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The price of perfection

The price of perfection

Barney Douglas’s new documentary McEnroe is a subtle and enthralling exploration of a complex, cerebral tennis genius

A personal memory: many years ago, I was involved in the organisation of an evening with John McEnroe for newspaper readers in the ballroom of a central London hotel. I took my late father along to the dinner and to watch the on-stage interview with the sporting legend; in his youth, my Dad had been many times tennis champion of Malta, remained obsessed by the sport and was a great fan of McEnroe.

I had arranged a quick “meet and greet” after the formal proceedings were over so that Dad could shake hands with him and have a brief word. McEnroe was impeccably courteous and receptive, conspicuously lacking the 1,000-yard stare that many celebrities develop after many decades meeting members of the public.

But then something else happened. As he quickly grasped that my father knew what he was talking about, McEnroe became visibly engaged. Within a minute or two, the pleasantries were over and the two Johns were discussing, in detail and with great intensity, the relative merits of wood and composite tennis rackets; the correct string tension for different court surfaces; the varieties of grip for the best serve; and the extent to which the overwhelming force of Pete Sampras’s serve-and-volley game had dominated tennis but also drained it of some of its mystique.

John McEnroe on court during the Wimbledon Men’s singles tournament, 1977

What had started as a courtesy greeting had become the conversational equivalent of an amicable tennis game between the two men, and though the event organisers were politely urging us to wrap it up, McEnroe no less politely insisted on taking his time. 

Way out of my depth, I sat back in the stands, so to speak, and enjoyed the spectacle. I was delighted for Dad, of course, and grateful to McEnroe; but I was fascinated, too, by the extent to which this unique athlete felt most at ease when engaged in cerebral, highly articulate discussion about things he really cared about.

All this came flooding back to me when I watched Barney Douglas’s majestic documentary McEnroe (selected cinemas, 15 July), which portrays its subject as a profoundly intellectual player, who himself compares his style of play to his love of maths and of chess. He looked at the court, he says, like a board, and tried to dismantle his opponents psychologically: “You want to get in his head – and blow it all up.” Tennis, he reckoned, was “a pretty true microcosm of life.”

Hoop Dreams, 1994

What makes the best sports documentaries so good is that they require no prior knowledge of the sport in question; combining, as they do, the blood, toil, tears and sweat of elite competition with the great mythic themes of human experience – ambition, acclaim, hubris, the wrath of the gods and (just occasionally) the chance of redemption. In this respect, Douglas’s movie stands comparison with, say, Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994); Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings (1996); Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010); and Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance (2020).

Cosmetically, McEnroe’s rise to the top from his first knockabout in Douglaston, New York, to his number one world ranking in 1984, perfectly channelled the zeitgeist of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Here was the brash young “Superbrat” from Queens, full of punk energy, who had come to tear down the temple of old-school gentleman’s tennis and claim it – with fury and brilliance – for the MTV generation. 

When We Were Kings, 1996

The strawberries-and-cream etiquette of Wimbledon was all that he opposed. But Wimbledon was also the crown that he coveted most; which made his legendary clashes with umpires on the sacred turf of Centre Court all the more extraordinary and symbolic (and fun to parody, as the Not the Nine O’Clock News team did here). But these spats were also, self-evidently, a distraction from the game, and a symptom of inner turmoil.

In the movie, McEnroe says, with good humour, that he has seen 37 psychologists and psychiatrists, some of them court-ordered – and still hasn’t got himself figured out. And the inner workings of his mind are at the heart of the narrative, which is loosely framed around a night-time walk through New York in which McEnroe, rather like a noir gumshoe, paces through his deserted home city; “wandering,” as Douglas put it at the preview I attended, “through the back-streets of his mind.” 

McEnroe questions an umpire’s decision at The Wimbledon Championships, 1981

In the early Eighties, there was a risk that the on-court tantrums would eclipse appreciation of his genius as a player. He was physically slight by comparison with most of the top competitors. By his own admission, he did not train as hard as others, or monitor his nutrition as any aspiring champion would today as a matter of course (in his first memoir, Serious [2002], he recalls piling on the pounds over the Christmas holidays as he tucked into tubs of ice cream). He took what he calls “performance-detracting drugs.”

He was incredibly fast across the court, and quick to the ball, with minimum backswing. But sheer artistry, rather than athleticism, was always what marked him out from the rest: a preternatural ability to make shots that others would not even have dreamed of; to play an aggressive serve-and-volley game but to mix it up with astonishing grace and touch; and to serve with a ferocious power that seemed to come from the depths of the earth, deploying an entirely idiosyncratic technique that bore no resemblance to any text-book method.

