John McEnroe Senior recalls a stellar life as father to top tennis athlete John


IrishCentral's sister publication, the Irish Voice newspaper, has unveiled its highly anticipated, sixth annual Irish Legal 100 list, and the 2013 class is the largest yet with more than 170 legal professionals being honored, in Washington.

Among the 2013 honorees is John Patrick McEnroe Senior Paul Weiss, also known as the father of tennis legend John McEnroe. Here the Irish Voice's Senior Editor Debbie McGoldrick talks with McEnroe about his own life as the only child of Irish immigrants, and his meteoric rise to the top.

The great tennis legend Arthur Ashe had some sage advice for John P. McEnroe Senior and his wife Kay back in the days when their prodigious son John was a freshman at Stanford University, burning up the tennis courts and destined for greatness as a pro.

Kay McEnroe wanted her eldest son to finish his education and choose a solid profession, “like a dentist,” McEnroe remembers his wife telling Ashe.  But John, 18 at the time, had already made the semifinals at Wimbledon as a qualifier and was the talk of tennis.

“Arthur told Kay that she sounded like his grandmother,” McEnroe Senior told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.

“All his grandmother wanted was for Arthur to get a good education. And he told us that he believed most tennis players should go to college but there were exceptions – John being one of them.

“So Arthur told Kay, ‘Let John have a chance and go for a tennis career, then he can come back and buy Stanford!’”

Ashe, of course, knew that John had a rare talent.  McEnroe went on to become one of the most celebrated and successful American athletes of all time, winning three Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens and a host of other titles – fueling lots of controversy along the way with some infamous temper tantrums that resulted in one English tabloid christening him “SuperBrat.”

John and Kay McEnroe provided the ultimate support network for their son since he first swung a racket as a young boy.  A constant presence at John’s matches, always captured by the cameras watching with rapt attention, John Senior also served as his son’s agent and top advisor.

McEnroe’s office at the law firm of Paul, Weiss in New York is full of fascinating tennis memorabilia, including a large framed photo of an old Nike ad campaign.  John wore Nike sneakers on court, and the company promoted his signature blue swoosh with the words “McEnroe Swears By Them.”

A clever word play on John’s headline grabbing outbursts, the slogan was actually Nike’s second choice. John Senior vetoed the first.

“They wanted the ad to say, ‘McEnroe’s Favorite Four Letter Word.’  So I said no to that one!” McEnroe recalled.
John Patrick McEnroe Senior, 78, is a wonderful, detailed storyteller.  And he has a lifetime of memories to call upon, including his own as the only child of Irish immigrants growing up in New York in the 1930s and onwards.

His father was a native of Co. Cavan, and his mother was from Co. Westmeath.  John Joseph McEnroe came to New York when he was only 12, eventually taking jobs as a driver and messenger with Chase Manhattan Bank.  McEnroe’s mother arrived in New York in 1927, the same year Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic for the first time.

The McEnroes met in New York and married; John Joseph was also a musician who had his own band.  “He billed himself as Professor Sean McEnroe and his orchestra,” McEnroe says.
“They would play in dances around New York and fairs and so on. And he’d play at the Cavan Association dances. It was too expensive to hire a babysitter for me at the time so my mother would take me to the dances.

“I remember my father singing ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly’ which I loved and is still one of my favorites.  At the end of the night they would have the grand march on the floor, and I used to walk that with my mother.”

McEnroe’s father spent decades in New York before traveling back to Cavan for a visit.  But his mother was a frequent visitor back home, always bringing her young son with her.

“I’ve been to Ireland many times,” McEnroe says.  “From the time I was in the carriage.  She was very proud of me. We were very close.

“I remember when I got married my father wrote me a letter saying that while I shouldn’t forget my mother, she would no longer be the number one woman in my life. That would have to be my wife.”