As I watched John McEnroe eat at the Rosa Mexicano restaurant, I began to know how Bjorn Borg felt. I had done everything I could to keep up with the guy across the table. I had arrived early. I had secured my seat. I had even greeted him as he walked in. But there was McEnroe, digging into his entrée before I even had a chance to order my own. I had been defeated at a game I was supposed to know how to play - the journalistic lunch.
It was a mix-up, to be sure, a bit of midday comedy that could have made a proper episode of Seinfeld. McEnroe was so single-minded in expressing his culinary desires, and the waitress and I so distracted by his presence, that no one at the table noticed that I had failed to secure a dish for myself until it was too late and the former world number one was the only one among us with solid food.
This was the McEnroe I knew from his days of tennis dominance - when he humbled Borg at Wimbledon in 1981 en route to seven grand-slam singles titles in six years. He was never the biggest or strongest player - just relentless and resourceful. His gift was conceptual. He could see all the angles on the court and knew when to go in for the kill, charging the net to deliver a winning volley with a flick of his incomparable left hand. There was always something mysterious about how he got where he was going - and now he was running over me, as if I were a European neophyte unaccustomed to the hard courts at Flushing Meadows.
"It's not like I'm someone that walks in and they go, 'Oh, my God, this guy - look at all his muscles,'" says McEnroe, still trim at 58, but with a head of hair as white as snow. "I looked at the tennis court almost like a geometry equation - you have to solve it."
McEnroe sat down at lunch to discuss his efforts to resolve a more intractable problem - what to do with yourself after you become too old to do what you do best. Unlike most of us, his midlife crisis began early. Since winning his last singles major in 1984, he has battled to reinvent himself. Although best known as a tennis commentator on US and UK television, he also has worked as an art dealer, rock guitarist, game-show host and talk-show host. Four decades after his first Wimbledon, he still plays on the men's senior tennis tour, although he is at a loss to explain exactly why.
"I actually sort of almost enjoy the whole process," is the way he puts it. "But I'll tell you when I [will] really know when I love tennis - when they don't pay me to play. Then we'll find out if I love it, and I hope that never happens, by the way. But that's reality."
His latest musings are set to appear in a memoir called But Seriously. A sequel to 2002's You Cannot Be Serious, an acclaimed account of his tennis career and personal highs and lows, the book focuses on his life as an ageing baby-boomer. He drops a lot of rock names along the way - from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. My favourite moment comes when he reveals that he plays golf with Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd. I didn't expect that.
Knowing that McEnroe had just returned from covering Rafael Nadal's victory at the French Open, I had high hopes when lunch was suggested. In my mind's eye, I pictured him introducing me to a bottle of a fragrant bordeaux that he had just sampled during his fortnight in Paris.
Instead, we meet at noon at Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center on Manhattan's west side. It is a chain that started on the east side in 1984 and serves the kind of Mexican food that was considered exciting in New York before real Mexicans began moving to our city en masse - guacamole made at the table, yada, yada, yada. Its airy two-story David Rockwell-designed interior creates the impression that you're dining in a fashionable shopping district of an upscale US Sun Belt locale - say, Scottsdale, Arizona. The best I was going to do was a margarita.
In his latest tome, McEnroe writes that he doesn't like to show up early for anything - even live television appearances - so I was ready when he arrived a few minutes late. He was friendlier than the infamous McEnroe of Centre Court - who called an umpire "the pits" and so appalled the crowd that he was booed when we walked on to play Borg in the 1980 final. But he wasn't much for small talk, either, and I could imagine why.
McEnroe and I both grew up in the glass-half-empty New York of the 1970s - he the son of a corporate lawyer, me the kid of a crime reporter - and my attitude is just as bad as his. When I asked why anyone should care about his life in recent years, he said he wondered about that himself. He appeared uncomfortable playing the literary game. No one, after all, is going to compare his latest offering to Remembrance of Things Past.
He was dressed casually in blue jeans, a blue V-neck T-shirt and a black denim jacket, topped off by a New York Mets cap. We talked about the previous night's game and he said he had taken his son. It had gone badly. Matt Harvey, once the best Mets pitcher, had left the game complaining of arm trouble. The worry for any Mets fan was that at 28, Harvey's best days were behind him. Lunching with an athlete who peaked at 25, I figured it best to keep such anxieties to myself.