McEnroe progressed to reach the final of the Men’s Singles tournament before losing to Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, 1980

In this respect, he transcended the sport in a way best captured in a classic 2006 essay on another all-time great player, Roger Federer, by the late David Foster Wallace. “There are times,” wrote Wallace, “watching the young Swiss at play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that brings spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.” And it had been exactly the same with McEnroe. How did he do that? How could he possibly have made that unmakeable shot, running at top speed, to hit a spot on the other side of the net the size of a postage stamp? How?

Driving him onwards and upwards was Björn Borg, his idol and rival, whose Viking cool was, of course, the perfect counterpart to McEnroe’s enraged antics. Their 1980 Wimbledon final, especially famous for the fourth set tie-breaker, still has a claim to be the greatest match ever played. 

The next year, with Margaret Thatcher and Lady Diana Spencer watching in the Royal Box, McEnroe finally broke Borg’s winning streak of five championships, and claimed the prize for himself. He beat the Swede at the US Open final in the same year. To his horror, Borg did not even stick around to collect his runner’s up trophy, driving off straight away from Flushing Meadows – and shortly afterwards, announced his retirement from competitive tennis, aged only 26.

Bjorn Borg lost the Wimbledon final to John McEnroe, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4, 1981

For McEnroe, this was “an absolute fucking tragedy.” He had looked forward to a decade in which the two of them would push the game to new limits, the engine of their rivalry redefining the limits of the possible. He had also become close friends with Borg – a friendship that lasts to this day – and hated the idea of being left alone on the tour. Poignantly, he recalls that he would rather have been number two, if that meant he could “have him back.”

But it was not to be. Now aged 66, Borg is as genial as ever in his interview – looking less like an ex-tennis champion these days than an author living by a lake in a late Ingmar Bergman movie – and speaks of McEnroe with the fondness of an elder brother, whose happiness in later life he has been delighted to observe.

McEnroe lying on centre court, 1980

The relationship between the two players has been addressed many times in the past four decades; not least in Janus Metz Petersen’s Borg vs McEnroe (2017), which featured an unexpectedly convincing performance by Shia LaBeouf as the latter.

Douglas and his composer, Felix White (former guitarist with the Maccabees), looked further afield in search of inspiration – and lit upon the warmth and rivalry between cop Al Pacino and thief Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). 

Heat, 1995

For those who care to see it, their own movie is studded with many other homages to great films of the past, such as Mann’s Thief (1981) and the work of John Carpenter. As a documentarian, Douglas pays special tribute to Todd Douglas’s Apollo 11 (2019). 

Abandoned on court by Borg, McEnroe found that his fairytale marriage to Tatum O’Neal was no such thing. And his bond with his father, who was also his manager, never quite settled as it might have. “Certain things were never resolved,” he says, with undisguised pain. When you hear archive footage of the senior John describing their relationship as that between a “legal advisor and client”, you realise what the younger McEnroe was contending with at a very young age.

John McEnroe with parents Kay McEnroe and John McEnroe Sr. outside their home in Douglaston, Queens, NYC, 1977

“It’s good to get second chances,” says McEnroe – and he got his own in a successful second marriage to the rock singer, Patty Smyth, with whom he has two daughters, in addition to the two sons and a daughter from his relationship with O’Neal. To his great credit, however, McEnroe resists glib psychological explanations, not least the neat but trite theory that Smyth rescued him from the wreckage of an unhappy childhood. Indeed, he goes out of his way to acquit his parents of implanting the demons that lurk within; in the end, the rage for perfection was all his. “There’s not an ‘answer’ to John McEnroe,” is Douglas’s refreshingly candid verdict.

McEnroe wins the Wimbledon final against Borg, 1981

McEnroe is an essay on greatness that will enthral even those who have never picked up a tennis racket. Everyone should want to be as good at something as John McEnroe wanted to be at tennis; and it could be anything: painting, friendship, starting a business, creating a garden, making the perfect cup of coffee. 

But – then again – there is always a cost. And the fiendish bit is: nobody can tell you in advance whether it’s going to be worth it. That is John McEnroe’s inspiring and troubling lesson to the mortals amongst whom he walks, at the age of 63. “I don’t think I’d want to be at total peace,” is the closest he can get to an answer. And that residual, uncertain restlessness is what makes him, in the deepest sense, the greatest of them all.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Mayor of Kingstown (Paramount+)

There ought to be an official sub-genre of prestige television called “How The World Really Works”: the urtext being David Simon’s majestic Baltimore saga, The Wire (2002-2008). Created by Taylor Sheridan and Hugh Dillon, Mayor of Kingstown is an excellent addition to this category and further evidence that Paramount+ is a streaming service to watch.

