John McEnroe Holds Court on Past Playing Controversies and Time Broadcasting

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.”

Broadcasting experience: McEnroe has thrown himself into his commentator role with the same effort he showed as a player, but uses a more lighthearted approach. He extensively prepares for the Grand Slam tournaments he covers by using his insights and by continuing to compete. That way he fully experiences the “joys and difficulties of playing on center stage”. For example, during Wimbledon McEnroe correctly predicted that the struggling Roger Federer would consider using a larger racquet.

“As for preparation, I love the sport of tennis. My thought process is akin to the players. I look at upcoming matches, assess the situation and figure out players’ strategy. During the match I look inside the players’ heads at their vibe, technique and strokes. The players are the stars, and if they’re great it makes my job easy. But if a player is not giving 100 percent, then I’m critical.”

“With commentating I’ve had a chance to show the humorous side of my personality that I didn’t use on the court. It’s fun, and I don’t take myself too seriously. I have good broadcast teams with me, but I’m not a huge stats guy. I think they post the numbers too quickly, and I’d rather let the match play out a bit first.”

Playing vs. commentating: By now McEnroe has had lots of time to put his experiences into perspective:

“When you’re playing, there’s a high when it’s going well, and there’s nothing else you can compare it to. I used to be pissed when people would come up to me and say I’m a better commentator than a player, but now I’m flattered.”

He showed his sense of humor during the Q & A session when an audience member effusively praised him. In response he joked, “I’m negotiating a new ESPN contract now, so maybe you’d like to join in.”