Make no mistake, I had goals along the way-to win the NCAA's, to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Davis Cup; to try to emulate my hero, Rod Laver-and I achieved a lot of them. In the last few years, however, I've given a lot of hard thought to who I was, who I am, and who I want to become.

I'm very proud of my tennis career. I won 77 singles tournaments and 77 doubles-154 tournament titles in all, more than any pro ever to play the game. My singles record puts me in third place, all-time, after Connors and Ivan Lendl, and in doubles titles I'm second only to Tom Okker, who won 78.

Think about how few great players had significant records in both singles and doubles. Not Borg (he almost never played doubles), nor Connors, nor Lendl. Think about how few American stars of the modern era have played Davis Cup. One of my very proudest achievements is having helped resuscitate the Cup in this country, starting in the late '70s, a time when the other top Americans-especially James Scott Connors-weren't especially interested in wasting their energy on playing for practically nothing when there was so much money to be had in tournaments and exhibitions.

Call me corny, but I've always been extraordinarily proud of representing my country: There's simply no thrill in tennis quite like it. You may remember the pictures of me running around the court with an American flag after our dramatic victory over Switzerland in my last Davis Cup tie in the final year of my career, 1992. (A meeting between countries in Davis Cup is called a "tie.") In all, I played for the cup in thirty ties over twelve years, winning forty-one singles matches and fifty-nine overall.

The main point, though, I'd like to think, is not the number of matches I won, but the five cups I helped gain for the U.S.A.

I guess you could say that history, and whatever part I've been able to play in it, has always felt extremely important to me. My idol, Rod Laver, has a rock-solid claim to being one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and for a very good reason: He achieved (not once but twice!) the colossally difficult feat of winning all four major titles-the French Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open-in a single calendar year.

I was never able to do it. I won three Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens, but never a French or Australian Open.

Pete Sampras has won thirteen Grand Slam titles, and even though the French Open has eluded him, he's won seven Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens, and two Australians-an unbelievable, maybe unbeatable, record.

Like me, André Agassi has seven Grand Slam titles altogether; but unlike me, he's won all four of the majors, even if not in one calendar year. His place in history is secure.

Where does that leave me? I guess only time will tell.

I did win over $12 million in prize money overall, and, with the help of my dad and some other wise heads along the way, invested my winnings and endorsement proceeds intelligently and conservatively enough to be able to support my wife and children in great comfort. The endorsement money came slowly at first, because of my bad-boy image, but it built up fast once Madison Avenue, or Phil Knight, more specifically, learned how to market me. I still have significant endorsement deals today, especially with Nike.

Why, then, do I still feel driven?

A lot of it has to do with my tendency to see the glass as half-empty. I'm smart enough to know that there's no sense thinking about what you didn't do instead of what you did. You lose perspective if you compare yourself to people who are out of reach or who it's inappropriate to compare yourself to.

But sometimes I do it anyway.

I'll confess it: I feel I could have done more. There are nights when I can't get to sleep for thinking about the Australian Opens I passed by when I was at the peak of my game and always felt I'd have another chance; the French Open that I had in the palm of my hand, then choked away.

I can practically hear you saying, "Come on, McEnroe! You're rich, famous, and healthy; you have a loving family, a more-than-comfortable life. You've done amazing things and been to amazing places-things and places most people can barely dream of. Why not just relax and enjoy what you have?"

Here's what I'd say back to you: I'm working on it, hard.

But at the same time-I'm a serve-and-volley player. My style is, as it's always been, to move forward, always forward.

My standards for myself are, as they've always been, extraordinarily high.

Why should I change now?

—From You Cannot Be Serious by John McEnroe, with James Kaplan, Copyright © June 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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