Based in a Michigan town whose primary industry is incarceration – seven prisons, housing 20,000 inmates, within a ten-mile radius – the ten-episode first season (the show has already been renewed) introduces us to the McLusky family, whose role is to negotiate, fix, bribe and do whatever else is necessary to maintain some sort of peace between inmates, the street gangs to which they are affiliated, prison officers, family members and cops.

All of this takes place unofficially, but in plain sight. The go-to status of the McCluskys symbolises the recognition of everyone involved that the system is irredeemably corrupt and that outside arbitration will always be necessary if anything like order is to be maintained inside and outside the prison walls.

Early on, Mike (Jeremy Renner, superb) has to take over from his brother Mitch (Kyle Chandler), as the so-called “mayor”, permanently in his car and on his phone to sort out the latest crisis (for a fee, naturally). Their mother Mariam (Dianne Wiest) is magnificently disdainful of the family business and her lessons as a prison educator teaching inmates about the historic sins of America are powerful punctuation marks in the plotline – one of many touches that make this much more than a standard prison procedural show.

Of the many adversaries with whom Mike must play life-or-death chess is incarcerated gang leader Milo Sunter, played by Aiden Gillen – another connection to The Wire in which he played Baltimore mayor, Tommy Carcetti. But perhaps the most memorable scenes are Renner’s many conversations with the superb Tobi Bamtefa as Bunny Washington, the Crips’ leader on the outside who spends all day on a chair on his lawn selling drugs from a cooler. A drama series that has the promise of greatness.

Bill Burr: Live at Red Rocks (Netflix) 

In the early years of the century, a rolling cast of comedians used to hold court at a big table at New York’s Comedy Cellar: Patrice O’Neal, Jim Norton, Colin Quinn, Bill Burr and others. The quick-fire banter among the group was pitiless – as the young Kevin Hart, to name but one rising star, found out the hard way. O’Neal was the most talented of the bunch, his death aged only 41 in 2011 being the greatest loss to comedy since that of Bill Hicks in 1994.

In the event, it is Burr who has ended up playing stadiums, perfecting his craft over thousands of hours and with a trademark style of mostly contrived anger that has become funnier as he has grown older. It is intrinsically amusing that his latest special was filmed at such an Ansel Adams location as the Red Rocks Amphitheatre (famously the venue of U2’s portentous 1983 live album, Under a Blood Red Sky). 

Be warned: Burr’s comedy is not for the faint-hearted or the easily offended. His shtick is that he loathes everyone, himself most of all. The only people he hates more than woke people are people who hate woke people (watch him deal with a drunk heckler who yells “America!”). The targets of his humour are not as predictable as you might think: Coco Chanel, anti-vaxxers who confuse patriotism with stupidity, social media warriors who want to cancel John Wayne more than 40 years after his death, and white appropriation of black culture. 

Most of all, he is unforgiving of himself – “You know I’m an asshole. You know this isn’t going to end well” – and of his failings as a parent (the bit on the speed with which his four-year-old daughter has become his life coach is genuinely affecting). The whole point is that toxic masculinity leads only to grief. And – like all the best comedians – Burr uses irony, the subversion of literalism and sheer recklessness to make a serious point extremely funny.

… and thank you to Tortoise member Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron), for this review of The Good Boss (selected cinemas, 15 July):

“If a lot can happen in a week in politics, try working in the Spanish scales-making business. Anticipating an industry awards committee visit, Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem) intervenes in the lives of his troubled employees, controlling the perfect reputation of his family-run factory. But as their problems pile up – from affairs and failing marriages, to a bullhorn-brandishing redundant employee – Blanco’s carefully controlled course is at risk of being thrown off kilter.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – both music and ballet – offers the backdrop for one dramatic crescendo. But director, writer, and producer Fernando León de Aranoa lavishes equal attention on the most subtle and minuscule of moments, lulling us into a state of permanent suspense as to when – if ever – the balance will be tipped. (Better keep an eye on the long-suffering Fortuna, played by Celso Bugallo, and his Black+Decker drill.)

Bardem shines as the charismatic, manipulative owner of Blanco Básculas, with his Weinsteinian cult of personality and penchant for interns. But the story doesn’t indulge in exploitation; each individual character is afforded complexity, darkness and humour (often at the same time). Sonia Almarcha counterweights as Blanco’s wife, Adela. Far from being a clueless woman-at-home, she brings him back to earth with perfect comic timing, throwing barbs like: ‘He’s dumb’, ‘She wants air? She’s sleeping with someone,’ and ‘you’re self-made, except for the factory you inherited from your father’.

