Photograph: Dogwoof
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4 out of 5 stars

Tennis ‘superbrat’ John McEnroe is the polarising subject of the best sports doc since ‘Senna’. You cannot be serious!?

David Hughes

Time Out says

Many people who don’t like sports like sports movies, but it’s a rare sports documentary – a Senna or a When We Were Kings – that truly transcends its subject matter. Even if you don’t follow tennis, or sports in general, it’s hard not to appreciate Barney Douglas’s searching film about John McEnroe, a tennis star once famously dubbed ‘superbrat’ by the British tabloids for his penchant for abusing umpires and throwing rackets. Nowadays, he calls himself ‘the greatest player that ever played’ (which is true, unless you measure this by Grand Slam wins, career titles or prize money).

Douglas, previously known for his cricket docs Warriors and The Edge, lets McEnroe speak for himself as he wanders his old New York neighbourhood, recalling the development of his precocious talent by his highly competitive father (and later manager); his sensational Wimbledon debut (he entered as a qualifier and made it all the way to the semis); and his most famous on-court battles – including that five-set final against cool Swede Björn Borg – in obsessive pursuit of ever-elusive perfection. ‘I slightly might be on a spectrum,’ he says, exploring the theory that his preternatural ability stemmed from an understanding of physics, maths and probability that other players lacked.

It’s an unabashed celebration of a maverick talent that doesn’t skip the dark stuff

It’s an unabashed celebration of a maverick talent, with all the highlights you’d expect from an extraordinary career. Yet it doesn’t skip the dark stuff, exploring McEnroe’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour (‘It’s a lot easier to get angry than to cry,’ his son suggests), his troubled marriage (to Oscar-winning actress and fellow prodigy Tatum O’Neal), and the enormous void left by his rival Borg’s sudden retirement at the age of 26, after McEnroe beat him in back-to-back Grand Slam competitions. It all makes for the best sports documentary since Senna.

In UK cinemas Jul 15.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Barney Douglas
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