Friedrich Kunath & John McEnroe | It’s an Inside Job

In 2018, Friedrich Kunath talked about life, art, and self-doubt with John McEnroe, seven-time Grand Slam winner, once the enfant terrible of tennis. McEnroe, who is not particularly tall for a tennis player, did not have a hard serve, and played in a very unorthodox way, and Kunath, who says of himself that he cannot draw at all, agree: “The limitations are what guide you.” A very Californian thought.

Friedrich Kunath: I watch a lot of tennis. It’s either music or tennis when I’m here in the studio because it helps me get a bit of a break, mentally, when I’m immersed in my own world and inner problems and anxieties ... Watching tennis has really become like a salvation for me. But what I’m interested in is the psychology of tennis. I’m taken into the mind of the player: what you’re able to do, and how you’re the only guy who can do it. To really understand the psychology of tennis is a gift. And it also translates into your game. Could you always do that?

John McEnroe: The commentary, for me personally, has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. If you were to ask me, it was in the late 1980s, around the time when Basquiat died. That is when I started to sense in others that I was slipping and losing it … You know, that I was heading in the wrong direction.

Kunath: You stopped when? 1992?

McEnroe: Ended in 1992 … So, around the early ‘90s I watched my buddy Vitas Gerulaitis start doing commentary, and people started saying to me, “Hey, maybe you should do commentary.” I guess it’s what tennis players do when they retire—they coach or they commentate, or they, I don’t know, open a club. I said, “The last thing I want to do is commentary.” That is when you know you’ve hit rock bottom, except maybe the senior’s tour, which are all the things that I do now, right? But I noticed Vitas looked like he was actually having fun. I said, “Wait, if I could do it like he does it, I just might.” I mean, the key to art, I would guess, and the key to what I do now with commentary, is that people want to know that you know what’s going on. But they also want to know that you’re enjoying it while you’re doing it. We’re not solving the world’s problems, but it’s an escape, which is fun.I’ve taken myself seriously, overly seriously, to the point where people think I’m a lunatic. So I thought, let’s try to maybe show a side of you that people haven’t seen. Like, god forbid, I have a sense of humor. And maybe I’d like to have fun sometimes, because when I was on the court, I was screaming and yelling. Everything was like the end of the world. As my dad used to say, “Count to ten before you tell the umpire to piss off.” I’d be like, “I don’t ...” I’d last to about one.

Kunath: Was commentating a moment for your own reflection on
what you did? You talk about others, therefore you talk about yourself.

McEnroe: Well, I try not to talk about myself because I think that’s
insulting to the viewer and the player. It’s too easy to be a backseat driver. You have to try to get people to understand what’s happening and what, in a way, you think the player should do. More like a coach. If someone asked me, “How would you match up against Roger Federer?” I wouldn’t say, “Probably not very well.” But I’d say I’d approach it in a way where I try to get into his head and come at him. That’s the way that I play, I go after people. And that’s the way most people, I believe, should play. Because at a certain point it becomes a very cerebral game, a mental game ... It’s about how much will you have.

Kunath: Someone told me that Wilander said, “It’s not about how you play or who you play, it’s how much you can make your opponent suffer.” I found that very interesting because as an amateur, you’re so absorbed in yourself. You’re looking at your footwork. You’re doing all kinds of things, but the last thing you’re thinking about is making your opponent suffer.

“I see it with a lot of artists who can paint anything, but they’re almost always at a loss. And they don’t know what to do because there are too many options.” – Kunath“

McEnroe: Well, there are different ways of making an opponent suffer. But obviously, it all follows the same general premise, which is that you want to make it as easy as possible for yourself to execute and as difficult as possible for them to do what they want to do. Tilt the situation in your favor.

Kunath: It’s so hard, that moment.

