A high-profile and ultimately doomed marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal propelled the bad boy of tennis on to the front and back pages of newspapers and magazines around the world for all the wrong reasons in the first half of the 1980s.
That wasn’t the only chisel chipping away at McEnroe’s frosty persona as he was also struggling to come to terms with the status, wealth and celebrity that goes with being the world No.1 tennis player.
A damaging dabble with drugs and infidelity that led to a messy marriage break-up from O’Neal led to suicidal thoughts and mental turmoil as his life spiralled out of control.
His great rivalries with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and his infamous bust-ups with umpires may have been the focal point for many following the McEnroe story, but it was his turmoil off the court that pushed him to the brink.
Now his fall from grace has been chronicled in a gripping biopic about his life, and as he sat down for a world exclusive interview with the Sunday World, the 63-year-old admits he has taken too long to come to terms with the international superstar he had become.
“It’s tough to sit back and reflect on what I went through as a human being way back when,” began McEnroe, as he opened up in an emotional interview.
“I don’t need to go into detail in this interview about all the problems I had and why my tennis career went the way it did when I was the best player in the world.
“Just watch this film and you will see the place I was in for a period in my life. It wasn’t good on too many levels.
“But this is the way this film had to be. If I was going to do this, I needed to be honest and let people see what happened to me. Honesty is important and you need to accept you have made mistakes in life to learn from them.
“Why does anyone want to watch a film about my life now is a question I asked myself, but it is a story that takes you on a journey and that’s why it works.
“Maybe what you see explains the way I was or why I wasn’t the parent I maybe could have been back in the day, but I have to deal with that now and own it. That’s all I can do at this stage.”
Three-time Wimbledon champion McEnroe describes himself as a “stupid f****** moron” for his behaviour in his film, as it seems he only really found true happiness later in his life.
Yet it’s the impact his behaviour had on his children that he still feels he needs to repair, with some of his six kids taking part in the film and offering insight into how they feel about their father.
“If I’m going to sit there and tell my kids that my life glass is half empty instead of half full after everything I achieved, what type of message does that send?” asks McEnroe, who has been happily married to singer-songwriter Patty Smyth since 1997.
“Yes I could have won more tennis matches, I should have won the French Open, I should have played the Australian Open more. My record now should be better than it is, but it’s still pretty darn good.
“I know it’s human nature to sort of wonder what coulda-woulda-shoulda. I do think it’s important to represent that I came out of this in a pretty darn good place overall, and my perspective is improved over time.
“A message to send and hopefully people will see that with this, that if they see it, that I’ve come to a place where I’m able to look at myself in the mirror more than maybe at any other point in my life and feel like ‘hey, at least this guy has improved as a human being over the years. You know, each year he tried to get a little bit better.
“And the goal for anyone who has had kids is to be a better parent every day. Maybe I wasn’t that guy when they were growing up, but I want be that guy now.
“The first priority for me at the time was a tennis match or my own problems, but that was not right. My priority should have been my kids. That’s the way to should be for any parent.”
Born in West Germany in 1959 as his father was serving in the US Army, McEnroe is proud of his Irish heritage, even if his plan to visit an Irish relative in 1983 backfired.
McEnroe was in Dublin to represent America in a Davis Cup tie against Ireland, with his plans to touch base with his Irish roots resulting in a brief and embarrassing encounter.
“I’ve always been proud of my Irish American roots, but the truth is I only had one relative that I saw in Ireland when I went there to play Davis Cup in 1983,” he added.
“My parents came over because I was representing my country and going to Ireland, where my grandparents grew up.
“There was some history there, so they told me I had to go and meet my aunt. It was like an hour-and-a-half drive and I was thinking ‘why am I doing this?’
“Then I meet her and the first thing she says to me is; I like Borg more than you... so the meeting didn’t last too long and I headed back to Dublin! The truth is I am a New Yorker and don’t feel very Irish, but I love the country and there are parts of Ireland I really want to visit.
“I haven’t really been to the southern part of the island or the western part, but I tend to have been there to do the tennis gig and haven’t seen enough of your wonderful country. I really need to put that right.”