John McEnroe: The Realm Of Perfection

02 Sep

John McEnroe The Realm Of Perfection – directed by Julian Faraut. SportsDoc. 95 minutes 2018.
The Story: What drove the great tennis player to his many victories?
“I heard him announce the matches this afternoon. He knows what he’s talking about. He makes everything clear and understandable.” I hear this said as I take my seat to see this movie about him and I think: so that is what has become of him in the 30 years since he held sway! Good, I’m glad he can take care of himself.

However, in the documentary of him, I expect to see chaos on the clay, and, since I had never seen him play anywhere at all and knew him only from what I’d heard of his grumpy disposition, I was surprised to see how well reasoned he was in his complaints and to notice that every referee he spoke to on foul calls looked like a fool – even though McEnroe had no intention to cause him to.

Why did they look like that? Probably because their call was wrong.

Why did McEnroe bicker with them so? Probably because his call was right.

And why was he right? Probably because he was born that way, an Enneagram #1 if ever there was one.

And (whatever Enneagram #1 might be) why should that matter?

Enneagram #1 is the sign of those born as righteous perfectionists, and if you are a born perfectionist you expect others to be so also, and others are born something else and are not. That’s what’s imperfect about perfectionists.

Theories as to McEnroe’s character are aired in the film which was 30 years in the making and is the result of reels and reels of high-level tennis play shot by the now 90-year-old filmer of them, Gil de Kermadec.

To be a perfectionist means, not that one is perfect, but that one aims for perfection.

The error for the perfectionist is to assume one is perfect and to ask others to be perfect.

Is this what McEnroe did in his quarrels?

The voice-over says McEnroe took exception to make sure he had a thick enough wall of negativity around him to goad him to a level of play sufficient to pass through it. He invoked imperfection to produce perfection. I saw Allison Janney do this for her figure skater daughter in Tonya.

But I notice other factors.

McEnroe apparently deplores mess. He enters the court head lowered to blinker him to the mess of the crowd, the mess of the referees, the mess of the cameras, the mess of the noise of the recording devices, and the mess all around him of fame. He looks at the ground.

Is he shy? Quite possibly. His outspokenness is not hysterical or dramatic. “Why won’t you look at the line?” he insists over and over to the referee. He does not seethe or tear his hair. Only at the end of a lost game does he collapse in dismay.

Is shyness a protection of the treasure inside him that knew how to play tennis so well that it is obvious that it is as instinctual in him as walking?

We are told his forté was not power but rather the knack of returning the tennis ball so his body did not betray to his opponent by its posture where his return of his ball would go.

And his early charge to the net. There I see feats that seem impossible.

I know nothing of tennis. I like to watch it though. On TV. In this film what I like is what it teaches about this particular player’s tennis genius. And that I learn through the action of one player alone. For what’s different in this film from TV is that the camera does not encompass the full meadow of the court. Except for the end, I seldom see both players at once. Indeed, not till the end do I see a game played through.

What I see instead is McEnroe himself shown serving and playing, full body, as in an Astaire movie. He serves and he leave the ground! He flies forward into the ball! Often when he returns shots, he is airborne!

The camera seldom abandons his form, moving, leaping, running, skidding, turning. It is hard to believe anyone could be so agile.

Which leads me to another observation: he has good strong legs. Indeed, they make him seem bottom heavy. But they give his game stamina, litheness, and improvisational wit. They enable him to run in one direction full tilt, turn on a dime, and attack the opposite end of the court.

McEnroe is a great champion. But he is not a pretty one. You cannot empathize with him. You cannot sympathize with him. You cannot like him. He wouldn’t want you to. He will not stop to autograph a little boy’s program. He will not pose for an agreeable instant for a publicity shot. He will not stop griping.

Nor is his face one of particular beauty or masculinity. In fact, he reminds me of the Spanish tennis player I saw this morning: Rafael Nadal, with a mouth so snarling nothing can persuade one to root for him save a perverse attachment to the malformed underdog or the overruling fact that he is simply marvelous at tennis.

McEnroe’s face is not ugly. Nor is his intelligence. Nor is his voice. Nor his insistence that nothing invade his privacy of excellence on the court. He is or wishes to be unavailable to anything else but the finesse of his game. He is a star who does not wish to be a star, to him stardom is an interference. And he is right. His skill on the court depends upon a startling sensitivity.

John McEnroe:The Realm of Perfection is a portrait in motion. I watch it with the respect I afford to The Grand Canyon – a phenomenon inexplicable in its expression – and with the distance which true respect rewards and demands.

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