McEnroe: It’s very hard. And Wilander would do it in a different way,
because he was one of these guys who was like a never-ending battery. He could go for ten hours. His level might not be as high as other guys at times, but he was mentally there all the time, so he didn’t beat himself. And he didn’t make mistakes that you’d see other players make. Eventually, he’d break your will and break you down to the point where you fatigue ... That’s the way to do it. If you’re fit enough mentally and physically, that’s how you get on top. Agassi would say something similar. He’d rejoice because he made them suffer. Mine was different. It was more the way Arthur Ashe talked about me, which is a little cut here, a little cut there. There was no deep wound, but sooner or later you bleed to death. I didn’t have the physical advantage ... I’m 5’11 and three quarters, and I’m not blowing anyone off the court with my power. But I could go after them with my intensity and energy and will and effort.

Kunath: When did you realize your technique didn’t come from power, that anger was your tool? You apply another level of rage to the game that is dangerous for an opponent.

McEnroe: Well, I was actually taught really well by this Mexican player, Antonio Palafox, who played on the tour and coincidentally moved to a suburb of New York near where I grew up. He won Wimbledon doubles in 1963 and turned out to be one of the two guys who I think beat Laver in ’62. He was legitimately the thirtieth or fortieth best player in the world, I believe.

Kunath: Did he look at you like, “Look, he’s not going to hit the hardest ball ever, but I can make him perfect in his limitations?” That’s what I feel as an artist. The limitations are what guide you. I see it with a lot of artists who can paint anything, but they’re almost always at a loss. And they don’t know what to do because there are too many options. Fewer options means more freedom. Too many means less. As a tennis player, was there a moment when you realized, “The only thing I can do here is use my own touch, my sense?” It’s contrary to this masculinity of hitting hard, but it was interesting to see that you developed the skill of playing smart very early on, understanding that it doesn’t matter who misses the hardest. It’s a game of unforced errors.

McEnroe: Well, I realized at a certain point that the way I was taught to play would be extremely effective. But that wasn’t until I was, say, 18 to 20. I was taught to use the court as a geometric equation. There were a hundred numbers, on my side and their side. And it was all so that I could compute in my head.

Kunath: So, it’s really theoretical?

McEnroe: In a way. It had to go from theoretical to natural.

Kunath: But when did you realize getting in people’s heads is a skill? Who did it before you to that extent?

McEnroe: I thought Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase were worse than I was. I thought, “Why are they looking at me? Didn’t they see Nastase?” He’d make a mockery of the whole thing. And Connors would be grabbing his balls and doing all types of disgusting things. And I would be sitting there screaming or yelling at the umpire like I’m Attila the Hun all of a sudden. So, it was surprising. A part of me felt like, “Okay, you’re going too far.” There’s no question. But you have to know the limits and what you can get away with. And obviously, the better you get, the more you get away with, so that’s an incentive to get better.

Kunath: I’ve always thought you’ve either got the rage or the rage has you, in psychological terms. And I’ve always felt like you have the rage. You used it in a very critical way.

McEnroe: I didn’t know I had it until ... I mean I was always ... If you had asked my mom or my dad, I had this perfectionist-type quality that can be good and bad. 98 needed to be 99, I had to have the best grades, or do the most competitive of all of the sports. I was very competitive, that came naturally to me. I didn’t particularly love tennis in the beginning because it’s difficult as a kid. It’s difficult as an adult, you can see. Look at the guys you watch when you go to Indian Wells. Two thirds look miserable, right?

Kunath: Right.

McEnroe: And they’re pros. You see Novac Djokovic, and you’re like, “What the hell is going on here?” The guy is one of the greatest players that ever lived, right? He’s won twelve majors. The guy’s got more money than he knows what to do with, and he looks like he’s miserable. So, it’s difficult. You need to nurture kids. That’s why, for me, it was so important to play team sports, because if I hadn’t done that, I think I would have just burned out. It’s hard to lose every tournament. I mean, I was one of the top players in the country growing up, but not the top. So I’d lose in the quarters or the nationals or whatever it was. You lose in every tournament, that’s not a good feeling.

Kunath: Do you agree with Agassi’s proposition that tennis is the loneliest sport.

