Year:  2022

Director:  Barney Douglas

Rated:  M

Release:  October 26, 2022

Distributor: Universal

Running time: 106 minutes

Worth: $15.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Patty Smyth, Billie Jean King, Keith Richards

… shines in its portrayal of the incredible explosion of tennis as elite sport and entertainment in the 1980s.

“I married a bad boy who turned out to be a really good man,” says Patty Smyth, wife of tennis legend John McEnroe in documentary McEnroe.

McEnroe himself, who comments throughout the film, may not totally agree.

“Greatness is a combination of someone gave me an ability to do something better than others can do. I did a shitty job of it,” he says.

Written and directed by Barney Douglas, creator of Warriors (2015), the extraordinary story of young Masai tribesmen forming a cricket team, the documentary is a highly polished production with some gimmicky graphics supposedly representing McEnroe’s unique mind.

“He might be slightly on the spectrum,” comments Smyth, referring to her husband’s need for routine, high maths ability and heightened senses.

In 1977, the 18-year-old was singled out by Billie Jean King for his timing and variety of shots and hand eye coordination. By the time of the 1980 Wimbledon finals, he’s British media’s Superbrat, throwing rackets and forfeiting points with his aggressive verbal attacks on line judges.

“Are you fucking serious? What are you, a stupid fucking moron?”

In the commentary, he says that he “Tried control, but I’d lose it.”

He was from a perfectionist family, especially his father/manager, a constant presence at all his son’s matches. Intense, driven and opinionated, they clashed. McEnroe cites the influence of contemporary and frequent finals opponent Jimmy Connors, another volatile young player.

“Jimmy Connors, I did learn from him, I learned you gotta be a bit of a prick.”

Tennis was becoming big business and the antics and temper tantrums promised maximum entertainment and juicy media coverage.

Apart from the commentary on a top tennis star’s life, the documentary shines in its portrayal of the incredible explosion of tennis as elite sport and entertainment in the 1980s.

Editor Steve Williams, who specialises in sports documentary, does a terrific job with the mass of archive footage.

We remember them like meteors, burning bright across our TV screens: Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi. The documentary focuses on two players in particular, as being close friends and mentors for McEnroe.

One was Vitas Gerulaitis, whose off-court rock’n’roll lifestyle McEnroe sought to emulate. They were the darling of the club scene, hanging with stars like Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. In fact, there’s an unexpected quote from an irreverent Keith Richards, who points out the link between music and sports celebrities at the time.

A less likely friend was Bjorn Borg, dubbed the coolest player in the world, the ‘Viking god’ of tennis who psyched out his opponents because they couldn’t read him.

McEnroe is still full of awe when he recalls the incredible 10-10 then 16-15 tie-break he and Borg went to in the near 4 hour Wimbledon final in 1980. The treatment and editing of archive footage for these historic sporting moments is breathtaking, even when you know the result.

“How in god’s name is he doing it?” McEnroe wonders when Borg lost a critical point and acted like nothing had happened. “That’s when I realised, these champions had another gear I didn’t even know existed… He inspired me to get better”

Billie Jean King says they elevated tennis by challenging each other, they both got better.

Borg granted generous interviews for the documentary. Decades on, he’s still model-attractive, thoughtful and gracious. Given their extreme contrast on court, it’s amazing that he and the obnoxious, tantrum-throwing McEnroe became lifelong friends.

This is an intriguing theme in the documentary, an example of how a celebrity can be stereotyped for bad behaviour while the media has a field day exploiting it for entertainment. McEnroe retained friendships and respect from other players and from family members, notably his children from marriages with Smyth and Tatum O’Neal. He couldn’t have been all that bad.

His on-court behaviour was partly culture clash with the British. A New Yorker, he’s direct, confrontational.

“It’s where I’m from, and it’s also who I am,” he says in voice over.

Labouring the point, the documentary has a rather contrived device of McEnroe walking the streets of New York through one night. More effective are the direct sit down interviews where he speaks openly about his perfectionism and narcissism.

“My biggest flaw, I’m not empathetic,” he says. “37 psychiatrists haven’t been able to figure it out.”

He doesn’t blame anyone but himself. The same mouthy directness that annoyed so many journalists and umpires is quite appealing in the older McEnroe’s self-reflections. He talks about trying to work on it, mainly to be there for his own children and later with the influence of his second wife Patty’s emotional strength.

Another factor was the shock of Gerulaitis’ death in 1994. It was a wake-up call from the partying and drugs, a turning point. He tried to connect emotionally with his father, he kept trying to be a good dad and husband. The documentary shows him with his family, sometimes awkward, but there he is, still trying.

McEnroe’s match-winning percentage was 83, as he says himself, probably as close as any human could get.

“I’m the greatest player, why didn’t it feel like that to me?”