As a tennis champion renowned for disputing line calls, John McEnroe also draws a sharp line between his time playing and commentating. “I’ve been broadcasting now for 20 years and haven’t used a bad word yet in the booth. But it was harder to control myself on the court.”
McEnroe looks back fondly on his playing days, recalling his rivals’ colorful personalities and varied playing styles. He preferred having fewer on-court rules and the freedom of not touring with a big entourage as players do now. He’s come to terms with his former bad-boy reputation, but his biggest regret isn’t his tirades, it’s not learning another language. And don’t even get him started on his career commentating: he loves it, immersing himself in the game of tennis and in the players’ highs and lows.
McEnroe discussed a range of tennis topics at a TimesTalks event with New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman on Tuesday. They also showed the audience an amusing video of “Johnny Mac” in his heyday, with his trademark headband and curly hair, berating the umpires.
Below are selected interview highlights and comments from McEnroe.
Playing experience: McEnroe’s line call challenges may have sparked criticism, but he had a good eye, and his actions may have eventually led to the player challenge system in place now. But even though fellow tennis star Arthur Ashe used to tell him, “All the calls would even out”, McEnroe clearly didn’t subscribe to that notion:
“I did a terrible job of composing myself. I was a spoiled brat from Long Island who benefitted from the energy of New York. I got a lot of publicity but it steamrolled. Event organizers weren’t used to that kind of behavior, so later they tightened the rules. Sometimes my negativity worked to my advantage, and early in my career it got me going. But you need to understand that you’re not just fighting opponents, you’re also fighting yourself.”