It was time to order. McEnroe, who lives a few blocks away, is a regular; his wife, the singer Patty Smyth, staged one of his birthday parties at Rosa Mexicano's east side branch. Even before the waitress offered us the tableside guacamole, he acknowledged its greatness. But when she suggested we order some, McEnroe wrongfooted her, asking if they had "the shrimp dish for lunch". Confused, she asked if he meant the shrimp ceviche. "No, the main course one," he said, setting her straight as if she were a nearsighted chair umpire, "with the peppers and the rice and beans. That's good for me."
It was then that I panicked. Cravenly, I suggested that he might look like more of a sport if he indulged in a margarita. He demurred. "Normally, I have margaritas, but it's too early." He was on his way to his tennis academy in Randall's Island later so a television crew could film him playing and wanted to be at his best.
"I'll get an iced tea," he said.
I ordered one myself - and that sealed my fate. I was led astray by a soft drink. Whatever opportunity I had to order food had passed, although I only realised my error when the waitress returned a few minutes later with a single order of Alambre de Camarones. A dish from Veracruz, Mexico, according to the menu, it featured grilled prawns marinated in garlic vinaigrette with tomatoes, onions and chiles, served over achiote rice, with salsa verde picante on the side.
McEnroe offered to share, but I declined for fear of interrupting his flow. I asked the waitress for the same thing, and kept quiet as he held court. As he spoke, I noticed that he sat at the table in much the same way as he serves in tennis - with his body at an acute angle.
McEnroe's life, in his telling, is a classic case of too much, too soon. He says he missed his high school graduation ceremony to play his first Wimbledon semi-final in 1977. His epic battles with Borg came between the ages of 19 and 22. He met his first wife, actress Tatum O'Neal, when he was 25 and she was 20. When he was introduced to Diana, Princess of Wales, he was surprised to learn that she felt sorry for him because of the way he was treated by the press. "She said to me, after your initial pleasantry, 'Oh, I can't believe what you have to go through,'" he says. "I was really bummed when she was killed in that car crash, and the way it happened."
He says he wishes he could have reacted to his early success in the manner of Roger Federer, who has sustained greatness well into his thirties and appears to be enjoying the ride. "The part I didn't enjoy was that you're always looking over your shoulder. So you never relax much. You're always, like, who's next?"
This same restlessness has characterised many of McEnroe's non-tennis pursuits. While he is unafraid of trying new things, his resulting disappointment - often rendered in 1970s teenage slang - runs through his book like a leitmotif. While he was hosting a television game show called The Chair, he came to believe that the production was "bogus." Although he has done his share of pitch work, he thinks most commercials "totally suck". As he explored the art world, he at first deemed Andy Warhol's work to be "totally lame." His own blues guitar licks strike him as "semi-lame".
At lunch, it becomes clear that one thing that consistently impresses McEnroe is determination. Jimmy Connors is as "cold as they get", but McEnroe recognises him as "an incredible champion. The will he had was unbelievable." Borg "never once got tired". Donald Trump is laughable - McEnroe calls the US president "the Trumpster" - but persistent. "You wouldn't look at him and go, 'He's the picture of health,'" McEnroe says. "[But] the guy's got more energy than I've ever seen in my life. He's 71!"
McEnroe is now trying to make sense of the September of his years. His father John Sr - the once "indestructible", fun-loving "Keith Richards of law" in the eyes of his son - died in February at age 81. The loss has left him pensive. "When you have something like that, sad as it is, it's good because you reflect a little more and you figure, 'Where do I want to be?' " McEnroe says. "I don't want to be hanging on, playing a match at 65."
McEnroe may not truly love playing tennis, but he cares about it a lot, which helps explain why people who did not like him as a player enjoy listening to him on TV - even in the UK, his one-time battleground. "Knock on wood, they treat me great," he says of his British reception these days. His next big TV gig will be at Wimbledon and that leads us to the obligatory British tennis question about whether Andy Murray will win again. On that point, though, McEnroe was evasive. The three-time Wimbledon champion reckoned that as many as six men have a shot at the title this year, but he pretty much left it that. Picking winners in tennis is trickier than ordering lunch.
My own dish had arrived by now, but I found I had little appetite. Although the prawns were nicely cooked and the spicy green sauce stirred my palate, I barely put a dent in my rice and didn't touch my beans. As our plates were cleared, McEnroe declined an offer of coffee on behalf of the two of us, saying that he was getting enough caffeine from the iced tea. A last-ditch journalistic plea for tequila - on the grounds that it was no longer as early as before - fell on deaf tennis ears.
'But Seriously' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was published on June 29.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.