Minor spoilers for Netflix’s Never Have I Ever below.
When my dad learned I would be interviewing sports icon John McEnroe, he called me immediately from his drive to work. “This is the most famous person you’ll ever interview in your career,” he said matter-of-factly before firing off McEnroe trivia.
My dad’s not the only one obsessed with the tennis legend. In the pilot episode of Netflix’s new series Never Have I Ever, viewers are shocked, delighted, and a bit confused when McEnroe’s unmistakable voice, raspy and booming, introduces us to teen heroine Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). McEnroe promises everything will “make sense later” as he launches into voiceover, landing each dry observation or fiery quip with a touch of sarcasm. During a dream sequence toward the end of the first episode, we meet Devi’s recently deceased father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). Comforting Devi, Mohan points to the TV and shows her McEnroe, his “favorite player of all time,” who shares one of Devi’s most important qualities: “He doesn’t let anyone push him around…He’s a firecracker, just like you.”
So how exactly did the seven-time Grand Slam winner end up narrating an Indian girl’s coming of age? McEnroe cites a chance encounter with showrunner Mindy Kaling at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 2019. “Mark Seliger is a friend and photographer,” McEnroe tells ELLE.com from quarantine in his Malibu home. “He does this nice set-up. My wife and I were going in there and Mindy was walking out. It was sort of like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe this is you!’ And then, ‘I have this idea for this script.'”
Ahead, McEnroe discusses his motivation for taking the job, the state of sports during a pandemic, and how the role transformed in an unexpected way.
How did Mindy Kaling sell you on the job?
She said, “My parents were big fans and I remember watching you at Wimbledon.” [With] movies and TV, you’re always hearing things and not a lot of it ends up happening, so you take it with a grain of salt. But Mindy believed it could work. She’s got the great rep, [she’s a] great writer, [it’s] something out of left field. It’s not what I do for a living but it’s nice to try something different. There’s only so many ways you can say, “Great forehand!” commentating. Even though I feel like I’m lucky that I get to do that job, after you’re doing it for a long time, you’re like, “Oh God, am I just so boring now?”
Did you know the role would be narrating?
At first I thought it was going to be a small couple lines here, couple lines there. I was surprised I was [so] much a part of it. It’s nice to see how it all worked out in that way, because it was certainly not something I was anticipating.
You seemed prepared to take the challenge.
I’d get fed up with people when I was younger. Most of the people are very nice, but sometimes you want to be able to just walk down the street. One time I wore this disguise and I looked like Jimi Hendrix. I walked into the store and said, “How much is that tapestry?” And the guy goes, “Are you John McEnroe?” And I’m like, “How did you know it was me?” He was like, “I recognized your voice.” I’ve had that a fair amount over the years, so I thought, “Maybe I could do [narrating] sometime.” And then when my second book came out, I voiced the whole [thing]. I’m like, “Whoa, this is a whole lot tougher.”
Have you watched the show?
I’ve watched bits and pieces. I have a tough time watching myself. I never listen to myself commentate or even really watched when I played tennis or the movies that I did. But my wife and a couple of my kids have been here with me and they’re watching it, so I’ve snuck in and watched a few minutes here and there. I can hear myself. I’m probably going to start watching more.
What was it like filming your cameo in the finale episode?
I thought that was a cool left-field shot at the end. In a way, that’s the most fun, because you’re actually out there with people, as opposed to in a room voicing the lines. I didn’t understand the significance [of the cameo]. I just watched the end the other day. It’s a big moment. It was cool to be part of that.
One of the biggest connections between you and Devi is her hot-headedness. How has it felt to revisit those parts of your career?
It still hurts to say some of the things I said [for the show]. I think my least favorite [scene to narrate] was when I had to say I lost to [Ivan] Lendl at the ’84 French Open, and to relive that over and over. But I think it’s also important that you can make light of it. I’ve always been a competitive person, but you have to learn how to live with defeat as well as the joys of victory.
I try to be proud of myself over the course of the last 30 years, when things seem like, “God, how the hell did I screw that up?” Or I get all worked up like the world’s coming to an end, and then you get in a situation [like]—well, this is an obvious one—with this pandemic going on. Your perspective gets better. I’m 61 years old now, so it takes a while for me. I’ve got a lot better at being able to look at the bright side and remember more of the better moments. A show like this allows me to do that. It forces me to get stuff out and be able to deal with it more easily.
Do you think sports will return this year?
That’s the million-dollar question for sports junkies. I think it’s going to return without fans. Obviously we have a big decision in tennis with the U.S. Open and baseball. Everyone wants to play, but I don’t think anyone wants to play without fans. That may end up happening. I don’t know how that’s going to be, how that’s going to look, but I do miss [sports]. It’s going to be weird any way we look at it.
Never Have I Ever is streaming on Netflix now.