When John McEnroe lost the 1984 French Open final to Ivan Lendl in heartbreaking fashion, he never envisioned one day, more than 35 years later, he would be describing that very moment as part of a devastatingly effective punchline in a coming-of-age Netflix series about a first-generation Indian American teenage girl.
But 2020 is full of the unexpected, and McEnroe did just that as the narrator of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” which premiered on the streaming service late last month. Somehow his comparison of putting on a happy face at that very Roland Garros trophy ceremony works perfectly when describing the reaction of the main character’s cousin grudgingly agreeing to an arranged marriage. (Just watch, you’ll see.)
Written and created by Mindy Kaling of “The Mindy Project,” the show has become a bingeworthy obsession for many during the current quarantine era. The 10-episode series centers around 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a precocious and slightly hot-headed high school sophomore who returns to school after a series of traumatic events, including the loss of her father. She’s determined to reinvent herself as cool and part of the in crowd. McEnroe, to the delight and confusion of viewers, narrates her story.
The 61-year-old tennis legend and current ESPN commentator is perhaps the unlikeliest choice for the role and the use of phrases like “thirst trap” and “serving a damn lewk.” But McEnroe has received rave reviews for his performance (which involves one physical scene in a crucial moment) — even if some of the younger cast had no idea who he was when they started filming. Kaling said she knew he was perfect for it.
“One thing that’s common for a lot of Indian parents is a love of tennis, it’s like an English Anglophile kind of thing,” Kaling told USA Today. “When we decided that the character of Devi would have a temper, the McEnroe thing just kept coming back: you know, someone who’s high-achieving but is undermined by their own temper. He has really high standards for himself and everyone around him. We kept talking about him and were like, ‘Wait, should he be doing the narration?’ Devi’s dad loved tennis, and it timed out that he would have grown up watching McEnroe.”
“We wanted Devi to have an inner monologue so that we could know what was going on in her brain,” co-creator and executive producer Lang Fisher told ESPN. “She’s not exactly great at expressing her feelings. And because she has a temper, we just thought it would be funny for her thoughts to be voiced by John since he is famous for his outbursts on the court. My favorite parts of the show are when John McEnroe is incredibly invested in the lives of these teens.”
ESPN spoke to McEnroe earlier this week from his home in Malibu, California, about the show, the global reach of tennis, and how he feels about the current crop of “Who is John McEnroe from ‘Never Have I Ever?'” headlines on numerous websites.
ESPN: First, how are you handling this unexpected downtime?
John McEnroe: What crazy times. I’m lucky I’m out in Malibu. I’ve had a home here for a long time. If there’s a place you’re going to be stuck, this is a great place to be. From that standpoint, I feel lucky. And a couple of my children have been out here with me, and some of my other kids are out here [in the area] as well, so it’s been good in that way. But it feels like “Groundhog Day,” no question about that. I’ve been in one place for the past two months, which, for me, is unheard of. I’m used to being on the road, I’m a Type A guy and always working. I am thankful I don’t have the stress though [like the current players] where it’s like, “Oh God, I’m missing a chance to win Wimbledon.” I’m trying to use this time for reflection and reviewing. That’s why, in a way, it’s been so great that this show came about at this specific time, which was, of course, coincidental. It’s nice to be a part of something like this. People are reacting to it like I am with the Jordan documentary (ESPN’s “The Last Dance”), it’s like, “I can’t wait for Episode 7!”
It feels like “The Last Dance” and “Never Have I Ever” are the two shows everyone is talking about right now. Did you binge the Netflix series when it came out?
McEnroe: I have a tough time. I never watch my matches or my commentary, or the movies or whatever I’ve been in. I can’t watch. My kids are like, “Dad, come watch!” and I’m like, “No!” But I’ve been inching closer to the TV and starting to watch a few scenes. At least with this, it’s a lot easier because it’s just my voice and I don’t have to watch myself.
[Though] I haven’t watched a single episode start to finish. I’ve read a lot of the scripts, but not in their entirety. I knew how good Mindy [Kaling] was as a writer, and the team she has around her, and it’s been nice to see how well done everything is that I’ve seen. They did such a strong job. I know it was sort of a left-field move to have me as the narrator.
It seems as though every review I’ve read has some variation of, “John McEnroe is the most unexpected choice for a narrator, but it really works!” in it.
