He challenged everything, to his benefit.
“In the realm of perfection” is a 2018 feature-length documentary by the French director Julien Faraut about John McEnroe, focusing on the 1984 French Open at Roland-Garros. It is an extraordinary film, not least because in it we see something most unusual in sport. We see an elite sportsman whose behavior is at odds with that of every other professional tennis player. We see a man who doesn’t harness his emotions in order to succeed, but instead feeds off his sense of persecution in order to achieve higher levels of performance. It is, in the words of another French visionary, Jean-Marie Dru, a Disruption.
Jean-Marie is an advertising veteran who coined the phrase “Disruption” in relation to communications. It is best defined as the process by which one identifies the conventions of a business and its competitors, and upturns those conventions to find new room to grow. In other words, finding a way to relevantly differentiate your business to be more interesting to your audiences.
It takes a brave company to be a disruptor. It demands that you take a new and unknown path. It demands that you become a challenger.
John McEnroe was a challenger. He did things differently. He changed the game of tennis. Not only in how he played, but in how he saw the game. As the narrator says, “Bjorn Borg puts the ball in the spot where the other player is not. McEnroe puts it in a place the other player will never reach.” But it was not solely his playing style that set him apart, it was how he channelled the injustices around him that really made him different.
McEnroe had an intensity that shut out reality and prevented rational, conventional behavior. He prowled the court, absorbed the jeers, fought umpires, smashed racquets, rallied against the media, shouted at the world around him, and played tournaments in a state of torment and tears. It was, and remains to this day, unlike anything we have seen before. John McEnroe dislocated the norms of tennis for the benefit of the game. He showed the benefit of being a challenger.