John McEnroe on reinventing himself — and why he should have been more like Federer

I watched John McEnroe eat at the Rosa Mexicano restaurant, I began to know how Bjorn Borg felt. I had done everything I could to keep up with the guy across the table. I had arrived early. I had secured my seat. I had even greeted him as he walked in. But there was McEnroe, digging into his entrée before I even had a chance to order my own. I had been defeated at a game I was supposed to know how to play — the journalistic lunch.

It was a mix-up, to be sure, a bit of midday comedy that could have made a proper episode of Seinfeld. McEnroe was so single-minded in expressing his culinary desires, and the waitress and I so distracted by his presence, that no one at the table noticed that I had failed to secure a dish for myself until it was too late and the former world number one was the only one among us with solid food.

This was the McEnroe I knew from his days of tennis dominance — when he humbled Borg at Wimbledon in 1981 en route to seven grand-slam singles titles in six years. He was never the biggest or strongest player — just relentless and resourceful. His gift was conceptual. He could see all the angles on the court and knew when to go in for the kill, charging the net to deliver a winning volley with a flick of his incomparable left hand. There was always something mysterious about how he got where he was going — and now he was running over me, as if I were a European neophyte unaccustomed to the hard courts at Flushing Meadows.

“It’s not like I’m someone that walks in and they go, ‘Oh, my God, this guy — look at all his muscles,’” says McEnroe, still trim at 58, but with a head of hair as white as snow. “I looked at the tennis court almost like a geometry equation — you have to solve it.”

McEnroe sat down at lunch to discuss his efforts to resolve a more intractable problem — what to do with yourself after you become too old to do what you do best. Unlike most of us, his midlife crisis began early. Since winning his last singles major in 1984, he has battled to reinvent himself. Although best known as a tennis commentator on US and UK television, he also has worked as an art dealer, rock guitarist, game-show host and talk-show host. Four decades after his first Wimbledon, he still plays on the men’s senior tennis tour, although he is at a loss to explain exactly why.

“I actually sort of almost enjoy the whole process,” is the way he puts it. “But I’ll tell you when I [will] really know when I love tennis — when they don’t pay me to play. Then we’ll find out if I love it, and I hope that never happens, by the way. But that’s reality.”

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