McEnroe: I believe that tennis is probably the most beautiful combination of the mental and physical that you’ll see in any sport. I can’t compare it to boxing, where you’re in a ring with someone who is going to punch your face. They’re literally trying to knock you out. I would say that’s pretty lonely. But tennis is definitely lonely.

Kunath: Did coaches train you to get out of your head?

McEnroe: I mean, you’re trying to do things to keep yourself from
freaking out. Which I didn’t do too well. I, at least, was able to freak out and still maintain, for at least the first eight years of my career, that I could thrive in that situation. After I had kids though, for example, it felt like I was faking it. I felt like a cigarette smoker who couldn’t quit. I was like, “Why am I even doing this now?” Because I didn’t have that same fire and will anymore. It felt like I had lost something. It was my fault too, because Federer, look, he’s still got it. He’s got four kids. But I had a tough time feeling that same level of anger and intensity. It just didn’t feel right.

Kunath: Because you mentioned Federer, do you regret leaving at 33?

“Yes, there is a beautiful poetry in losing.” – McEnroe

McEnroe: If there’s one thing that I am jealous of Roger for, if I had to pick one thing, it would be that he absolutely loves to be out there. I mean, it’s a great living, don’t get me wrong. But emotionally, it’s tough. To see the way Roger can seemingly brush off defeats so easily and take a positive out of what looks to be a negative, that’s what’s allowed him to thrive. Obviously, he’s taking care of himself and he’s had a good support system, which you need. But, he’s been able to allow himself the time because of the love. I wasn’t able to do that part the way I would’ve liked. I don’t think many people manage to. And I wish I could have handled some things differently, no question ... I took six months off when Emily’s brother was born.

Kunath: That was 1985?

McEnroe: It was February of ’86. This was after I lost my number one rank and Ivan Lendl became number one.

Kunath: Was this when you—to use the word— burned out?

McEnroe: People use that word, and I would say that I needed to regroup. So, you can call it what you will, but I’d been going hard since I was 18. In May of 1986 I’d just turned 27, so I thought: this is a perfect opportunity to regroup, have my first son. And I’m going to come back, and I’m going to be a better player. I’m going to train my ass off, I’m going to hit the gym, get myself to an even better point than where I was before. The bad news is that it didn’t happen. I never got better, I got worse. This issue came up with my foot. I couldn’t get rid of my hip problem. Racquet technology changed. All of a sudden, Boris Becker was hitting the ball harder than any human being had ever hit a ball. He was 17, 18. I’m like, “How the hell does this guy do this?” I was thinking, “I’ve got to get more power,” which was probably the wrong goal. That’s why it’s easy to be a commentator, because you can say, “Well, that’s what you should have done.” No shit! But what I should have done was stick with the program, believe in myself.

Kunath: Because it invited self-doubt?

McEnroe: Because I believe that if I’d been able to continue to at least play at the level that I stopped at, I would have been able to get back at these guys again. Listen, any athlete wishes for a second chance, where you’re still there. My last Wimbledon in 1992, I got to the semis. And that’s a good run. I lost to Agassi. And the funny part was that we were fairly close at that time. But he was complaining, “Oh, I can’t play on grass. I can never win on grass.” I’m like, “Come on, man, you hit the ball better than anyone. You can win on grass.” And we trained together the week before in Wimbledon. We played some and I tried to build him up. Little did I know that I’d end up playing him in the semis. And he kicked my ass and won the thing. I was like, “What is it with me and my big mouth?” I couldn’t help myself … Though in this case, it was for a good cause, because I wanted to see André do well. He was just doubting himself the way we all do. I played Lendl once, very early in our careers, probably 1978, 1979. I was playing great, and he was playing badly. He was getting trashed and basically started tanking, started quitting. I got pissed at him. I started saying to him, “You’re a wuss man. What are you doing? You can’t even try? What a fucking pathetic loser you are, man. Get your ass up there and start playing.” And he would be like, “You can’t talk to me like that.” And I’m like, “Fuck you, man. Get up there!” I continued to berate him to the point where finally I saw him basically look at me like, “I’m going to fucking kill this guy.” And he got up, and he started trying harder than he ever had in his life. And I ended up losing to him. So, I was like, “Why the fuck didn’t you shut your mouth?” I would have beat him 6:2, 6:1 in an hour. They would have booed him off the court. I would have looked like the fucking hero. But instead, I had to get under his skin to the point where he was like, “I’m going to do anything I can to beat this asshole.”

