McEnroe on Nick Kyrgios: ‘He’s trying to deal with fear of failure we all have’

It’s the same every year. Over just as you are beginning to fall in love with it. This is Wimbledon’s special power – to creep up on you every day, teasing itself momentarily into your routine before, just as you are starting to let it in, it wraps itself up for another year.

This time round this familiar, small loss is a touch sharper. What will we all do without the drama? In the men’s losing finalist, Nick Kyrgios, 2022 had that component missing from so many of the recent years it has meandered along, speaking to itself; a character so volatile, so at odds with what Wimbledon understands of Wimbledon, so talented and brattish and irrational and unknowable, that the world outside leans in to watch it all too. And what sport, honestly, doesn’t love it when everyone does that.

Kyrgios’s incredibly colourful tournament ended in a final of occasionally supernatural tennis, in which he repeatedly shouted borderline abuse at his closest loved ones. It has been highly controversial from inside, and highly watchable from out. For all the responses there have been thrown around though, it was only really worth being seen through one man’s eyes. A man who was present in an echo of each of the outbursts, as if it were a modernised nod. One man who knows, and still lives with, what it’s really like to be that guy. John McEnroe. Now a part of the established furniture on the BBC coverage, even for him the scenes played out as a mirror to a time he is inevitably tied to. “Every time I watch Nick and he pulls some stunt, I think: ‘Did I do that? Was I that bad?’ It definitely brings back those types of memories and feelings,” he tells me after, infamous images of the early 80’s being played back in the mind’s eye.

McEnroe, the story goes, a product of a tense, chaotic New York, was spat into a conservative, rigid Wimbledon as an 18-year old prodigy in 1977 (the year of punk, of course) and received as a sort of disruptor from another planet. He voiced “it’s not fair” globally for a teenage generation from the television set from that point on. He was saying it at umpires. They were saying it at their parents. He was right, they decided, it wasn’t fair. That ball was on the line. The parents often hated him, a vision of a spoilt youth flexing its muscles and asking for even more. Each recollection you hear on McEnroe from that time, whichever side you sit on, will be recounted as though he has been preserved in the memory in multi-colour, red and blue headbanded, against a monochrome Wimbledon – almost like he belonged in another era entirely.

John McEnroe and Björn Borg before the 1980 Wimbledon final. Borg won it, but McEnroe returned to beat the Swede in the 1981 final.
John McEnroe and Björn Borg before the 1980 Wimbledon final. Borg won it, but McEnroe returned to beat the Swede in the 1981 final. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

“I think he’s just trying to deal with his nerves and that fear of failure that we all have,” McEnroe unpacks, of Kyrgios. “His way of dealing with it is obviously different than others. What happens unfortunately, when you’re wound up and freaking out, is you take it out on someone closest to you. The irony of it is he’s taking it out on the people that love him the most in the players’ box. So, that’s tough to watch.”

McEnroe, of course, was more inclined to take it out on himself and the opponent and line judges and any chairs or objects in his general vicinity than loved ones on the court. He was hoping for more loved ones. “For me, I didn’t want to be booed, I wanted people to be cheering me. It did make me remember though, once my dad was in the crowd, clapping and mouthing: ‘You can do it son, you can do it’.

“I remember going: ‘Fuck you, who the hell are you sitting on your ass, telling me what to do’, under my breath. He came up to me straight after the match and said ‘did you say fuck you to me?’” McEnroe had to think on his feet. “I said ‘no, no there was some jerk above you’. It wasn’t like I was screaming like Nick. But it was uncalled for, let’s just say that.”

“For the most part, when I’d lose it, I was able to get my concentration back pretty quickly. That’s what actually bothered players. With Nick, it’s hard to tell right now,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s trying. You just don’t know what you’re getting, which sort of what makes it fun to watch, in a train wreck kind of way. It’s like watching a car crash.” He swerves direction, making sure to show his simultaneous awe, “I would have never had the balls to try the between the legs shots and all the other crazy stuff that he does. I was doing the commentary watching him and I was literally laughing. I was saying: ‘I can’t believe he’s trying this in a Wimbledon final’. It’s amazing. It was a very high level of tennis. He’s showed what he’s capable of and I hope he keeps committing to it.”

McEnroe in the commentary box for the men’s singles final on Sunday. ‘I didn’t realise I’d be working for the BBC eventually. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.’
McEnroe in the commentary box for the men’s singles final on Sunday. ‘I didn’t realise I’d be working for the BBC eventually. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.’ Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

The first time I met John McEnroe was in early 2020. Director Barney Douglas was embarking on a film about his life and asked me if I’d be interested in doing the score. I would love to, I told him. Before we started though, Barney explained, the music was important to John, and he wanted to meet the person who was – supposedly – making it. The pandemic had stalled any designs to meet up in person, so – like everything else – it had to be on Zoom. Him in New York – where he would eventually be late night wandering the deserted streets of for the filming – me in south-east London.

