Being John McEnroe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am

Being John McEnroe by Tim Adams

Yellow Jersey Press $140

Tim Adams describes tennis' two decades since the 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg as one of the most compelling sports stories of our time. He is referring simply to being John McEnroe. This psychoanalysis of the 'Superbrat' backs up his premise astonishingly well. Adams argues that to understand McEnroe - a 'furious Peter Pan' seemingly incapable of growing up - you need to explore his relationship with Borg. So, we're whisked off to that first centre court showdown in London on Sunday, July 5, 1980. It was, as he so vividly explains, an age of innocence, of wooden rackets, of Lady Diana Spencer peering out from beneath her fringe.

Adams brilliantly captures, and pokes fun at, the 'gentle England of Thermos flasks and 'Oh I say'', enticing the reader to smirk at the voyeurism of tennis: 'The faces, the pained expressions, the fleeting glimpses of undergarments of young hopefuls in the ladies' draw.'

And then came McEnroe. Adams suggests that he came to symbolise Britain's emerging yob culture, with the likes of Johnny Rotten, 'who in 1977 had taken to cruising down the Thames to announce, through a megaphone, that Her Majesty was a moron'.

Adams has at his fingertips a journalist's expertise, chalking up one journalist's interview with McEnroe like a baseline rally, while he hand-picks literary references and serves them up like the ripest Wimbledon strawberries. He quotes Guardian journalist Frank Keating in his description of McEnroe as a 'freckled, pouting, Just William'. Referring to his unique service action, he quotes Clive James: 'You have to realise that McEnroe is serving around the corner of an imaginary building. He has a sniper's caution.'

And Adams raises his own game when called upon to produce memorable metaphors of his own. Of McEnroe's tantrums, he writes: 'Within seconds of his demons being leashed, he could be back at the service line, while everyone else on court, in particular his opponent, felt like they had been extras in the helicopter scene of Apocalypse Now.' Cue Wagnerian music.

Adams says Borg and McEnroe created the greatest sporting rivalry and contrast in style since Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. If Borg missed a shot, he never went through the 'vanity' of replaying it. McEnroe, of course, was vanity in a headband.

The Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981 - the last time Wimbledon was won with a wooden racket - were, Adams suggests, the watershed years of tennis. He notes that in the crowd watching the infantile McEnroe negotiate his nursery years was Phil Knight, who was looking for players to wear his tennis shoes. In 1977 he chose McEnroe to become the face of Nike - and the face of tennis changed forever. The sport became big business, its players office workers.

As Adams says, when Borg left tennis, his life became the mess it had never been. He married a porn star, nearly went bankrupt and overdosed on pills. But when McEnroe stepped away from the lines in 1993, 'he seemed not lost but liberated' - free, finally, to grow up.

In his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe begins: 'I hate alarm clocks. They drive me nuts.' It was the morning of September 11, 2001. The opening leaves readers anticipating an onslaught of his notorious attitude. Sadly, the rest of the book is a fluffed volley - seriously.

It shows that to appreciate the drama queen from Queens is to do so from afar, from the stands, or through a journalist like Adams, whose use of literature and psychology to capture the genius of McEnroe makes this much more than a sports biography.