The award-winning de Aranoa delivers a lesson in storytelling – one which speaks as much to wider problems of workplace exploitation, as it does to particular racial, gender, and socioeconomic discrimination in contemporary Spain.”

(You can listen to Jelena’s full review on Saturday’s edition of The Bunker podcast.)


Venomous Lumpsucker – Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Since his extraordinary debut Boxer, Beetle in 2010, Ned Beauman has developed a distinctive fictional voice that draws upon Ballardian dystopianism and Martin Amis’s adoration of irony. In this, his fifth novel, he brilliantly conjures a world of the near future in which, with dark hilarity, market solutions are sought for species extinction. 

The death of Chiu Chiu, the last giant panda, compels 197 nations to form the World Commission on Species Extinction – a good idea, you might think, but one that dissolves into absurdity as (in a splendid satire of green capitalism) a system of “credits” is established, whereby corporations pay considerably more if they kill off an intelligent life form. This market becomes even more important to businesses when the great biobanks that store DNA of extinct species are destroyed, in an apparently coordinated attack. 

Enter Mark Halyard, “Environmental Impact Co-ordinator” of the Brahmasamudram Mining Company, whose drones seem to have wiped out the venomous lumpsucker: “a bumpy, greyish fish about five inches long fully grown. It had a toadlike face with bulging eyes and a fat upper lip; looking at it, you felt that if it were a human being it would sweat from the forehead all the time and yet have a shockingly cold handshake”. The bad financial news for the company is that the fish appears to have been one of the most intelligent species on earth.

Halyard teams up with the animal cognition scientist, Karin Resaint, in search of answers – and, if possible, the last surviving venomous lumpsuckers. Along the way, we learn that post-Brexit Britain is now referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom”, and much else besides. Not all dystopian fictions work, frequently being too self-satisfied with their premise or too dense to be emotionally engaging. But Beauman’s novel falls into neither trap, and is that rarest of literary species: a thought-provoking page-turner.

In Search of Us: Adventures in Anthropology – Lucy Moore (Atlantic Books)

Anyone who has dipped an amateurish toe into the waters of anthropology – enough, say, to distinguish Max Gluckman from Clifford Geertz – can attest to its rich intellectual rewards. Lucy Moore’s book is a fine vade mecum for those interested in learning about the origins of the field. As well as being beautifully written, it engages the reader from the start by focusing upon twelve European and American individual pioneers of anthropology. 

From Franz Boas (1858-1942), or “Papa Franz” as he was called by those who followed in his footsteps, the world learned (for example) that there are 50 different Inuit words for snow. Many regard Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942) as the founder of modern anthropology, who declared that “in grasping the essential outlook of others, with reverence and real understanding, due even to savages, we cannot help widening our own”. In which context, it is entertaining to learn that the so-called “savages” of the Trobriand Islands lampooned him magnificently as “the man with baggy shorts.” 

Via Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), Margaret Mead (1901-1978), and Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Moore’s tour concludes with the great Claude Lévi-Strauss (1909-2009), the great structuralist whose Tristes Tropiques (1955) remains, along with Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), the work of anthropology that features on most bookshelves (though not necessarily read). In Search of Us is an absorbing, well-researched and often amusing account of a unique scholarly tribe.

Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History – Timothy Hampton (19 July, Princeton University Press)

Relax: this is not one of those oppressive airport bookshop manuals that promise you absolute happiness and unquenchable optimism. Quite the opposite, in fact. Timothy Hampton, professor of Comparative Literature and French at UC Berkeley – and author of a fine book on the songs of Bob Dylan – defines cheerfulness as “a kind of temporary lightness, a moderate uptick in mood” and, as such, “a modest thing. It never overwhelms us. Rather, it radiates between people and shapes their interactions and selves. It presents a form of power or energy that we can harness in the work of managing our emotional lives.” 

To trace its evolving role over the centuries, Hampton’s scholarly survey embraces Shakespeare, Montaigne, Dickens’ Mr Micawber, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, Louis Armstrong, Cheerios cereal, and the vacuity of modern emojis. On the downside, “[c]ontemporary cheer – the gaiety of networking apps and cheer squads – mimics the spirituality of communities that no longer exist”. 

But, in aspects of our response to the pandemic, Hampton tentatively identifies a fresh recognition of the value of cheerfulness. “Debased and overlooked, cheerfulness provides an instance of solace, a flash of support,” he writes. “It is not the ‘hope’ of the messianic, or the ‘optimism’ of the cheap politician. It makes more modest promises… You can’t build a politics on it. But you probably can’t rebuild a world without it.”


