June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

The holder of a record 154 professional tennis titles, John McEnroe spent much of the early 1980s ranked as the No. 1 player in the world. Those achievements were often overshadowed by his on-court temper tantrums (earning him the nickname Super Brat). But it was McEnroe’s romance with Hollywood wild child Tatum O’Neal that turned him into a paparazzi staple. “It felt like open season on me, on her, and especially on the two of us together,” McEnroe writes in his new autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious. “Suddenly, wherever I went, it felt like a spectacle.”

The scrutiny added to the pressures—including drug use and career setbacks—that plagued the couple’s stormy time together. In 1992, after six years of marriage and three children, they split. “Someday you’ll thank me for this,” McEnroe recalls O’Neal telling him. “I wondered about that for a while,” he writes. “Then I understood what she’d meant. I think she’d realized she was such trouble, and so incapable of being the wife that I wanted, that eventually I’d be happier with someone else.”

Today McEnroe’s relationship with O’Neal remains “very up and down,” he says, “and more down than up.” Asked if O’Neal, now 38, has read the book, McEnroe laughs and says, “I haven’t seen any court papers yet.” But her prediction proved right: McEnroe, 43, has been happily married to his second wife, singer Patty Smyth, 44, since 1997. They live in the top four floors of a Manhattan apartment building with their children: Ruby, 16 (from Smyth’s first marriage, to musician Richard Hell); Kevin, 16; Sean, 14; and Emily, 11 (McEnroe’s kids with O’Neal); and Anna, 6, and Ava, 3, McEnroe and Smyth’s daughters together.

Fulfilled by family life (“To me, the ultimate is sitting around a dinner table and it’s just all of us there”), McEnroe now owns a Manhattan art gallery and does tennis commentary for the USA network while he figures out his next professional move. In fact, after initially resisting writing an autobiography, McEnroe changed his mind because “I was at a crossroads,” he says, “just feeling that the actual writing of the book would help me move forward by looking back.” In the exclusive excerpt that follows, McEnroe does just that, recounting his doomed relationship with O’Neal, whom he met at a party in October 1984.

I walked into the party and almost had to laugh—there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t famous. However, my eyes went across the room to an intense, sharp-featured girl with dyed red hair, and then her eyes locked with mine.

I went over and introduced myself, even though no introductions were needed. I knew very well that Tatum O’Neal had been the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, in 1974, for Paper Moon. I was all too aware that her father was Ryan O’Neal, the Tom Cruise of his day.

Was I overly impressed? A bit star-struck? Maybe.

Maybe Tatum was too. As I’d learned, famous people are fans too. They’re just more sophisticated about hiding it—and hiding things and assuming you have a lot in common without looking too far underneath isn’t a great way to begin when you’re trying to get to know someone.

Of course Tatum and I didn’t know any of that then. We were physically attracted, and we each knew and liked what the other had done. Maybe my fiery spirit reminded her of her father’s own famous temper. For my part, I liked her confidence, her ease in the midst of this star-studded evening. While the party buzzed around us, we sat in a corner, talking and talking. From time to time she leaned over and whispered something funny about this person or that person around the room. The conspiracy was sexy, the whispering was sexy and the way she smelled when she leaned close was sexy too.

Soon afterward McEnroe headed to the Stockholm Open, where he received a three-week suspension for calling an umpire a jerk and smashing a soda can with his racket. He used the time off to visit Tatum in L.A.

I had to get back to [Tatum]. It was also Hollywood I had to get back to. At the end of 1984 I’d gone from someone who’d had trouble getting into Studio 54 to [being] on the Hollywood A-list. Tatum knew that world like the back of her hand.

After having played an insane schedule for 7½ years, I felt I was slipping. I couldn’t control my behavior [on the tennis court] anymore. I couldn’t stay on the merry-go-round.

I thought Tatum could help me, and I thought I could help her. As the daughter of a famous father and as someone who had had early success and a tough time afterward, she had obviously struggled with her identity. Now she was trying to break out and find herself.

She talked constantly about her father. I began to feel I was in a kind of competition with him: that what Tatum was looking for in me was a better version of her dad. When I first met him, he could be extremely charming. He could walk into a party and wow a room. He would crack jokes and tell you how terrific you were. You’d say, “Man, this guy is wonderful company.”

And then there were moments when it seemed he could tear your head off. I sensed that during one of the first times Tatum took me up to Farrah Fawcett’s place in the Hollywood Hills. Her father was living with Farrah, whom Tatum hated. I got the feeling that he and Farrah were so obsessed with their looks that they’d spend the whole day doing fanatical workouts. I remember seeing Ryan running on the beach all the time—the guy would run for five or six miles, but he wouldn’t eat the whole day; he’d get the munchies, but he still wouldn’t eat, and then he’d take a steam or a sauna and sweat some more. By the time they said, “Do you guys want to come up for dinner at six?” Ryan was probably at the point where he’d eat anything!

We went to the house, and he said, “Let’s play racquet-ball.” Before dinner. I’d only tried racquetball a couple of times. I saw that he was pretty good. Ryan would hit a shot and plant himself right in front of me. So I was forced to lob the ball to try and keep it away from him—then he’d put it away. I could have put welts in his back, but I never laced into him, because I thought, “I’m not going to risk getting into a fight with this guy.” In retrospect it’s lucky that I didn’t. He’d been a Golden Gloves champion as a kid.

