John McEnroe: “I behaved the way I did because I was bored”

Former bad boy of tennis talks about sport, art and the “only world leader with orange hair”

Alejandro Ciriza

“I’m tired. I want to go to the hotel.” That is how tennis legend John McEnroe began his interview with EL PAÍS in the Spanish resort of Marbella late last year – a conversation held long before his recent controversial claim that 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams would only be ranked 700 in the men’s game.

John McEnroe serves during an exhibition match.
John McEnroe serves during an exhibition match.SUSANA VERA (REUTERS)

Now approaching 60, McEnroe still looks like the bad boy he was on court, famous for smashing rackets and for his insults. He is wearing jeans and a pair of the sort of worn-out trainers made popular by punk-rock band The Ramones. There’s plenty of hair left too, but graying and without the extravagant curls of his playing days when he was always on the attack, always rushing toward the net.

The passing of time has been kind to this mold-breaker. He is still slim and in good form but his face is lined, adding a certain gravity to his features.

Donald Trump shouldn’t be president of anything John McEnroe

He has come to Marbella to play in a Senior Masters Cup tournament and the flight from the United States has taken its toll. But he asks for a coffee and sits down for the interview, his New York twang unmistakable as he talks about life on and off the court.

Question. Have you ever, in all of these years, hated tennis?

Answer. I think there are always times in any job when you hate what you are doing. They say hate is a form of love. It’s love-hate. When things are going well, it’s great but sometimes you go out on the court and nothing happens for you. Then you ask yourself why you do it: and of course, you don’t like it as much.

Q. Do you think of yourself as a bit of a rebel?

A. No, no at all. I don’t think I am politically incorrect. I think tennis is too rigid. I behaved the way I did because things bored me and I was trying to make it more interesting. Where I grew up, that’s normal. In New York people shout all the time.

The conversation moves onto politics: McEnroe is a Democrat but remained unconvinced by Hillary Clinton.

McEnroe (right) shakes hands with arch rival Björn Borg after defeating him in the 1981 US Open final.
McEnroe (right) shakes hands with arch rival Björn Borg after defeating him in the 1981 US Open final.AP

Q. What do you think of politicians in general?

A. Politics is pretty crazy. Obviously, being a politician must be a rather difficult job but for me it’s something pretty unpleasant. I’m sticking to tennis, that’s for sure.

Q. Trump is in charge now. What do you make of him? He’s not exactly adored in some parts of the world.

A. He is controversial everywhere. I would say he is an OK guy but of course he shouldn’t be president of the United States. That is where I would draw the line. In fact, he shouldn’t be president of anything – well, he should president of his company because he has managed to convert his name into a brand: in that sense, he is good [at what he does]. In everything else, I think he goes too far. I have seen him many times because I live in New York and he is a real character. Now, of course, we have a president with orange hair and if I am not mistaken he is the only world leader with orange hair.

I think the Prado in Madrid is one of the best museums in the world

Q. Were you disappointed by Barack Obama? You once said you hoped he would make a lot more changes.

A. I think there were a lot of obstacles for him to overcome. I ended up disappointed but it wasn’t all his fault. I believe he thought he could work with people that in reality couldn’t work with him. I think he made a mistake. I think, in a way, they cheated him. They weren’t going to let him act. They thought: oh, we have a black president, but we are not going to let him do anything. It’s complicated.

Q. Art is one of your passions. What are your preferences?

A. I like everything. In Spain, for example, I love the Prado. I think it is one of the best museums in the world, without a doubt. I love art. Collecting it and looking at it give you a great sense of satisfaction. One part of your brain is competitive and that is related to play, but the other part tends toward reflection and thought.

Q. Luxury, fame, marketing, the media... Do sportspeople live in an unreal world these days?

I think those who cheat should simply be banned from the sport

A. Basically I believe this era is different to mine. In sport you live in your own world, that’s how it is. Sometimes you not as aware of the outside world as you could or should be. Perhaps that is a good thing at times, but at other times it’s not so positive. Being a professional sportsperson is something pretty good, a good place to be, but only as long as you keep things in the right perspective.

Q. Doping, match fixing, corruption: don’t you think that a large part of sport is somewhat rotten?

A. A large part? I don’t think so, at least not in tennis. Ours is a great sport. [Cheating] is inevitable. There are things happening in any sport that you wish wouldn’t happen but there are lots of players who hardly earn any money. I think those who cheat should simply be banned from the sport but we also need to work better with those players lower down [in the rankings] so that they have more opportunities. Sometimes when they play in small tournaments it doesn’t work. If someone is going to pay them to lose a match, it’s very difficult to control.

English version by George Mills.

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