His accomplishments on the court speak for themselves: seven Grand Slam championships, five Davis Cup titles, and 77 singles titles (third all-time). Despite his outsize success, McEnroe was rarely happy. “There was so much expectation that I put on myself, it was hard to enjoy the moment as much as I would have liked, even though I was really doing well. By the time I got to my late twenties, I felt, ‘Why am I a part of this if I’m not really enjoying it?’ ”
As his playing days came to a close in the early nineties, McEnroe went through an ugly tabloid divorce from his first wife, Tatum O’Neal, and retreated to planning and later opening his eponymous Soho art gallery. Friends say it was a dark period. But then he met Smyth at an L.A. Christmas party he attended with his three kids. She was touched by his patience with them. They married in 1997 in Hawaii; McEnroe has said that their blended brood (Smyth had a child from a previous marriage, and she and McEnroe went on to have two more children) gave him his humanity back. Today, McEnroe is often in the stands for sporting events (his kids play tennis, but none seriously). At home, there are raucous family Scrabble matches. He often travels with the close-knit Team McEnroe—Smyth and the kids, ages 11 to 24—in tow. For the past fifteen years, McEnroe has dabbled in art and rock music, but neither pursuit ever really took. His Johnny Smyth Band played area clubs a while back; on several occasions, wiseass audience members pelted him with tennis balls.
For a time, McEnroe’s main connection to the game was his TV commentary. People tune in because you never know what the idiosyncratic and ever-candid McEnroe will say. “Some of these announcers shouldn’t take themselves so seriously,” he says. (With respect to this year’s U.S. Open, he says he has a feeling about Rafael Nadal, but that he’s not counting out Roger Federer, who is now working with Pete Sampras’s old coach, Paul Annacone. “Roger could show up with a chimpanzee,” McEnroe says, “and he’d be a factor.”)
“I’m doing this to provide a spark of energy to kids. I didn’t do it to compete with my brother.”
But lately, thanks to an obsessive workout regimen, McEnroe has gotten more serious about playing again. He is leaner than he was in his prime. He exercises with Chris Chelios, who played in the NHL into his forties, and 46-year-old surf legend Laird Hamilton. His friend and broadcast partner Ted Robinson says that those workouts have given McEnroe the idea that he can play tennis again at a high level, at least for a set or two. McEnroe recently squared off against Andy Roddick on Randall’s Island as part of a WTT match. For a while anyway, Roddick—the 27-year-old top American player—had all he could handle, barely winning the one-set match in a tiebreak, with McEnroe hitting sharply angled volleys and deft drop shots like it was Morning in America again. It’s likely, of course, that Roddick didn’t exactly approach the event with the intense zeal of McEnroe, who, for days afterward, bemoaned not getting enough depth on the backhand-slice approach shot he tried on match point. “I’ve lost that half-step, which is the thing that separated me,” McEnroe says, running his hands through his still-wavy, if thinning, grayish hair. He’ll hit again this afternoon and then get a massage, in preparation for another WTT match tonight. But first he sighs, “It’s frustrating. Sometimes I think if I had that step now, I could show these young guys how I could cut balls off and play the angles. It would be a different story.”
In another sense, McEnroe hasn’t lost a thing. In his prime, he could make his anger work for him; his infamous blow-ups were often followed by stunning displays of “I’ll show you” tennis. That temperament, at least, is still there. At a recent L.A. exhibition match against Andre Agassi to benefit one of Agassi’s charitable foundations, McEnroe, refusing to play the nostalgia card, stalked the court, shattered rackets when Agassi broke his serve, and snapped at a courtside fan. “Just because you pay some money,” he said, “doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole!”
McEnroe is catching up on some paperwork. He has final say on the hiring of every one of the academy’s 25 coaches, and he reviews reports from his staff on each candidate, in search of the right final mix. He wants some coaches who specialize in teaching beginners, some who coach girls, and some, like director of tennis Gilad Bloom, a former top touring pro, who have experience handling elite players. There’s an acoustic guitar in the corner of his office, which rests near a photo of him with Jack Nicholson. “Those other things are still serious hobbies,” he says, gesturing to the instrument. “But now I’m sort of figuring out a way to enjoy tennis more. I’m still hard on myself. Not as hard as I used to be. But I get over it faster.”