Miscellaneous Thoughts in Response to John McEnroe, In the Realm of Perfection

His fiery temper resulted in his being parodied in pop culture.

John McEnroe, 1979 ABN Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. Creative Commons public domain.

“Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?”
— Eric Clapton, Martin Sharpe

I enjoyed playing tennis when I was high school age and occasionally afterwords. It was just a large scale version of ping pong, requiring a bit more athleticism. It was good for amping your heartrate, required a bit of eye/hand coordination, psychology and even a measure of mathematics. (You know, getting the angles right.)

Considered a major sport, it was routinely covered in Sports Illustrated and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. As a result, I became familiar with the leading names from that world of tennis including Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, and more recently Serena and Venus Williams, and the astonishing Roger Lederer.

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Public domain.

In the middle of all these players was a singular tennis star whose rude, impertinent behavior set him apart from the rank and file tennis pros who projected class and style, John McEnroe. Yesterday I watched a documentary filmed at the finals of the 1984 French Open between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl at a time when McEnroe was the world’s top-ranked player. The title of the film is John McEnroe, In the Realm of Perfection.

To be honest, nearly all these elite players could probably be labelled as being “in the realm of perfection,” so once you remove the glossy title, what you have here a lot of footage of an exceptional elite tennis player.

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Screen shot from my iMac.

I didn’t watch tennis on television when McEnroe was rising through the ranks. In fact, I’ve rarely watched television for most of my life, though when I heard tell of the superior skills of an exception athlete I sometimes went out of my way to see what people were talking about. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are examples of this behavior on my part. McEnroe actually wasn’t. He was someone I read about.

Years later, while reading Tatum Oneal’s tell-all life story A Paper Life — she was, at 10, the youngest Oscar winner in Hollywood history for her role in Paper Moon with her father Ryan Oneal — I learned that she had been involved with John McEnroe for a spell. The only anecdote I recall is that on one occasion he had a stash of cocaine in his vault which she was not supposed to have access to. While in Europe for a major tennis championship she managed to break into the vault and his stash disappeared up her nose. Ah, how the other half lives.


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Screen shot.

Actually, there’s not much to spoil. The film is primarily the distillation of an ungodly number of hours of footage filmed by a French cinematographer. It’s not a drama or a story, per se, though it does proceed along a path. If you’re into tennis, or have ever been into tennis, you might find this a worthwhile venture. I will state here that my opinion of John McEnroe rose a couple notches, despite his pestering of umpires and line judges.

Here’s the opening on one of four user reviews from Imdb.com:
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is the documentary we have waited a lifetime for: The titular tennis titan was photographed decades ago by cinematographer Gil de Kermadec but never so well displayed as in this perfect documentary by Julien Faraut using Kermadec’s footage. Call it a “found footage” doc if you will.

My own notes while watching rambled along this line:
Athleticism and artistry, and extremely rude. Throws tantrums. Shows disrespect to judges. Feels that “everyone’s against me.” Does anyone love me? Will anyone love me? Art of camouflage. Extreme sensitivity. Fierce desire to win.

The footage was shot at the final match for the ’84 French Open, McEnroe vs. Lendl. Lendl was a Czech-American tennis player who would eventually become #1 in the world for 270 weeks.

“This sport is kill or be killed. They don’t bury you. They just forget you,” McEnroe said.

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John McEnroe, 1979. Creative Commons.

The fact that this 2018 movie was released four decades after it was shot says something. McEnroe has not been forgotten. His listing on Wikipedia begins in this manner:
John Patrick McEnroe Jr. (born February 16, 1959) is an American tennis player. He was known for his shot-making artistry and volleying skills, and for confrontational on-court behavior that frequently landed him in trouble with umpires and tennis authorities.
McEnroe attained the №1 ranking in both singles and doubles, finishing his career with 77 singles and 78 doubles titles; this remains the highest men’s combined total of the Open Era. He won seven Grand Slam singles titles, four at the US Open and three at Wimbledon, and nine men’s Grand Slam doubles titles. His singles match record of 82–3 in 1984 remains the best single season win rate of the Open Era.

That last statement is actually quite remarkable. Strange how we only remember his “bad behavior.” Could it be because the only way a majority of people experience tennis is by means of the media? Were sports journalists on his case because he didn’t play by their rules? Or maybe the rules had changed and stars were no longer pre-packaged as heroes, but sold more papers and magazines when being reamed.

I enjoyed the film, in part because I had previously enjoyed the film Borg vs. McEnroe which I’d watched and written about after being so completely engrossed by David Foster Wallace’s magically marvelous essay on Roger Federer.

Anyone for tennis?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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