Tennis great John McEnroe has been playing himself in movies such as “Mr. Deeds” and “Wimbledon” for almost 20 years, but he was well aware he was a “left-field” choice of narrator for Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” a coming-of-age comedy about an Indian American teenager. In fact, he was counting on the shock value.
“I was hopeful that people would look at this and go, ‘Whoa, why the hell is John McEnroe doing this?’” he says.
McEnroe’s gruff delivery of some pretty woke lines is instantly recognizable in the 10-part series, which launched April 27. “This is Devi Vishwakumar,” McEnroe booms in episode one. “She’s a 15-year-old Indian American girl from Sherman Oaks, California, and it’s her first year of sophomore year. And I am legendary tennis player John McEnroe. Wow, I look great there,” he quips against archive footage of his matches.
The 61-year-old’s explosive temper on the court brought him notoriety at the height of his career in the late 1970s and 1980s. Though the seven-time Grand Slam champion has transitioned into a commentating career for ESPN and BBC in recent years, his volatile rep rendered him the perfect spiritual match for “Never Have I Ever’s” hot-headed protagonist Devi — a pairing only the show’s co-creator Mindy Kaling, whom McEnroe affectionately calls “The Boss,” could have dreamed up.
Kaling and McEnroe met in a Vanity Fair Oscar Party meet cute, where the “Late Night” producer pitched the tennis great, whom she’d grown up watching, on the idea of narrating her new Netflix series. “This was an incredible opportunity to see if I could bring some humor and something different to what I normally do and what people were expecting for a narrator,” says McEnroe.
Riding out the pandemic at his Malibu, California, home, McEnroe caught up with Variety to discuss his pop culture resurgence, the dream narrating gig and where his allegiances lie — Team Paxton or Team Ben.
How does it feel to have this hit show out on Netflix during a pandemic when everyone is at home?
The timing of this was totally coincidental. I was asking Mindy when it would come out as recently as January, and I don’t think Netflix had put a firm date on it then. Around that time, they decided to put it out in April and all of a sudden this pandemic happened. I was uncertain. Obviously Mindy’s got a great history as a writer and actress, but it was definitely a left-field shot for me to be narrating a whole series. At first, I wasn’t sure what that entailed, and then I realized there were a lot more lines than I anticipated. I was hopeful people would look at this and go, ‘Whoa. Why the hell is John McEnroe doing this?’ And by the end, [they would think], ‘Hey, Mindy made a good choice.’ That actually worked out in a bizarre way.
What was it like meeting Mindy at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar party?
As [my wife and I] were walking in, Mindy was walking out, and she’s like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s you — I have this idea!” And that’s where it started. I knew of her, but I certainly was not anticipating that she’d be like, ‘I have this idea for a narrator in a series I’m doing for Netflix.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ But a lot of times you hear these things and then it doesn’t really come to fruition, but amazingly enough, this one did.
Once you learned more about the conceit for the show, which is loosely based on Mindy’s own childhood, what was it that drew you in? Because, as you say, you’re not exactly the obvious choice.
As fortunate as I’ve been to do something that I love for such a long time, I’m not getting any younger. It’s tough to feel like you can go out there and do yourself proud. Even though I love being at my tennis academy… it’s good to do something that’s different and not so physical.
Also, I’ve gone to India where tennis is actually pretty high up on the ladder as far as popularity. And I heard from Mindy that her parents were fans, and people have said over the years, ‘They all love you in India, you’ve got to come here.’ So that was attractive. Also, I’m big with the older age groups, and perhaps they were trying to get a slightly older demographic as well. And it’s sort of funny when you throw out certain lines, whether it was my French Open line or when I played someone at the US Open in ’83. And I’m sure most, if not all, the people watching were like, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ So in a way, it’s nice to give a little bit of a history lesson.
Had you narrated any scripted projects before?
Not really. I voiced over a documentary about [Australian tennis player] Rod Laver, my idol. But over the years, people had talked about my voice being recognizable, so it had occurred to me, ‘Hey, maybe this is something I could do.’ But obviously when they do these animated movies, they’re getting George Clooney and Brad Pitt and all these famous actors, so it seems like there’s very few opportunities there. For the second book I [wrote], I narrated the whole book, and that took way longer than I thought, but it was satisfying, so I was trying to figure out if I could get better at that, because there’s definitely an art to it. This was an incredible opportunity to see what I was made of.
