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John McEnroe (with James Kaplan): You Cannot Be Serious


You Cannot Be Serious

Author: John McEnroe (with James Kaplan)
Publisher: Putnam

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For tennis fans, John McEnroe's ascendancy in the early to mid-'80s was cause for ambivalence, if not outright disdain: He was phenomenally sensitive with the racket, but his abusive tirades and embarrassing meltdowns gave new dimension to the label "Ugly American." But men's tennis desperately needs another John McEnroe, partly to inject a little color and personality into the sport, but mostly to reintroduce the serve-and-volley game, a style of play that's become antiquated as racket technology has advanced. Who needs finesse in a sport dominated by power-hitters with big rackets and monster serves, pounding out blink-and-you'll-miss-it rallies from behind the baseline? The rote chronology of McEnroe's new autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, does contain a few insights about how to get the game back on track. But browsers are advised to flip straight to the appendices, where McEnroe lists some sound proposals for bringing tennis into the 21st century, including moving the service line six inches closer to the net, eliminating "net cords," and, most importantly, going back to wooden rackets. The strong whiff of egotism in that last proposal is typical of McEnroe, because the switch to graphite effectively stamped out his relevance, opening the gates for tall, steely automatons in the Ivan Lendl mold. McEnroe's old triumphs could legitimately be called "brilliant" in their invention; his improvised angles seemed as delicate as a magician's sleight of hand. You Cannot Be Serious spoils some of the magic by showing the flop sweat behind it, as McEnroe reveals the depths of his self-loathing on the court, where his roiling temper could be inflamed by a bad line call or the crowd turning against him. Starting with the title, which comes from his most notorious invective, McEnroe tries to short-circuit his "bad boy" persona with sly self-deprecation. Still, as much as he likes to attribute his tenacity and restlessness to his playing style ("forward, always forward" is his motto), the book paints him as a classic malcontent, never satisfied with his achievements, chasing happiness like a carrot on a string. You Cannot Be Serious was written with gifted novelist and essayist James Kaplan, who profiled McEnroe for The New Yorker a few years ago, but Kaplan cedes his sophisticated voice in favor of McEnroe's more conversational tone. Though intimate and revealing at times, the tennis star's story seems hurried and lacking in detail, ticking off the major events and relationships in his life without the nourishing anecdotes and self-examination that might have made it more vivid. His ex-wife Tatum O'Neal, who continues to battle drug addiction with limited success, has waged a counter-publicity war against McEnroe, claiming that he used steroids at the height of his career. This book should give her little reason for concern: Like a lot of the major figures in his life (Björn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jimmy Conners, Arthur Ashe, and McEnroe's current wife, musician Patty Smyth), O'Neal doesn't have much presence; she flitters past on her ex's 325-page highlight reel. An instant bestseller, the book functions a lot like a paperweight, pinning McEnroe's legacy to the ground.