There he was suddenly, the man of a million projections, decades on from those duels to which he is still tied, on the screen in my flat, the reception slightly delayed and distorted. He was disarmingly softly spoken, with a scepticism – gentle, but detectable even from the cackling screen. I showed him my guitar (on request). He showed me his. His was far, far nicer. He carried Jeff Buckley’s guitar at the infamous London Garage show. There were more stories, laced with the names of close encounters with pretty much all the great rock stars from recent decades. The other side, he began to search for what he imagined the music to his life should be like. Struggling to find the exact words, his hands fixed in an anxious air guitar gesture, he eventually gave up, for a second showing the glimpse of frustration he would have once had at an unfavourable decision, landing on: ‘”Just don’t make it sound like Titanic, OK?”. Got it, I said. Not like Titanic.

Two years later, minutes walk from Centre Court at Wimbledon in the aftermath of the tournament, I’ve just watched him sing It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by REM at an after party he is putting on for charity. I’ve just joined him on stage where he has encouraged me to play more guitar solos than I have played collectively in my life until that point. He agrees – in mock-relief – that the finished music doesn’t sound like Titanic, before elaborating, “you know, I just didn’t want any of that dramatic, ‘one more cello please’ stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it worked for Celine Dion or whoever it was”.

McEnroe on stage in a tribute to Tom Petty in New York in 2015.
McEnroe on stage in a tribute to Tom Petty in New York in 2015. Photograph: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

This ennui of his life being made into something that it isn’t, is something that has often plagued McEnroe post his tennis career. No more strings and cellos please, he has forever been asking, since his playing days derailed from the greatest to have ever played to purposeless slog. During his timeless duels with Björn Borg, the world – almost literally – had watched, leaning in on a scale that dwarves the one bequeathed Kyrgios. As the brilliant book On Being John McEnroe recounts, for the famous final in 1980, Nelson Mandela had persuaded guards to let him listen in from Robben Island prison. Sachin Tendulkar, aged seven, had watched from Bombay in a tennis kit and headband like his hero. Andy Warhol had got up early in Manhattan to catch it. They all loved him.

This search for acceptance through tennis is something that laces itself through McEnroe’s inner monologue throughout the film we’ve just signed off. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do for decades”, he says, on this search for resolution and connection. “I’ve been brought up with ‘Don’t cry, be tough, men have to be this way’. So in some ways, I was hiding vulnerability or tears. I’d get angry and I was hiding myself with it a bit.” His is a story of second chances, coming in the form of a chance meeting with musician Patty Smyth, with who he has now been for 28 years. “You have to be able to allow that other person to be the person they are other than the person you want them to be. I always felt like she let me be me,” he says. “That’s all you can ask. It’s a really hard thing to accept and do.” She lets him play guitar around the house, but usually pleads that he doesn’t sing.

When McEnroe departs London this week, he will leave behind him a few weeks where he has hosted and been part of the “100 years of champions” at Wimbledon, lining up alongside Roger Federer and, despite his silver hair and dark suit, still somehow popping out against the other champions in technicolour. In his public interviews he has regularly delved off the beaten track into Russia/Ukraine (he is anti-war but feels Russian players should have been allowed to play), vaccination (he is pro-vax but feels Novak Djokovic should not have been kicked out of Australia) and, in the evenings, taken guest turns on stage with both the Eagles and Pearl Jam at Hyde Park on guitar.

There was a time, in the early 80s, that all he wanted was to never see it again. “If I win this tournament”, he says in the film, “I’m never fucking coming back.” In time, this changed. “The moment I won it,” he tells me, “I felt like I could literally fly out of the stadium. There was this brief period where it all came off my shoulders and I thought, on second thoughts actually …” He pauses, perhaps remembering the repellant energy his outbursts attracted, “I didn’t realise that I’d be working for the BBC eventually. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”

There is an intriguingly opposite art to commentary than the one that fuelled him then. “It’s actually like music. It’s knowing when to pull away and to let it breathe. When you’re watching something great, sometimes it’s better to let it speak for itself.” He turns back to the fourth set tie-break between Kyrgios and Djokovic. “Just let people see this,” he thought to himself. There was nothing that needed to be said. “That’s what it’s about. Some of my best work is when I haven’t said anything.” And on Kyrgios? “He did electrifying things in a lot of ways,” he shrugs. “Even if it wasn’t always for the right reasons.”

McEnroe is in cinemas from 15 July