As John and Tatum spent more time together, their relationship became increasingly tempestuous. “[Tatum] said

then and later that I bullied her,” McEnroe writes. “But the truth was, she always gave as good as she got.” Drugs made matters worse.

The first time Tatum and I made love, we were high, and it was terrible. Tatum said, “Let’s go up to Farrah’s place.” She knew Farrah and Ryan weren’t home. We were jittery, a little paranoid. We both seemed to be feeling, “Let’s just do it to do it, so we can say we did it, and then we’ll know we mean something to each other.”

We went up to the guest bedroom. It was very cold—it felt like 40 degrees! The combination of the cold and that weird buzz….

It was not an especially good start. The truth is, though, I was as responsible as Tatum.

It wasn’t as though she was saying, “Please, let’s do drugs.” In retrospect I believe she was trying to get away from all that. I pulled her back into it, in a way, just because I was burnt out and looking for relaxation. I exacerbated the problem, not recognizing how much of a problem it was.

In 1985 McEnroe had what he calls “my brilliant idea”—he and O’Neal would get pregnant, forcing “both of us,” he writes, “to clean up our act.” Their son Kevin was born in 1986. Three months later McEnroe and O’Neal wed, a response to what McEnroe calls “Catholic guilt.” Son Sean followed a year later, but instead of bringing the couple closer, family life further deteriorated. As for his career, McEnroe’s ranking had dropped to No. 20.

We both felt overwhelmed. I was trying to get my career back on track; Tatum was trying to figure out who she was, and what it meant to be a mother.

Her mother [actress Joanna Moore] had had such problems with alcohol and pills that she’d barely been present when Tatum was little; for a time Ryan carried most of the burden.

As Tatum told it, though, once she’d entered her teens, [Ryan] seemed to lose interest in fatherhood, especially after he’d gotten together with Farrah, who appeared lukewarm about being a stepmother. Once Ryan moved to Farrah’s place, Tatum said, she and her brother [Griffin] were frequently left alone in [Ryan’s] house in Malibu.

And now here she was, alone much of the time with two small children of her own and back in Malibu.

She was still very conflicted about her work—or her lack of work. Her career had tailed off after she came out of her teens. Sometimes she thought it would be a good idea to leave it at that. She would often say, “Will you love me if I never work again?” Trick question! I wanted to say I would feel fine about it, but if she then decided she did want to work, I didn’t want to be the one who had told her, “You can’t do it.”

The one thing I felt strongly about was that I never wanted both of us to be working at the same time. Even that was tricky. I made up my schedule every September for the coming year, and acting jobs tended to come up on the spur of the moment.

After O’Neal’s career failed to reignite, “Tatum said, ‘Want to go for a girl?’ ” McEnroe writes. In May 1991 daughter Emily arrived.

At first we felt, “We’ve finally got two boys and a girl. This is the answer.” But then we found it wasn’t the answer.

Maybe we were too spoiled. We enjoyed the good things that money and fame brought us. At the same time we aspired to live like normal people, and that wasn’t possible. It seemed that there was never enough calm in the house. Too often Tatum was upset by my latest outburst on a tennis court—and the outbursts got worse as tension at home increased. My answer was to overindulge in marijuana. I thought it would relax me and help me appreciate my life more. It often had the opposite effect.

We were trying to be good parents and good partners to each other. We loved our children, but it felt harder and harder to come up with any kindness for each other.

In November 1992 McEnroe gave O’Neal an ultimatum: Try and work things out or move out. She chose the latter.

I was shocked and devastated by how suddenly it had happened. I felt dumb, and it hurt. I had never cried so much in my life.

In December Tatum had gone [to L.A.] to make a TV movie—reinforcing the appearance that I’d been the one holding her back. She’d insisted on taking Emily for virtually the entire two-month shoot. Kevin and Sean and I all slept in the same room the whole time: Sometimes one of them would wake up and see the tears on my face. Then, one morning, Kevin said, “I don’t want to see you cry anymore, Dad.”

Although McEnroe dated a bit after the separation and subsequent divorce, a 22-month ordeal, he writes that “I couldn’t imagine being with anyone ever again.” But a year later he met the woman who would change his mind.

[During Christmas vacation ’93], I took my kids to stay at the Malibu house for a couple of weeks. Not long after we arrived, I got a phone call from Lily Gross, a beach friend. Lily told me that [a pal] was having a party. Did I feel like bringing my brood along?

Sure I did, I said. It sounded like fun.

“Patty Smyth’s going to be there with her daughter,” Lily said, in a significant, slightly teasing way.

I had loved Patty’s band, Scandal, in the ’80s—her hit “Goodbye to You” was one of my favorites.

I liked Patty right away. She was cute and sexy, but she was a woman, not a girl; someone who had lived life and knew the score. So I told her about myself. One of my kids ran up and interrupted us. We both smiled. I knew and knew she knew that we had made a connection.

Eight months passed before McEnroe saw Smyth again. Then, during a trip to San Francisco, he heard that his friend, tennis champ Vitas Gerulaitis, had died.

I was numb. I kept thinking, “This isn’t possible.” I flew back to Los Angeles. I got to Malibu by 10. I called Patty.

I said, “I really need to see you.”

“Well, it’s kind of late,” she said. “Why don’t you come over tomorrow.”

“I want to see you now,” I said.

“What’s the hurry?” Patty asked.

“Because I just have a feeling about you and me, and my friend died tonight, and I really need to see you,” said.

“Okay,” she said. We’ve been together ever since.

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