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‘McEnroe’ surveys the perils of perfectionism

“McEnroe” (2022). Cast: Interviews, Voiceovers and Current Footage: John McEnroe, Patty Smyth, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Chrissie Hynde, Keith Richards, Peter Fleming, Phil Knight, Mark McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Kevin McEnroe, Emily McEnroe, Ava McEnroe, Anna McEnroe, Ruby Smyth Meyers-McEnroe, James “Jimbo” Malhane. Archive Footage, Photos and Voiceovers: John McEnroe Sr., Kay McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, Ilie Nästase, Ivan Lendl, Arthur Ashe, Bud Collins, Tatum O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal, Carlos Santana, Meat Loaf, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Dick Clark, Margaret Thatcher, John Chancellor, David Hartman, Diane Sawyer, Howard Cosell, Tom Brokaw, Sean McEnroe. Director: Barney Douglas. Screenplay: Barney Douglas. Web site. Trailer.

When we think about sports, we usually tend to consider the game in question and the competition involved. Yet rarely do we think about the participants engaged in such contests – the individuals who are taking part and what drives them to compete. Considering the dynamics of these scenarios, there are often powerful motivations at work, mindsets reflective of the drives, aims and goals of the competitors, and they play a role just as vital as the athletic skills involved. But which beliefs serve them best – or, alternatively, worst? Those are among the questions addressed in a profile of an iconic tennis legend, the new sports documentary, “McEnroe.”

Despite not being able to recall a time when he didn’t play tennis, John McEnroe says he never had much interest in participating in the sport when he was young, strange as that may sound. He lived only a block away from a tennis club in his childhood neighborhood of the Douglaston section of Queens, New York, so he could conceivably hit the courts just about any time he wanted. However, it wasn’t until something significant happened when that changed. In the early to mid 1970s, tennis became the fastest growing sport in America, and its leading players, like Jimmy Connors and Björn Borg, were looked on in the same light as rock stars. McEnroe became intrigued by that and wanted to be a part of it. And, given his penchant for wanting to be the best at whatever he did, he threw himself into the game, seeking to become a superstar in his own right.

As fate would have it, McEnroe’s ambition was fulfilled and rather quickly at that. By the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s, he had risen to the top of the sport, competing in the same ranks as Connors, Borg and his good friend Vitas Gerulaitis, quickly capturing titles at such tournaments as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He, too, managed to secure rock star status for himself. Quite fittingly, he even learned to play the guitar and soon found himself in the company of a group of high-profile music industry friends at elite venues like Studio 54, including Keith Richards, Chrissie Hynde, Meat Loaf, Tina Turner, Carlos Santana and David Bowie. It was quite a ride.

Over the course of his 15-year professional career, which continued until 1992, he captured 155 singles and doubles titles, making him history’s most successful male tennis player in the game’s modern era. Yet, for all his achievements, McEnroe says he felt unfulfilled, that his accomplishments didn’t measure up to his expectations or seem like such a big deal. Considering that viewpoint, outsiders might readily ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture?” And, ironically enough, McEnroe did the same with himself.

This is the central question that writer-director Barney Douglas’s documentary seeks to answer. How could someone so accomplished feel so inherently unsatisfied? While the film chronicles McEnroe’s attainments on the court with ample competition footage, it places much of its emphasis on the foregoing conundrum, delving deeply into his character and how it impacted his professional and personal life.

As noted above, from childhood onward, McEnroe was obsessed with being the best at whatever he attempted. It so pervaded his personality, in fact, that one could say he was the epitome of perfectionism, a trait that verged on becoming toxic, especially where tennis was concerned. This quality, combined with the incessant success-driven prodding of his father, John Sr., turned the junior McEnroe into an almost-robotic presence in the tennis world. He was truly a force to be reckoned with on the courts. Unfortunately, the same was true off the courts as well.

In hindsight, McEnroe now recognizes the perils, pitfalls and drawbacks of having lived his life that way. Approaching his existence from the standpoint of “all tennis, all the time” took its toll, leading to an undercurrent of unrecognized, unaddressed frustration. He developed a reputation for being the sport’s argumentative bad boy, frequently calling out umpires and referees when he disagreed with calls that went against him on the court. He also became isolated from those supposedly closest to him, such as his first wife, actress Tatum O’Neal, with whom he began experiencing marital difficulties. The same was somewhat true of his relationship with his father, who had become his manager; their interaction with one another revolved almost entirely around tennis, keeping them from developing a more typical – and, one might say, healthier – father-son relationship. McEnroe also became a regular user of recreational substances, which he claimed didn’t affect his performance on the court, but could he say the same for other aspects of his life?

