John McEnroe is about to eat a sandwich.
I ask him about the Warriors t-shirt he’s wearing. “I’m a Knicks fan, but Chris Mullin is a buddy…”
But we’re not here to talk basketball. He’s here to talk about the best years of his tennis career.
“I mean, ’79 was like the most fun year I ever had,” McEnroe, now 63, explains to BroBible.
1979 was when McEnroe etched his first Grand Slam win. McEnroe, 20 at the time, infamously battled it out in the second round of the US Open against Ilie Nastase. The match, on August 29, 1979, is often celebrated as one of the most chaotic tennis matches of all time.
Rowdy fans broke out in fistfights in the stands. Beer cans were tossed onto the court. McEnroe ultimately won and went on to win his first US Open. But on that night, it wasn’t without mixed emotions and McEnroe’s hallmark feistiness: He has previously said he wanted to punch Nastase “in the mouth because I felt like he had made a mockery of the whole match.”
Later that night, they reconciled over dinner at Patrick’s Pub in Little Neck
“I was sort of climbing the ladder in ’79,” McEnroe explains.
McEnroe vs. McEnroe on ESPN+
On the day of my interview with McEnroe, the tennis legend just finished playing a match against virtual avatars of himself. The project is called McEnroe vs. McEnroe. Now streaming on ESPN+, McEnroe’s match against himself was born out of a partnership with Michelob Ultra. It’s low-stakes fun, a high-tech celebration of the Ace’s storied career. Think: A little bit Black Mirror, a little bit advertising stunt for the light beer brand.
To make the special, a soundstage in Glendale was transformed into a sci-fi tennis court, complete with a massive special effect particle machine used to project McEnroe’s avatars. Behind the smokescreen, a Terminator-esque tangle of robots, sensors, and machinery returns the volley, firing tennis balls with precise accuracy.
In order to do this, the production team used adaptive AI and Unreal Engine MetaHuman technology to build McEnroe’s various avatars. The reconstruction involved a deep dive into McEnroe’s career, analyzing his shots, footwork, and movement on the court. This is synchronized with the ball-firing robots.
The McEnroe vs. McEnroe producers picked what versions of his younger self he’d square off against. “They picked the years, but I was like, ‘Okay, this makes sense.'”
McEnroe first plays against his 1979 avatar, which features a wood racket. Then he plays against ‘81 John McEnroe – The year he won his first Wimbledon title against his fierce rival, five-time defending champion Björn Borg.
This was also the year McEnroe’s on-court temper towards an umpire exploded, leading to one of the greatest outbursts in sports history – the “You can’t be serious, man!” moment heard ’round the world.
It was an amazing display of passion, tennis, and showmanship. It helped to cement McEnroe’s reputation as one of the greatest players of all time.
Other matches against himself for the ESPN+ special include ’82, ’84, and ’92 – the year he called it a quits with tennis.
John McEnroe on the best years of his tennis career
Shortly after wrapping, I asked McEnroe about playing against versions of himself.
“’81 was the first year I became number 1,” he tells BroBible. “’82 was a little bit melancholy because Borg had stopped playing. I was sort of like bummed in a way. It was like the Lakers and the Celtics when Larry Bird was playing against Magic, if one of them just said we’re not playing anymore.”
“It was sort of a horrible loss for me. And then ’84 was my best year. That was the year I thought I finally got it. It made me… It’s nice to sort of remember some of that in a positive way.”
“’92 was my last year playing, and a lot went on that year for me, both on and off the court, and not all of it was great. And so… That was a tough transition so that brought back some memories.”
While rolling onset against his ’92 self, McEnroe announced that it “made him remember why he retired.”
I asked McEnroe about the comment:
“Yeah, exactly. It was. Not only losing more, but being away from your kids and your family,” he explains. “Then I get divorced.”
“My playing was not being what it was, and just could never it figure out. ‘Cause I’d always wanted to take it up another gear. So that part was tough.”
Then McEnroe gets philosophical.
“That’s part of why I don’t look back very much. ‘Cause I think you always end up looking back at the things you should have done, instead of the positive things you did do, which I think maybe is human nature, but it’s not the best quality we have.”
So the idea of doing this,” he adds, “was in a way to sort of have fun. To do something where you can sort of look back and feel like you’ve learned some lessons, and you can still poke fun.”
Poking fun at himself is a big reason why McEnroe’s career in the booth has been such a natural.
“I think part of why I’ve succeeded in commentary. People like that I can poke fun at myself, like I wasn’t taking myself as seriously as I was out there, where it just seemed like I was ready to tear anyone’s head off. So I think that’s… This is sort of along those lines of getting like a second chance in a way… like my second marriage.”
John McEnroe on throwing his rackets
I asked McEnroe about his racket-tossing shenanigans during the match against himself.
“Yeah. They’re tougher to break now. They don’t break as easily. And I don’t have as many, so I can’t afford to break them,” he smirks.
“But I have a buddy who owns HEAD. It just seems like they trickled out. I’m like, “I need more rackets.”
I asked him about how many rackets he used to go through back in the day, before they were harder to break .
“They much harder. Much harder than wood. With wood, I’d snap them and they’d break pretty quickly. I might go 25, 30 rackets in a year, whereas I could get by in four to six now.”
John McEnroe on his doubles career
One last question, a bit of a hypothetical. What avatars of himself would he pair up against for a doubles-match?
“The ’84 one,” he says bluntly.
“That’s the one that I felt like I was that level above… Like I’d learned everything. It finally sort of crystallized in my mind. Now, at that time, maybe wasn’t playing as much doubles, so the ’79 guy was eager… Like every match, he was just so into it, singles and doubles.”
“’79 for the eagerness, ’84 for the level and intensity. And I would take either one of those guys. I’d be more than happy to grab those two and play anybody.”
And what pairing would he pin those two versions of himself against?
“Well, I mean… Like Federer and Nadal don’t play much. The Bryan brothers have the best record, but if you look, these singles guys don’t play doubles anymore.
So just from the excitement standpoint, it’d be more interesting to play those guys, even though they barely ever play.”
Thank you, John.
Enjoy your sandwich.