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McEnroe is Never's voice of teen angst, seriously

by MATTHEW FUTTERMAN THE NEW YORK TIMES | June 25, 2020 at 1:46 a.m.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (left) stars as Devi Vishwakumar in Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series Never Have I Ever. John McEnroe (left), who appeared in episode 110 of the show, also serves as the narrator for the life and inner voice of 15-year-old Devi. (Netflix/Lara Solanki)

So it's the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar party, and John McEnroe is waiting to get his picture taken by portrait photographer Mark Seliger, because that's the kind of party favor you get at the Vanity Fair Oscar party.

He's about to take his turn when Mindy Kaling, the comedy writer and actor best known for her work on The Office and The Mindy Project, comes out of the pop-up photo studio. As McEnroe remembers it, Kaling launched into this soliloquy about how she has this idea for him to be in her new series and she has to talk to him. McEnroe has gotten used to this sort of thing happening every so often.

Usually he never hears from the person again. In this case, Kaling actually followed up, and a year later McEnroe, one of the greatest tennis players (and hotheads) of all time, is somehow the narrator for the life and the inner voice of Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a 15-year-old boy-crazy Indian American girl from the San Fernando Valley in Never Have I Ever, Kaling's Netflix series that made its debut this spring.

"I don't know why it works," McEnroe, 61, said last week in a phone interview from his home in Malibu, Calif. "At first people are like, 'What?' I'm not the normal voice-over sound."

To be clear, McEnroe is not a complete stranger to Hollywood. There were his less-than-memorable Bic commercials in the 1980s, and then more successful cameos in the Adam Sandler movie Mr. Deeds and on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He is also one of the lead tennis commentators on ESPN's coverage of the grand slam tournaments.

But voicing the trials of a nerdy girl obsessed with a hunky swimmer and struggling with the sudden death of her father? That was not a role he saw coming.

McEnroe has long had something of a performance bug. A guitarist who is married to musician Patty Smyth, he long ago began hopping onstage with his favorite music stars. And yet while tennis is usually sports' ultimate solo act -- no caddies, no coaches, no cornermen -- he insists he never thought of himself as a performer when he was playing, though other people might have, given the notorious tirades that he still can't really explain.

"At the end I felt like I was becoming a caricature of myself," he said of his playing career. "Sometimes I wonder if I was doing it because I was like a cigarette smoker and I couldn't break the habit."

He also still doesn't understand why his opponents were so bothered by his behavior. Looking back, he figures all those insults earned him some payback from the linesmen and umpires who probably helped the players on the other side of the net.

Some of those highlights get another go on Never Have I Ever, including the infamous "Answer my question! The question, jerk!" eruption at the Swedish Open in 1984. After confronting the chair umpire, McEnroe smashed several glasses of ice water with a backhand-forehand combination. The umpire penalized him a game. McEnroe later won the match, 1-6, 7-6, 6-2.

"I went over the line," McEnroe said of his behavior during his career. "I got so frustrated."

So does Devi, and despite their obvious differences McEnroe relishes the chance to explain what's going on inside her head and the unforced errors she is making.

"She's more of a hothead than I was in high school," McEnroe said of the teenage character, whose lower moments include shattering her bedroom window with a textbook and telling her mother she wishes she had died rather than her father. McEnroe, on the other hand, eventually earned the nickname Superbrat from the British press.

The question that will soon confront McEnroe and other aging sports stars who later re-enter the public consciousness through a different door is whether the younger generation even knows who they are. Do the young people binge-watching Never Have I Ever realize that McEnroe was, in fact, the Roger Federer of the early 1980s, an unmatched shotmaker who redrew the tennis court?

McEnroe said there had been plenty of times when he was out and about and people came up to him to say, "You're the guy from Mr. Deeds!" It's clear they have no idea he ever lifted a tennis racket, he said.

Eventually that will end, and the requests from a younger set for autographs and the selfies with the guy who understands Devi from inside her brain just might be on the horizon. Ramakrishnan, 18, who plays Devi, has said she had to Google McEnroe to learn who he was. Now she knows he's not simply a small-screen creation.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," McEnroe said.

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