It was late on a quiet Friday afternoon in the TENNIS Magazine office when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I decided to pick it up anyway. The weekend was so close: What could possibly go wrong now? I put my feet up on my desk, leaned back in my chair and brought the receiver to my ear.
“Steve,” the flat, Queens-accented voice crackled through the receiver. “This is John McEnroe.”
I took my feet off my desk and sat up in my chair.
You might think that, for a writer at a tennis magazine, these would be words to celebrate, and normally they would. But this day was different. Earlier that week, an issue of TENNIS had come out that included an excerpt of my new book, High Strung, about the rivalry between McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. It wasn’t just any excerpt, either; it was the chapter describing the young Johnny Mac’s infamous “You cannot be serious!” tirades at Wimbledon in 1981. My scalp began to sweat. I fumbled for an answer.
“Oh, hi, how are you?” I finally said. (Excerpt? What excerpt?)
“I want to talk to you about this article about my son...”
Son? Then it dawned on me: It wasn’t John McEnroe the tennis player on the other end of the line; it was John McEnroe, Sr., his father.
“Oh, God,” I thought.
This was much worse.
John Sr., who died at 81 earlier this week, was the original straight shooter in the McEnroe family, especially when it came to mounting a defense for his oldest child. The son of Irish immigrants to New York, John Sr. had put himself through law school at night and eventually risen to partner at prestigious Manhattan firm Paul, Weiss. If there’s an equivalent to winning a major title in the world of New York attorneys, this is probably it. You don’t get to where John Sr. did without knowing how to make an argument.