McEnroe says he probably hit bottom in 1994, two years after he retired, when his friend Vitas Gerulaitis died as a result of an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning incident. The event was something of a wake-up call, one that prompted him to look inward and profoundly examine his life and character. He began asking himself the questions that he had long put off. He looked at areas of his life that he had previously largely ignored. And he sought help, both professionally and personally, particularly through his relationship with the woman who would become his second wife, musician Patty Smyth. He turned corners that he hadn’t broached before, becoming a person far different from the one that the public knew best.

Today the tennis great introspectively looks back on his life with new insights about himself. He realizes there are many things he could have and should have done differently. But he also understands that there’s nothing he can do about them, that he can’t change his past, and that he must accept them for what they are and move on. The future is a blank slate with which he can do whatever he wants. And, as someone who wants to be the best he can be, that prospect provides him with opportunities to apply such thinking in areas that he may have missed out on earlier in his life – but that he has a chance to make up for going forward. It’s something he eagerly anticipates, perhaps even more than what winning yet another championship might do.

Beliefs are tremendously powerful tools, intangible resources that can be put to virtually any use. On the one hand, they can lead us to the fulfillment of tremendous goals, particularly those that relate to the attainment of our personal potential. On the other hand, however, they can be the seeds of destructive behavior, especially when they become obsessive. In those instances, they can quickly turn into undermining influences that lead us astray, taking us down paths we’d be better off avoiding. In either case, though, it’s crucial that we recognize their presence, their impact and the role that they play in how events unfold in our lives. Such is how they function as part of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our existence is determined by these integral influences, for better or worse, and, if left unchecked, with phenomenal persistence.

Whether or not John McEnroe recognized the role that beliefs played in how his life progressed, it’s nevertheless quite apparent from this film that they have long occupied an important place in his life. He even seems to have had some sense of the particular beliefs he held and an awareness of what they yielded, especially with the passage of time. Indeed, with age has come wisdom (as it often does for most of us). As he looks back on his life, however, even if he had been able to recognize some kind of a connection between his beliefs and the outcomes he experienced, he nevertheless found himself stuck in a loop from which he had trouble escaping.

In particular, McEnroe wrestled with this notion when it came to beliefs related to perfectionism. He was so singularly focused on being the best that he couldn’t envision outcomes that failed to live up to that expectation. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to succeed, but a desire to do so at any cost can put us on a fast track to obsession, a state of mind that often spawns all manner of side effects, many of them unpleasant or even unhealthy. And, as McEnroe looks back on his life, he can now see what happened and how such thinking became a trap.

Fortunately, he’s come to understand how he became who he was at that point in his life. And he’s accepted the fact that there’s nothing he can do to change it. But he also now knows that such a mindset need no longer keep him ensnared. He has the power to choose to be different, specifically when it comes to deciding on which beliefs he wants to embrace. That realization can be incredibly liberating, not only in terms of becoming unstuck, but also in giving ourselves permission to open up to possibilities we may have never experienced or even envisioned. There’s a wide world out there to be explored, and this approach provides a gateway for us to step through to examine and enjoy them.

It’s somewhat unusual for a sports documentary to take viewers down a path like this, but that’s one of the tremendously surprising and valuable attributes of this film. Writer-director Barney Douglas’s new release poignantly examines the intense soul-searching that McEnroe engaged in, prompting him to examine the entire spectrum of his life, not just his performance on the tennis court. Through frank monologues by the tennis great and incisive commentary by myriad family members, wife Patty Smyth, peers Billie Jean King and Björn Borg, and friends Keith Richard and Chrissie Hynde, this engaging profile presents an insightful, in-depth portrait of one of the most captivating and controversial sports figures of the 20th Century. Admittedly, some aspects of the storytelling are presented in somewhat awkward, occasionally overly pretentious ways, but, fortunately, these elements don’t unduly impinge on the overall narrative, and this shortcoming is compensated for by the picture’s ample archival footage and its telling interviews. The result is a production that goes far beyond what many offerings in this genre achieve, let alone attempt. The result: Advantage viewers. The film is currently available for viewing on the Showtime cable network and the Showtime Anytime streaming service.

Wanting things to turn out perfectly is only natural and completely acceptable, but, when we become so preoccupied with the idea that we lose perspective, we’re headed down a slippery slope. But are we able to recognize such a scenario when it begins to develop? Given what’s potentially at stake, we’d be wise to hone our discernment skills to stave off problems before they arise. Failing to do so could lead to anguish and, ultimately, regrets if the problem is allowed to persist. That can result in lost opportunities, wasted time and effort, and even prolonged sorrow. Do we really want to go down that road? Even those of us who seem to have it all together can fall prey to such circumstances as long as the beliefs that enable them are allowed to stay in place. Assessing our thoughts, beliefs and intents can help to avoid problems like these, provided we take the steps and make the effort to keep them from emerging, a practice that assuredly represents time well spent, an outcome we don’t have to wait a lifetime to experience.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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