This is Richard Evans’s second book on McEnroe. The Struwwelpeter of tennis is now 31 and No 4 in the international ratings. The first book, McEnroe: A Rage for Perfection, came out eight years ago when McEnroe was 23 and rated No 1. The new book belongs to the genre of defensive biography. It is as though Oliver had written a life of Roland: the wise, steady friend standing up for the brilliant, wayward hero. The comparison may sound pretentious, but then Evans compares McEnroe to Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, with quotations from Shakespeare and from Peter Levi on Shakespeare. He uses adjectives like ‘pavonine’, and describes McEnroe’s style as pointilliste – rather a good idea, except that it leads to an analysis of pointillism: ‘tiny jabs of colour executed with the deft touch of a true artist’.
‘McEnroe is, above all, a complicated man,’ it says on page one: ‘complicated to a degree far in excess of the public’s comprehension of just how complicated a human being can be. Becker, while many-layered in his personality, would never want to be as complicated as McEnroe.’ Poor old Becker. So what happened to make McEnroe so complicated and so intolerable – far more intolerable to himself than to the public who feed gleefully on his bad behaviour on court, though possibly not as intolerable as he is to opponents whom his antics put off their stroke? McEnroe is a perfectionist, and self-hatred and self-castigation are the obverse side of his perfectionism. Evans tells us that most of his bad language on court is directed against himself, even though some obtuse umpires don’t realise it. At Wimbledon in 1981 he shouted: ‘You’re a disgrace to mankind!’ The umpire thought he meant him, the umpire, and issued a conduct warning.
‘But I was saying it to myself, umpire,’ McEnroe called out, his face already contorted with despair and growing anger as another apparent injustice came down on his head. ‘I was saying “you’re a disgrace to mankind” to myself. Aren’t I allowed to say that to myself?’
Still, McEnroe is an unusual sort of perfectionist. Perfectionists are pernickety, with high boredom ceilings over their chosen ground. But McEnroe is easily bored: he can’t be bothered with physical training or dieting, even though he has a weight problem; he can’t even be bothered to practise and plays doubles instead, because playing doubles is fun. It sounds like old-fashioned amateurism and rather engaging, but Evans deplores it.
He’s writing a psycho-biography, so he has to keep on worrying away at the problem of how complicated McEnroe is. He doesn’t sound all that complicated, though: he has one big hang-up – or maybe two. He can’t stand anyone in authority over him, and he can’t stand injustice. The combination means that when he doesn’t agree with a linesman or an umpire, he loses his cool and goes out of control as fast and as irrevocably as a child of two. Evans convinces one that this is so, and that McEnroe’s behaviour is never calculated to put off his opponents. This is not the case, he thinks, with Jimmy Connors ‘strutting about the court in his usual hyped-up manner’. Evans really has it in for Connors; his other bête noire is Lendl, ‘the Czech machine’. He is a great little hater, and his antagonisms liven up the book, although they slightly weaken his credibility. All the same, he succeeds in making one sympathise with his hero, as a man who hates himself for his tantrums but regards them as a visitation. So why not Hamlet (‘His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy’), as well as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus?
He repeats his argument until it’s almost as boring as press-ups, and backs it with examples of McEnroe’s generosity to sick children and of his patriotism: he played loyally in the US Davis Cup team when it had become unfashionable for tennis super-stars to do so. One can’t be sure, however, how mad Hamlet was or how much was pretence, and in any case, all this mad, contagious Shakespearean business is over the top, along with the references to George Orwell because 1984 happened to turn out a key year for McEnroe; not to speak of an extraordinary passage at the end of the book where Evans complains that when McEnroe was recently defaulted in Australia he was given only thirty minutes to prepare his defence: ‘Murderers get months in which to prepare their case and have a highly trained lawyer to help them do it. McEnroe has never been afforded such luxuries.’ Nor has he wasted anyone or faced a life sentence. What is all this? Dan Maskell wouldn’t like it.
In spite of being so aware of his problem and so unhappy with it, and in spite of two bouts of withdrawing from tennis in emotional and physical disarray, McEnroe has refused so far to consider psychoanalysis – and that really is remarkable considering he lives at Malibu Beach with a film-star wife. His childhood might have been a treasure trove for amateur analysis, but like the man himself, it refuses to co-operate: there seem to have been no problems, no skeletons in the cupboard. He was born into a well-to-do Irish family in a suburb of New York and educated at an expensive private school. He got on well with his two younger brothers and with his parents too. He was not a difficult child, he made lots of friends, he was good at work as well as games. His parents were exactly the ones he needed: ‘scientific tests have proved that the classical formula for a successful son is a hard-driving mother and a father who is content to praise and encourage but not to dominate.’
So the quest for psychological traumas leads up a cul-de-sac. When it comes to analysing tennis, Evans is perceptive.
It is an old adage in tennis that every player needs a killer shot to become a champion. But it would be simplifying the issue to pick out one shot from McEnroe’s vast and varied armoury. Rather, it is the actual variety that is so stunning ... in a sense, he is a spoiler. Players, especially players he has met often and really studied, come off court knowing that he has not allowed them to play.
Here, on the border between tennis technique and psychological strategy, Evans can make one see things one hadn’t seen before: which is what matters in a book like this. And he can do brilliant vignettes: McEnroe preparing to receive service ‘with that expression he has mastered of arrogant boredom. Boredom with the pin out.’ Or McEnroe ‘allowing a drop volley to fall from his racket like petals from a rose’. There isn’t nearly enough of this kind of thing; most of the matches are simply summarised, not described. The exception is McEnroe’s unexpected victory over Borg in the US Open in 1980: this is a thrilling account.
The supremacy of left-handers in tennis has always been a puzzle. One might think that it was due to there being fewer of them, so that right-handers get less practice at dealing with their shots. But Evans explains that there is more to it than that. McEnroe’s opponents
muttered about how impossible it was to return a serve from the ad court when you had to climb into the stands to do it. The angle McEnroe was getting on his leftie serve was phenomenal. Lefthanders have a natural advantage in this respect. For reasons no one has been able to work out, they seem able to get a more acute angle when serving to the left-hand court than a right-hander can when serving to the right-hand court.
But why? Why aren’t these two shots mirror images of one another?