You’ve clearly proven to the world how woke you are with your handling of certain lingo, like when you nail the pronunciation of ‘lewk.’ How naturally did that come to you?
I’m definitely not totally up on some of that lingo. I’ve got to be honest. I felt a little bit like when one of my kids says, ‘Dad, don’t you know what this means?’ I had no idea what it meant at first. But then when it was explained to me, with some of the phrases, I’d be like, ‘Oh okay, that could be funny.’
This show is introducing you to a younger generation of viewers who perhaps didn’t grow up watching you play tennis. You’ve also been portrayed in recent films such as “Borg vs McEnroe” and appeared in Andy Samberg’s “7 Days of Hell.” How do you feel about your new positioning as a pop culture icon of sorts?
When I first stopped playing the circuit at almost 34, you have that stage where you’re like, ‘I don’t want to play tennis, but I need to do something else.’ And it’s tough when you’re going down the hill. Then, you get some perspective and I feel I was fortunate and my brain was clear enough to make some decisions — to go and do the big events and keep playing, while thinking, ‘I’ll see what happens.’ I tried a talk show for a period of time in 2004 and it didn’t work the way I wanted to and I did a game show, and I was trying different things, but ultimately I came back to tennis. Then, when Adam Sandler called me about “Mr. Deeds” I hadn’t done a movie in 20 years, because the first experience [“Players”] seemed so bad. After that, kids would come up to me and say, ‘You’re the guy from “Mr. Deeds”‘ and had no idea I was a tennis player. I found that to be really funny.
How do you feel about your bad temper from the tennis years being such a significant part of your public identity now?
When I said, ‘You cannot be serious’ to the Wimbledon official, I said it literally once in my 15-year career. You can’t imagine how many times people have come up to me [and referenced that]. It is inescapable. So you can bang your head against the wall, because you’re upset people look at you that way, but [you also hope] they look at the big picture and think, ‘Hey, the guy was a pretty good tennis player, too.’ But to pretend you weren’t a hothead, or not to talk about that part of who I am, would be, to me, absurd. So, you try to take it with a grain of salt and have some fun with it because it’s better to laugh than cry about past failings. It’s better to have a good perspective about it and have some fun with it — that makes it more bearable.
What do you hope your next entertainment gig is — narrating and otherwise?
I’d be interested in doing a travel show where I went to all the places I’ve been but never really saw because I was always at the tennis court, the hotel or the airport. I’d like to see these cities from a different perspective, whether it’s political, musical, social, or even tennis-related. In the future, as far as the narration goes, it would be awesome to do a second season of this show, and maybe an animated thing at some point. I think this show will give me a few more opportunities than I had before.
Will there be a second season? Would you come back for that?
I certainly would like to. I think it would be cool to do a second season. It really boils down to what Mindy and [co-creator] Lang [Fisher] want to do. I believe it’s doing quite well for Netflix, and it seemed like there was a cliffhanger type ending, so it seems it’s set up for that, but that’s not my decision. But things seem to be pointing in that direction, which would be cool.
Have you decided whether you’re Team Paxton or Team Ben? Who would win in a tennis match?
It would seem like Paxton would win a tennis match. But in terms of who’s a nicer guy, that might be a different story, so I’m going to leave it to the boss there. The narrator shouldn’t have a strong opinion about that at this particular point.
What’s next for tennis in 2020? Can the US Open go forward, perhaps without an audience?
I can only imagine what the pros are feeling. This is a tough call, because it’s so weird to see sports being played without fans. That’s part of what energizes you — it’s like a great rival. A great crowd at the US Open makes you play better and try harder. It would be a totally different thing [to hold the tournament without an audience]. Maybe the US Open and French Open, which they postponed to September, are played without fans, and they can then figure out a way to do it with people there. Obviously the priority is to figure out what they can do to solve [the coronavirus crisis], but for sports junkies like myself, you certainly miss it. It’s been crazy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.