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‘John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection’ Reconsiders Tennis’s Most Combustible Superstar

Julien Faraut’s new documentary deconstructs what made McEnroe tick: the good, the bad, and the singularly focused

Illustration of John McEnroe serving the tennis ball on a clay court Ringer illustration

Sometimes it didn’t look like John McEnroe was playing tennis at all. Forget the context, that there was a man, a net and a court away, running down a ball. Forget that McEnroe had just played one of his uncomfortable, halting groundstrokes, and it could look like the most ferocious tennis player on the planet was standing flat-footed in the center of a packed stadium, his body still but his mind racing.

Removing the context of a tennis match is inherently impossible. We aren’t meant to conceive of such a story in isolation. Athletic perfection, as we’re trained to understand it, is an exercise in comparison. Julien Faraut’s cinematic portrait John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, currently playing in limited release, does its best to deconstruct those teachings.

Faraut’s main tool is the footage compiled by Gil de Kermadec, the first technical director for the French Sports Institute. In the late 1960s, while trying to create instructional tennis films, de Kermadec attempted to stage demonstrations at Roland Garros, having players showcase their strokes and hold stationary poses to give audiences snapshots of how professionals looked mid-motion. This didn’t serve its purpose. The poses looked robotic and unadjustable. The real movements of the game could not be captured outside of competition. So de Kermadec requested to place cameras in the stands starting at the 1969 edition of Roland Garros, to compile footage that would be used in instructional profiles breaking down the movements of top players. The last of de Kermadec’s films, featuring John McEnroe, was released in 1985.

When Faraut went through de Kermadec’s archives, he found that McEnroe had become a fascination of the director. There was 20 times more footage left sitting on shelves than had been used for de Kermadec’s profile. This becomes the key to Faraut’s portrait. The patina-ed footage is unusual and hypnotic, often not bothering to follow the ball, or even to show McEnroe’s opponent. Instead, for nearly an hour, we look only at him, watching his eyes move and his mouth twitch, watching his backhand stop suddenly, watching his Trojan horse of a drop shot. Taken together, the footage helps reveal why McEnroe was so difficult to beat in 1984, when he went 82-3, still by percentage the best single-season record for a man in the Open Era.

The footage toys with the audience. Sometimes it feels like a nightmare. Strokes can be played two or three times in succession, and serves are shown in slow motion with the film cutting out before McEnroe makes contact with the ball. His path throughout a rally is shown forward and then backward. “Indeed,” says the film’s narrator, “it seems he is only playing himself. … We are not spectators. We are invited to see, with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.”

Over time, the space given to de Kermadec’s cameras and microphones at the tournament grew smaller. As Roland Garros started to be broadcast worldwide, the tournament’s organizers began letting in more gear from domestic and foreign networks. Eventually, they suggested de Kermadec use the footage from television cameras to create his films. “They don’t understand,” de Kermadec said. “I don’t do the same job.” He was “more interested in the players than the match.”

Faraut does focus on the tantrums. In the film’s second act, he prompts us to reconsider those, too. Some of McEnroe’s arguments with chair umpires run at length without commentary, before being cut and run again in new forms. McEnroe was a perfectionist, in the construction of points and in the pursuit of a flawless season. He hated mostly anything that was not nuclear, uninterrupted competition. For his whole career, he famously played in the doubles draw, as well as the singles, rather than train during tournaments. He couldn’t stand photo ops and sponsored events. There was no tolerance for nonsense.

Faraut shows the audience a clip of McEnroe explaining that his rants are not acts of indulgence, but of frustration. He is bringing his best self to the court, McEnroe says, so it is difficult to tolerate moments when others do not. Then Faraut cuts to another tantrum, but this time we see it from a different side. McEnroe, having made his case, stands wordlessly at the net while the chair umpire and a linesperson bumble to sort out the series of events that led to a botched line call. Perfectionists are driven to strange ends when their art is disrupted by the interference of approximators.

We learn that Tom Hulce, to prepare for his legendary role as Mozart in Amadeus, watched McEnroe as a model for his character. Clips from the movie play, with the criticisms of the composer doubling as reactionary comments on McEnroe. A Mozart piano concerto layers over the American screaming and constructing points.

“If spectators quickly realized that McEnroe had an unusual style and feel for the game, very few of them understood that he was also a man who played on the edge of his senses,” the narrator tells the audience. The same perceptive abilities that caused McEnroe to explode were those that helped him become so unbeatable in the first place. He was a man who not only demanded top performance, but could acutely feel its shape. For much of the film, we are not shown any opponents, because they are not important. The challenge exists apart from their capabilities.

“Björn Borg puts the ball where the other player is not,” the narrator says, reading the words of French film critic and sometimes-tennis writer Serge Daney. “McEnroe puts it in a place where the other player will never reach.”

Finally, there is a rival. The last half-hour of Faraut’s documentary homes in on the 1984 French Open final, in which McEnroe faced the schoolboy-like, argyle-laced world no. 2 Ivan Lendl. The match is remembered as the darkest mark on McEnroe’s career.

The American races out to a two-set lead. The clay does not stop him from flying to the net or doing whatever the hell he wants. Prior to this match, McEnroe had dropped just a single set at Roland Garros that year, and, after little more than an hour against Lendl, he leads 6-3, 6-2.

The movie’s tone shifts with that of the match. An overdriven guitar begins to riff as the clean, perfect performance becomes an eerie trudge across the dirt under the searing afternoon sun. McEnroe’s forehand begins to misfire. He falls trying to cut off points at the net. He inwardly combusts as only he could, allowing his art to be irretrievably tainted. Lendl takes the match in five sets. McEnroe gives away his best chance to win at Roland Garros. He would never even make the final again.

As Faraut’s work concludes, we learn that McEnroe still thinks about that match. He has trouble watching the French Open while doing commentary in Paris. He still feels sick remembering the loss. Still, it wakes him up in the middle of the night.

Athletes are trained to think about the manageable, the film tells us. But perfectionists, in spite of themselves, think about everything.