McEnroe: My agent and my daughter and a few other people have sent me a number of reviews, and they all are like, “In the beginning, there’s a bizarre choice being made — the narrator. But possibly it works!” Almost every time that word “bizarre” was used. But I feel some pride about that, and that we might have pulled it off. I was expecting, “This is the stupidest idea ever.” You don’t want to hear that one.
I wouldn’t think so. How did this all come to be?
McEnroe: My wife (singer and songwriter Patty Smyth) and I were at the Vanity Fair Oscars party last year, and we were on our way in to do [portraits] with Mark Seliger, he’s a great photographer. Mindy was walking out. She was like, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe it’s you! I have this idea about you doing a show that I’m writing!” I’m like, “Oh, OK.” Well, you know how that goes. Most of the time that doesn’t end up happening. So, I took that with a grain of salt, but I told some of my kids the next day that I had met her and what she said. They were like, “You have to do it!” And then it actually happened.
What was the show making process like for you?
McEnroe: I had no idea how many lines I was going to have. It was more of a part than I realized. It took a lot longer and was a lot trickier than I imagined, and I tried to just get better as we went on. Each [scene] took a number of times.
What was challenging about about it?
McEnroe: You go for these studio sessions, and there are a number of people around giving you positive suggestions and telling you what you need to change and how long you have to say a certain line. It’s like, “Oh, my God! I’ve got 3.4 seconds to get this line in.” You don’t want to screw it up. I thought we would be able to whip out a couple of episodes during each session, but it didn’t work out that way. It ended up really being one episode per session usually. You have to keep a certain energy and mentally be focused. So it’s better to go hard for a couple hours and then regroup and come back the next day, or a couple days or a week later. It ended up taking a lot longer than I anticipated.
Did you enjoy it?
McEnroe: Being in the studio felt like being part of a team. Tennis doesn’t have a lot of that, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed a lot more as I’ve gotten older. And sometimes, [as the narrator], I’m bemused, other times I got to be angry, other times you’re supportive. There’s different ways that I got to narrate things, which was cool. It wasn’t always the same thing.
Did you have any say in the script at all? Like the reference of the 1984 French Open final.
McEnroe: We went over all that, but Mindy and Lang [Fisher], they’re great writers. So, most of it was from them. Sometimes we would change things to fit, or if I said, “That didn’t make sense,” for whatever reason, some of the references, the ’83 Open as opposed to the ’85 Open, just to get those things right. The painful, obviously, was when I blew the ’84 French. That’s the toughest loss I ever had. So, to mention that, it’s never easy. I think it’s cathartic, in a way, even all these years later, especially in the context of a show like that. And I enjoyed throwing out certain tennis references because I’m guessing most people watching are pretty young and have no idea what I’m talking about when I say the ’84 French Open.
On that note, and this sounds ridiculous to say to you, but I’ve seen headlines that read, “Who is John McEnroe from ‘Never Have I Ever?'” What is like to be known to a younger generation as the guy from a Netflix show, as opposed to a tennis legend?
McEnroe: I think it’s cool. I had my first inkling of that reception when I did “Mr. Deeds” with Adam Sandler. After that movie came out [in 2002], I probably had 1,000 people come up to me and say, “It’s the guy from Deeds!” and they had no idea I was a tennis player. I found that funny. And this is [almost] 20 years later. It’s like, “Who the hell is this old fart narrating this show?” But I will say, this role shows the global reach of tennis, even if the younger generation doesn’t know who I am. When I met Mindy, she said, “My parents were big fans, and they watched you play, so I had to, too.” Suddenly you’re part of a show that seemingly has nothing to do with you, but yet, there’s a connection.
And it’s such an endearing and genuine connection, too.
McEnroe: That’s exactly it. Tennis has opened so many doors. It’s amazing when people tell me their parents were big fans, it’s such a great feeling. I’ll never forget when I went to South Africa, after apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela had become president — I refused to go before — and played in an exhibition match. Somehow, we all got invited to Mandela’s house after, and when we’re there, he says to me, “I listened to your Wimbledon match [the 1980 final] against [Bjorn] Borg on the radio.” And at first, I thought that was cool in itself, but then I realized, he listened to that match when he was on Robben Island in prison. I’m thinking to myself, “Here I am, complaining about some umpire, and this is the greatest person I ever met in my entire life and he’s sitting there telling me it’s great to meet me, and that he listened to me play tennis.” Even telling you this story now gives me goosebumps. Tennis has such a reach around the world, and I’m really grateful for that.
Talk about putting things in perspective.
McEnroe: Hey, you know, I think it worked out, this tennis thing.