By the Book - Literary Life Lessons Stories

By the Book #27 – Serious by John McEnroe

"You cannot be serious!" Today I'm combining tennis and books, by focusing on John McEnroes autobiography Serious.

It’s Middle Sunday at Wimbledon, which means there is no play today. Fortunately, I came prepared. Today I’m stepping safely back into my bookish comfort zone, albeit with a tennis-y feel: I finally got around to reading John McEnroe’s autobiography Serious. Want to know if it’s any good? Read on!

Last night I had dinner with a friend who knows absolutely nothing about tennis – at all. I started explaining the rules (for that’s what I do during the Wimbledon Fortnight) but she quickly interrupted me by saying I might as well have been speaking Chinese. I then asked her whether she had ever heard of John McEnroe, and I wasn’t surprised that she had. Clearly his on-court behaviour is legendary even to those who have never seen a tennis match in their lives.

John McEnroe, apart from being one of the most successful tennis players ever, is most famous for his appalling behaviour. His most famous line, “You cannot be serious!”, screamed at the chair umpire during a tennis match at Wimbledon, has gone on to live a life of its own, inspiring T-shirts, songs, and movies – but unfortunately for him that’s just one of his many phrases that have been adopted into popular culture. McEnroe, in his biography Serious (guess how he came up with that title!), tries to explain how he came to be the enfant terrible of his generation.

To be honest, I’m not that keen on (auto)biographies, since I prefer the escapism that good fiction offers. Since I am a huge tennis fan, though, (you wouldn’t have guessed, would you?) I was quite eager to read McEnroe’s memoir. He’s such a character, and even though I’m too young to have watched him play, back in the eighties, I’ve seen many of his outbursts on YouTube. It’s such a huge difference to who he is now, always polite and quite eloquent when he’s doing the match commentary at Wimbledon. I started reading Serious because I wanted to find out a bit more about his early years, and I’m glad to report I wasn’t disappointed.

If you want to hear about which tournaments he won, you should just read his Wikipedia page – that’s not what I liked about this biography. Granted, reading about these matches is quite fun, especially because he remembers them so well (he knows who he played in which round, who the umpire was, and how he lost or won). It’s really quite impressive. Anyhow, Serious is such a good read because it showed how McEnroe became famous against his will. He didn’t know how to cope with being famous, with the constant pressure, and with the drugs that were widely available. I almost felt bad for him.

It becomes quite clear from the beginning that John McEnroe was absolutely clueless when he first became famous. He didn’t have a coach, he wasn’t very serious about practising a lot (playing matches was enough practice, he thought, especially because he relied on his talents rather than his training schedule), and he didn’t have a real girlfriend. Add to that the fact that he couldn’t stand losing because it made him feel like a failure, and his on-court misbehaviour suddenly makes a lot of sense. He keeps admitting that he regretted it the moment the words came out of his mouth, but he also felt he simply couldn’t help himself. He was never defaulted for his behaviour, and that’s when he realised he could get away with it. He never had to change his behaviour and his style of playing, because he was never challenged – until he was.

In a way, McEnroe could easily have been a tragic character from a best-selling novel. As a relative newcomer, he beat the already-legendary Bjorn Borg and became World Number One. After a while he fell victim to his own fame, and slowly lost his way; he married a completely unsuitable woman, didn’t know how to combine fatherhood with a career in tennis, and finally realised he wanted to be a rockstar (spoiler alert: that career never took off). To me, Serious was almost like a coming-of-age novel, about a misunderstood young hero desperately wanting to join the ranks of his heroes, but never feeling quite good enough.

It’s funny how autobiographies work. On the one hand, I believe McEnroe when he’s telling his story; he’s intelligent, funny, and it also helps that I’m reading it all in his voice. However, it’s still an autobiography, and therefore I can’t help but feel he might have left out the bits that he didn’t like. The hero of McEnroe’s autobiography, obviously, is John McEnroe. He knows he’s been a bad boy, he loves telling his audience about his outbursts and how much he resents them, but he’s also very aware of the fact that his behaviour has helped him become a tennis superstar. 

McEnroe’s story is one with two sides – that of a young, insecure boy unable to help himself, and his matured self looking back on his life, with its inevitable ups and downs and embarrassing moments. He combines brutal honesty and openness with entertaining side notes, and it works. It turns out John McEnroe can be serious, and, finally, he can be taken seriously, too. 

What do you think of John McEnroe? Whose (auto)biography would you like to read? Do let me know in the comments! Also, make sure to follow me for more tennis and book posts!

It’s not on grass, I’m not dressed all in white – at least I’m a leftie, like John McEnroe. I did get one thing right.

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