Kunath: But then what happened? That fear ... Is there an out-of-body situation where you sense you’re on the threshold of losing it?

McEnroe: It was a combination of things. It’s a bit of a long story, but basically I have this ability to make life tougher for myself. Everything was so perfect, and instead of just letting it happen, just believing, I felt I had to do something ... I didn’t have to, but I caused some trouble for myself.

Kunath: You couldn’t help yourself.

McEnroe: And I turned the crowd against me. It was like, “Why is this guy bitching when he’s winning.” The crowd was completely for me, and they turned, 95 percent of the crowd. I got the greatest round of applause in any match I’ve ever played, bar none, when I walked onto that court in the announcement. They all wanted me to win because my style of play isn’t your typical way to play on clay. By the end of it,I’d managed to get the crowd sympathetic towards a pretty unsympathetic figure, which was quite a pathetic job on my part. In a way, I still should have won. I lost 7:5 in the fifth. And I lost 7:5 in the fourth.

Kunath: It was his first win, right?

McEnroe: First win.

Kunath: Is there poetry in losing?

McEnroe: Poetry in losing ... Poetry in losing ... There can be poetry in losing, actually, because my favorite match I’ve ever had is a match I lost: the Wimbledon final with Borg in 1980. I got more respect from the fans, more respect from the media, and most importantly, more respect from the other players. The way that match panned out, and the way that it’s been perceived and talked about as one of the greatest matches ever, I think they’re akin. Yes, there is a beautiful poetry in losing. Ultimately, that match with Lendl, even though it was by far the worst loss of my career, I would like to think that it forced me, whether I liked it or not, to become a better person. Just the way having kids does; you see life in a different way or you realize it’s not all about you. My head might have been too big to walk in your door today had I won that match. It’s painful, but I have to look at it like it was ultimately, for whatever reason, what I wanted to happen, because I think I had as much to do with losing as he had to do with winning. I don’t know the psychology of it. I don’t know if there are any answers. You just have to keep plugging along and keep perspective.

Kunath: I’ve been making art all my life. And then I found tennis and was like, “Finally, I can get out of my head.” But now that I’m playing a lot, I’ve become confronted with my own demons again, because of losing and failing.

McEnroe: Yeah, to me that’s a key thing: to recognize and be able to bring something positive out of a negative. Because it can be done. It can drive you absolutely crazy, but ... It’s like when I play music. We had a jam the other day, and a lot of the time I was missing notes. I was screwing up. But there was something epic and just awesome about this jam. It just felt so …

Kunath: Right. And if you take care of that jam, eventually it becomes bigger than you, it overtakes you, and then you experience what people generally call a moment of transcendence, where you feel like you’re in service of something bigger.

McEnroe: I would like to hope so. I would like to hope that
my remaining time on this planet will be where I make the most out of trying to find the positives, and enjoy as much as possible, because I’m one of these push, push, push guys. Sitting still is very difficult for me. I like to be active.

Kunath: Just to go back once more to the psychology, there’s an interesting thing, instinct versus intellect. Go with your gut or go with a strategy. To a point, do you decide on your approach? When do you switch between instinct and intellect, and what is that moment like?

McEnroe: You’re going to rely on instinct, but you should have at least three, four plans for what you could do. And you have to know what you’re capable of. You have to think, “What are they going to do? How am I going to approach this?” And be ready to throw it all out the window at any point.

Kunath: Let’s say your instinct goes bananas and you’re doubting yourself. What is your backup plan then?

McEnroe: If everything you’ve thought through goes out the window, then you’ve got to just play. And don’t overthink it. You’ve also got to always be aware of what it is that you do best. So don’t worry a whole lot about them. Worry about you. And make sure that you’re bringing it.

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