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Original Issue

McEnroe’s New Racket

To John McEnroe the exotic is commonplace. “I remember going to Mandela’s house in Jo’burg,” he says. “And I shake his hand, and he’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever touched, the closest thing to a godlike person, and all of a sudden Nelson Mandela says to me”--and here McEnroe affects a gravelly whisper--“‘I just want to say it’s an incredible honor to meet you.’ And I look over my shoulder, but it’s just me there, so I’m like: What?! C’mon! Give me a break!”

But the corollary is also true: To someone as famous as McEnroe--or Mandela--the commonplace is exotic. “I have never used an ATM,” says McEnroe, with what sounds like regret.

It is difficult to name a giant of popular culture whom McEnroe hasn’t met in the quarter century since he won his first Grand Slam tennis title. “Princess Diana, she used to come watch the tennis,” he says of another favorite quarry of the British tabloids. “And even though she had it 1,000 times worse than I ever did, she pulled me aside a few times and said, ‘I really feel for you.’”

McEnroe doesn’t care for the rap music that his children play ceaselessly. Tell him that Gregg Allman once said, “Rap is short for crap,” and McEnroe instantly recalls coming home from his famous 1980 Wimbledon finals loss to Bjorn Borg, with its epic 18–16 tiebreaker, to attend an Allman Brothers concert. “I was 21, and I walked backstage and Gregg Allman was--I’m just guessing--pretty stoned,” he says. “And he looks up and says to [lead guitarist] Dickey Betts, ‘Hey, Dickey, that’s the golfer over there.’ And I remember thinking, ‘God, I guess I gotta win Wimbledon so Gregg Allman remembers I’m a tennis player.’” The next summer McEnroe did just that.

He’s in his tiny office at the New Jersey studios of CNBC, for which McEnroe now hosts his own nightly talk show called McEnroe. He would seem ideally suited to the job, if only because he has manifold friends to book--Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Sting. “It’s not like Tom Cruise is saying, ‘Hey, I’m not doing Letterman until I’ve done McEnroe,’” says McEnroe. “Fortunately I’ve met a lot of people.” As a 15-year-old he saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. “One second you’re idolizing these people,” McEnroe says of his ascension to celebrity status, “and the next second Robert Plant is telling you, ‘I’m such a big tennis fan.’”

After a recent McEnroe taping, which featured his friend Kevin Kline, the host notes that he’s never been ejected from one of his children’s games, as Roger Clemens was recently (though unjustly, as it turned out). But his son Sean, now 16, used to insist--maddeningly--on taking 15 dribbles before shooting every free throw. After five dribbles, says McEnroe, “I’d be like, ‘Shoot it!!!’”

He isn’t laughing. “The embarrassment that caused and the expectation that people have of me screaming at the refs.... It was just too easy to go there,” says McEnroe. “And so I now actually get real inward and quiet.”

It has not been an easy, or complete, transformation. But his six children--three with ex-wife Tatum O’Neal, two with current wife Patty Smyth, and one from Smyth’s previous marriage--have softened the 45-year-old. McEnroe notes that his four girls and two boys range in age from five to 18. “So everything can happen on any given day,” he says. “There’s the whole range of human emotion. Two are always [doting]. A couple do their own thing. And one or two are always pissed off.” He loves it. “It’s life in a nutshell,” he says.

When people were calling, circa 1985, for McEnroe’s suspension from tennis because of his on-court behavior, Nicholson and Mick Jagger said separately at the same party, “Don’t change a thing.” To which McEnroe says, “Who was I going to listen to: the greatest actor of all time and the lead singer of the Rolling Stones--or some old fart from the USTA?”

Around that time McEnroe purchased a disguise, so uncomfortable was he with fame. “It was this huge Hendrix wig and a beard,” he says. “I looked like a complete buffoon. The only time I wore it, I was walking in New York and saw this old Indian rug that I thought was cool. So I went into the store and said, ‘How much is the rug?’ And the guy said, ‘You’re John McEnroe. I recognize your voice.’”

He laughs sardonically. “You’ve got to embrace it at some point,” says the talk-show host. “When you’re young, you get lucky enough to be a pretty good athlete and you get some money and that makes you more attractive to girls. But I can remember saying”--to paparazzi, while exiting a club--“‘Don’t take pictures of me with these beautifulgirls!’” McEnroe stares into the distance for a moment and says, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Now, with McEnroe, McEnroe fairly courts recognition. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time people on the street just want to say, ‘Hey, Johnny Mac!’” says Johnny Mac. “And sometimes, if I’m running to the gym, people will look at me like, ‘Is that him or isn’t it?’ And sometimes I’ll look back wondering, ‘Have they recognized me or haven’t they?’ I wonder, in 10 years, will I be saying to them, ‘Hey, look, I’m John McEnroe!’ So far that hasn’t happened. But I guess it’s going to. And then I’m going to have to say, ‘Remember me?’”

The onetime tennis bad boy now hosts his own talk show, and he would seem ideally suited to the job.