John McEnroe says his outbursts were coping mechanisms, hiding something ‘completely different’

McEnroe says now that his angry outbursts were often not really about being angry. (Tony Weaver/Getty Images)

John McEnroe, still the greatest tennis player NYC ever produced, said his infamous outbursts were coping mechanisms that masked issues dealing with the emotional toll of a complicated personal life and pressurized career.

The profanity, often directed toward the umpire, inspired McEnroe’s ‘angry rebel’ reputation, which ultimately became his lucrative brand.

“A lot of the times I was getting angry I was hiding something that was completely different,” McEnroe said. “And thinking something different.

“The first thing I think about is hopefully something funny, something that would lighten the mood. And I grew up with you got to be intense and you got to have that edge and you can’t let up for a second, you got to keep your foot on the gas. And I wish I was better able to do that. And at other times, you’d feel like there’d be tears in your eyes but I know that, at least when I grew up, guys don’t cry. You got to be tough. You got to grin-and-bear-it type of stuff. And so instead of showing tears, I was showing anger. So I became the crazy angry guy. I’m not that person.”

McEnroe’s antics are addressed in his documentary, ‘McEnroe,’ which will be available for SHOWTIME subscribers on September 2. It’s essentially a two-part film condensed into 100 minutes. The first half is a look back at his meteoric rise in tennis, summarized in the style of a prolonged Nike commercial. Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis great who retired to enjoy solitude at just 26 years old, is featured prominently as McEnroe’s idol and friend. The second part delves into McEnroe’s home life – including his failed marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal – while focusing on fatherhood.

“In a way, if nothing else, I hope that people see there’s more to me and more to a lot of people than meets the eye,” he said.

The mental ringer of fame and tumult contributed to McEnroe’s early descent from the top. He captured a seventh Grand Slam by 25 years old, but never again advanced to a major semifinal. After his film debuted last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, McEnroe found parallels between himself, Naomi Osaka and the evolving discussion around mental health in sports.

Osaka, 24, boycotted post-match press conferences last year because, among other reasons, they “show no regard for athletes’ mental health.” She then pulled out of the tournament and adopted a reputation of being mentally fragile. Osaka has resumed her participation in pressers, but, on the court, lost her momentum as the next tennis great.

She failed to advance past the third round of her last four Grand Slam appearances and is unsure about participating in Wimbledon this month because of an Achilles injury.

“”I worry about Naomi because she did something (boycotted the media) that at the time she thought was right and an incredible thing,” McEnroe said. “But the problem is that there’s more attention on her – Now how is she doing today? How’s the next one? Is she going to Wimbledon?

“So what started out as something that was done for reasons she felt good about, now she’s probably not quite as sure about. And it’s too bad. Because she’s the type of person we need. Big time. She won four Grand Slams already. And everyone has their way of dealing with (pressure). Some are healthier than others. If everyone can be like Rafa Nadal and give 100 percent on the court or every time they do something, that would be absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to do.”

McEnroe cited Osaka’s upbringing as a potential detriment to now dealing with adversity. Osaka was groomed to become a tennis pro and homeschooled from a young age.

“The idea that you can experience things so these kids can grow up and be able to handle things thrown at them,” McEnroe said. “Naomi Osaka from 3 years old was – it’s all going to be about being a tennis player and she was just sheltered and living in a cocoon and she wasn’t able to experience things that kids, good or bad, experience.”

“I find it healthy in a lot of ways that (mental health) is being talked about more openly,” added McEnroe, who also coaches youth tennis at his academy. “But this isn’t something that just started. This started way before me. Obviously with more money in sports, it’s become more of a business. Parents see dollar signs in in their eyes. It’s gotten way worse in that regard.”

McEnroe also criticized Wimbledon for banning Russian and Belarusian players as punishment for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The purpose is “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” according to Wimbledon, but McEnroe believes it’s unfair to the players.

“It’s unfortunate that even in sports, how everything has become political,” McEnroe said.