Love, Damini – Burna Boy

Hard to follow up a trilogy as powerful as Outside (2018), African Giant (2019) and the Grammy-winning Twice as Tall (2020), but Burna Boy – AKA Damini Ogulu – pulls it off by delivering perhaps his most personal album to date. Across 19 tracks, the great innovator of Afro-fusion digs deep into his inner life – love, sex, grief, frustration, political ideas – to present the listener with an absorbingly candid account of his state of mind and his unashamedly incomplete reflections upon the world around him. 

Plenty of high-quality help is recruited: from Victony on ‘Different Size’ (which also includes a remix of a Squid Game soundbite) and J Hus on ‘Cloak and Dagger’, to Ed Sheeran on ‘For My Hand’, Khalid on ‘Wild Dreams’ and Naomi Campbell, Jorja Smith and Swizz Beatz on ‘How Bad Could it Be’. Though Burna Boy is now a truly global artist, the distinctively Nigerian sound of Port Harcourt remains the backbone of his creativity, and the essence of his consistently compelling work.

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus – Bertrand Chamayou

“The drama of my life is that I have written religious music for an audience that has no faith,” said Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), confronting a philosophical challenge that he has bequeathed to all who perform his compositions. The famously complex Vingt Regards (1944) – twenty portraits of Christ’s infancy – were written for Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010), his muse, collaborator and, from 1961, his second wife. Many pianists have been daunted by this work, but the Toulouse-born virtuoso Bertrand Chamayou, best known for his interpretations of Liszt and Ravel, has the necessary combination of emotional intelligence, rigorous technique and sheer artistic courage. He has described the Vingt Regards, which he first played in 2008, as “a giant fresco” – a fresco, one might add, to fill the wall of a basilica. Interestingly, it is also Messiaen’s only explicitly religious work, though his spiritual beliefs infuse all his compositions. The five short additional pieces written in homage to Messiaen, by Toru Takemitsu, Tristan Murail, György Kurtág, Jonathan Harvey and Anthony Cheung, may strike some listeners as superfluous but the core two hours of the mighty original work are quite an experience: highly recommended.

Found Light – Laura Veirs

The break-up album is scarcely a new genre and, arguably, Portland-based folk rocker Laura Veirs has already produced hers in My Echo (2020), recorded during the disintegration of her marriage to Tucker Martine – who had long been her musical partner as well as her husband. Found Light, then, is a beguiling blend of lingering sadness (“I am puzzling out our two lives apart,” she sings on ‘Winter Winds’) and uplifting optimism as Veirs charts the first steps of a new life. Co-producing her 12th album with Shahzad Ismaily, she sings with great honesty of both the sensuality and bathos of rediscovered sexuality (‘Touch-starved palms on a cursive chest / Black socks on the only thing left’). On ‘Sword Song’, she envisages a less combative and more serene future, “turning [her] sword into a flower”; in which context, her love song to her children, “T&O” (“You are the sunbeams of the house”) is especially moving.


Let’s live with less plastic

Thanks to our Assistant News Editor, James Wilson, for his recommendation of “Let’s Live With Less Plastic”, an outdoor art exhibition raising awareness around plastic pollution:

“With the global supply of plastic set to double by 2030, it’s all the more important that innovative new ways of raising awareness of the issue are explored. That’s why, for the third year running, Le Good Society – an organisation committed to arts and activism – has commissioned work from a series of artists on the subject of plastic pollution. 

‘Let’s Live With Less Plastic’ is an outdoor art exhibition featuring work ranging from Paul Davis’ illustrations of plastic particulates coursing through people’s lungs, circulatory system, brain and sexual organs to Tom Hodgkinson’s depiction of a handful of people holidaying on a beach by a dried up ocean. It’s a striking reminder of the dire effects of plastic pollution to come – as well as those that are already here.

Accessible to the public, the art is presented on billboards in the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and New York’s Times Square. Readers in the UK can find the billboards in Finsbury Park, Peckham, Manchester, Glasgow, Brighton and Cardiff, Wood Green, Luton, Maidstone, Blackburn, Canterbury, Hemel Hempstead and Ilford. The art is also available to view digitally in a 3D gallery on the Hedera Network, and there’s an opportunity to buy individual pieces as NFTs in their online auction.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Dogwoof Productions, Getty Images, Paramount+, Netflix, Tripictures, Tom Hodgskinson/Let’s Live With Less Plastic