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.”
A bright boy who was doing tax returns for his parents when he was 12 years old, McEnroe enrolled in The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. to study economics. After finishing college he started military service and eventually wound up in Wiesbaden, West Germany.
Before he left, though, a young nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Kay Tresham, caught his eye. “We would go to a bar across from the hospital because it was a good place to meet student nurses,” McEnroe recalled.
At one outing he met Kay, who happened to be wearing another young man’s pin at the time which meant they were going steady.
“I sat in a booth with her and her guy and we were talking. She had a curfew – all the nurses had a curfew – so she said she had to leave. But before she goes she leans in to me and says, ‘Stay here. I’ll be back,’” McEnroe recalls with a smile.
“So she waits a half hour, then goes upstairs to the roof of where she was staying and crosses over onto the next building. Then she got the fire escape down eight floors and came back to the bar to see me. And it all happened from there.”
McEnroe relocated to the U.S. Air Force base in West Germany, and when Kay had a two-week break she planned a visit. The two weeks, though, turned into more than four years. John and Kay decided to marry, and held their ceremony on the base without any family present.
They returned to New York with not only themselves but their first child, John Patrick McEnroe Junior, who was eight months old at the time.
“I had never met her parents, and Kay had only met my mother,” McEnroe recalls. But all’s well that ends well, and the McEnroes have been happily married for 57 years.
After settling his young family in New York, McEnroe enrolled in Fordham Law School at night. Days were spent working at two advertising agencies, first Kenyon & Eckhardt, then J. Walter Thompson. After completing law school McEnroe was offered a job that paid less than his salary at the ad agency -- $7,800 per year as opposed to $10,000 -- but he decided to take the plunge.
“I didn’t go to law school for all that time just to stay at what I was doing,” he said.
McEnroe spent four years at the law firm of Kelley Drye, and moved to Paul Weiss, one of the most prominent firms in the world, after leading an effort to increase pay for Kelley Drye associates.
The McEnroes added two sons to the family – Patrick, who also played pro tennis, and Mark, an attorney – and moved to a home in Douglaston, Queens, where John McEnroe’s budding talent on the tennis court was first nurtured.
The McEnroe children were all athletic and played sports at the Douglaston Club. John zeroed in on tennis.
“He was good right away,” McEnroe recalls. “He just had it. Something in his genes. And he loved it. I was 31 and John was eight when he first started to play at the club. I beat him regularly – but only until he turned 10 and then he beat me.”
John was also an earnest student who earned top grades, so much so that a teacher recommended that he enroll in a more advanced school that would match his intellect. All the McEnroe boys went to Buckley Country Day School on Long Island, followed by the Trinity School in Manhattan and then Stanford University, where John stayed for a year. His freshman year in 1977-’78 saw him win the NCAA singles title, and then he turned pro.
The rest, as they say, is tennis history.
McENROE traveled the world winning tennis tournaments, thrilling fans and causing more than his fair share of controversy with eruptions at officials when calls didn’t go his way. The outbursts are as much a part of McEnroe’s lore as all the titles he won, but McEnroe Senior says his son wouldn’t have been as successful if he had to bottle his emotions.
“It was terrific, a very exciting time,” McEnroe says of the late 1970s/1980s when his son ruled the courts.
“Of course he was a little controversial. Like when he said, ‘You cannot be serious,’ to a ref at Wimbledon. That’s the title of his  autobiography.
“I didn’t like all the negative attention. How could I like it? But on the other hand, I thought if John wasn’t that way he wouldn’t be a winner. He had to let it out.”
While his son traveled the world, McEnroe Senior maintained a thriving practice as a partner at Paul, Weiss in corporate law. He also represented John and other tennis professionals with their off-court endeavors.
John’s storied career is full of epic matches that easily stand the test of time. His proud father says the best was against the icy Swede Bjorn Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final, which ended in a five-set win for defending champ Borg after McEnroe won a stirring fourth set tiebreak, 18-16.
“That was some match. Borg served better in the fifth set than the first. But then John came back that summer and beat Borg at the U.S. Open. And then the next year John beat Borg in both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. So three out of four ain’t bad!”
John’s ascension to world number one hastened the graceful Borg’s exit from the stage. But competition on the men’s tour remained plentiful, and McEnroe has an encyclopedic knowledge of all his son’s matches.
He’s no fan of another rival, Jimmy Connors, whose fiery personality could easily match John’s. Not only that, McEnroe and Connors were also known to exchange words with each other during the heat of battle, with Connors remarking that “the boxing gloves are going to come out” after one tense confrontation.
“Their matches could be nasty,” said McEnroe. “John lost to him a couple of times, and then he beat him at the Master’s in Madison Square Garden. Jimmy retired during their match, claiming an injury to his foot and that his doctor said he should stay off it. Then Jimmy was in another tournament the following week and won it. So much for staying off the foot. Jimmy was a phony of the first order.”
These days John offers color tennis commentary for ESPN and CBS, and plays on the senior tour alongside other notables like Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. He also won the senior doubles title at this year’s U.S. Open with his brother Patrick. Naturally, Mom and Dad were in the stands.
John – now 54 and father of three grown children from his marriage to Tatum O’Neal, and two teenage daughters with his current wife, singer Patty Smyth – also launched the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in 2010 at Randall’s Island in Manhattan, hoping to nurture the next generation of American tennis greats.
Patrick McEnroe, the youngest of John and Kay’s three sons, was quite the tennis professional in his time too – not at John’s level but hardly a slouch, his father points out.
“Patrick’s best result was a 27th ranking in singles and three in doubles,” McEnroe says. “And he was the longest serving Davis Cup captain in U.S. history, 10 years. John did it for one and it drove him nuts. Patrick is very laid back and calm.”
Patrick is now general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association, and like John he too is grooming up and coming tennis stars. He also provides tennis commentary for ESPN.
Mark McEnroe is the middle son. “I like to call him my normal son, the lawyer,” jokes his father. Mark is an attorney and also general manager of John’s tennis academy. He spent his junior year of college abroad at Trinity College in Dublin where he met his future wife, also an American student.
“He liked it over there, but for two-thirds of the year he had a cold,” McEnroe says. “As a youngster Mark won the eastern Ireland tennis championship. Patrick won Irish championships too.”
John and Kay McEnroe divide their time between their homes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Southampton, Long Island. John is a frequent traveler to Ireland – he was there earlier this year to watch the Ireland vs. France rugby match – and says that John Junior has enjoyed his trips to Ireland too – for the most part.
Father and son traveled to Belfast a few years ago for a tournament, and John Junior wasn’t too pleased with the press coverage.
“The tabloids made everything up,” McEnroe says. “They said John was making all kinds of demands to play and what not and it was totally false. But people read this stuff and they believe it.”
On another occasion many years ago when John played in Dublin, Bono was in the stands. “He’s from U4, or U2, right?” McEnroe laughed. “Bono is a very nice guy. John liked him a lot.”
Glancing at the walls of his office – photos of the McEnroes with the Reagans, Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson and the like abound, not to mention scores of family photos and magazine covers featuring John – it’s clear to see that John and Kay McEnroe were deadly serious when it came to raising their family. The patriarch is one proud father and grandfather, happily bragging about the academic achievements of all his grandchildren. John’s eldest, Kevin, is 27 and a graduate of Columbia.
“That’s the next generation,” McEnroe Senior said. “I couldn’t be prouder of their fathers."
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