John McEnroe Heads for Wimbledon and He's Already Claiming One Advantage—Best Girl Tatum O'Neal

updated 07/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 01:00AM

Every year about this time the English press comes to bury John McEnroe, not to praise him. And McEnroe, the tennis world's No. 1 player and most exasperating personality, inevitably manages to provide the shovel—an endless argument here, an outrageous obscenity there, a growl, a grimace, the tortured look of a man who just had a 747 land on his finger. This year, as he pursues his fourth Wimbledon championship, McEnroe has added a new irritant to his repertoire: feisty Tatum O'Neal, daughter of Ryan, stepchild-in-common-law of Farrah Fawcett and Johnny Mac's constant live-in companion since last Christmas. If the British press had trouble dealing with McEnroe in solo flight, wait until it gets a load of Tatum bellowing—as is her wont—"C'mon, baby," from her VIP seat. One observer predicts, "It'll be a zoo compared to what it was before she started hanging around."

McEnroe, 26, issued the first ulti-Tatum by boycotting the Queen's Club tourney in London, the Wimbledon tune-up, two weeks ago because of the expected press onslaught. A case of premature evacuation? Says a Wimbledon spokesman: "Tatum is just another visitor as far as we're concerned."

Uh-huh. That's probably what organizers at the French Open said too. Before he was upset in the semis by eventual champion Mats Wilander, McEnroe found the matches themselves a welcome relief from the paparazzi who stalked the swoony-moony lovebirds during their two-week stay. Still this was Paris, and there weren't enough paparazzi on earth to stop John and Tatum from indulging in those time-honored pursuits of the young and enamored: strolling along the Seine, shopping at très chères designer bauble boutiques (like Cartier, where they checked out rings and necklaces), smooching in public and, of course, spitting.

Excuse me? Well, look at it their way. Just the thought of all those two-for-one celebrity photo opportunities had the pix pack in an f-stop frenzy whenever John and Tatum tried to flee their $550-per-night suite at the elegant Plaza-Athéné. Understandably frustrated, McEnroe one day tried a variation on the old bait-and-switch scheme. "Do you speak English? Do you speak English?" he shouted to a gaggle of photographers camped on the hotel's doorstep while Tatum tried to slip out unnoticed. Alas, it was not to be. John, no quitter, then attempted to trip some of the rampaging lens hounds. No go. Later he settled for spitting at them and their cameras.

But John refused to let anything curdle love—even whispers that his game had gone sour since he met Tatum. That first meeting—at a party thrown last October by a record producer who wanted to play matchmaker—was inauspicious. John was more taken with Alana Stewart, 39. He moved into the Bel Air home Alana once shared with ex-husband and still rockin' Rod and stayed for three weeks, which was enough for Alana. After McEnroe's next tournament—in Stockholm—he showed up on Alana's doorstep with his luggage, but she told him the fling was over. He turned to Tatum and simply hasn't been the same since. (Some will take that as good news.)

Observers of John's previous serious relationships—with tennis pro Stacy Margolin and model Stella Hall—say this one may be the real thing. "He's nice to women in private and never shows anything in public," says a longtime student of McEnroe. "With Tatum he is showing his love."

At a tennis gala during the French Open at the lavish Pavilion Gabriel, the tuxedoed millionaire stood up and gushed over a glamorous-looking Tatum, thanking her "for being here and making my life better." She blushed and ducked her head like a little kid. Rumors of an engagement swept Paris, but the pair was mum.

Still, can a girl who has been squired by the likes of Timothy Hutton, Michael Jackson, Rex Smith, Leif Garrett and Ted Kennedy Jr. find happiness with a rogue volleyer? So far so good. "Tatum showed while she was here that she was willing to give him her total support, make her schedule around him, look up to him, cater to him," says one friend. Says good friend Ahmad Rashad, an NBC sportscaster and part of McEnroe's Paris entourage: "He's just in bliss. They seem to fit each other very well." John confirmed that observation in a recent interview: "I feel happier than I've ever been in my life."

McEnroe's declaration of dependence was the world's worst kept secret. The two have been sharing a two-story beachfront Malibu house that he bought from tennis fanatic Johnny Carson early this year for $2 million—plus three one-hour lessons. Several months earlier Tatum had arrived at McEnroe's Central Park West quadruplex with 21 suitcases—one for every year of her life—and sweetly told the doorman to "call me Tatum."

Everywhere they go they are the picture of domestic bliss. As house-guests of Steve Corey, who promotes John's 28-stop exhibition tour, the pair arrived in Dallas by Learjet at 2 a.m. "John threw his laundry in the machine and then took my car and went to the supermarket and bought six bags of groceries," says Corey, "at 2 a.m." Not that there isn't a crack or two in the sugarcoating. When McEnroe suggested the pair pose briefly to get rid of photographers outside the Malibu house, Tatum reportedly hurled obscenities at John and drove off in a huff, leaving him flustered—and locked out.

It is this kind of thing that has the tennis world scratching its collective head. "None of the players can figure out what he sees in her," says one insider. "They think it's bizarre." Armchair psychiatrists are having a field day. Is it spontaneous combustion between two temperamental superbrats? Is she searching for the spitting—so to speak—image of her volatile, strong-willed dad? Has John, as some are saying, "gone Hollywood?" It's plausible: This is a guy who hangs around with rock star pals—like Billy Squier, ex-Eagle Glenn Frey and the Pretenders—for relaxation. Maybe Tatum needs the publicity. Her latest movie, Certain Fury, in which she plays a street-smart tough, created nary a blip at the box office. Though she captured an Oscar for Paper Moon at age 10 and starred in The Bad News Bears, Nickelodeon, International Velvet and Little Darlings—1981's Circle of Two with Richard Burton was so bad it went straight to cable TV after a very brief release. Maybe McEnroe was looking for a graceful way to meet Farrah, whose poster he had tacked on his bedroom wall when he was passing through puberty in Queens, N.Y.

And maybe it's just true love, like across a crowded room. "We've been through a lot of similar things," John has said. "I think we're similar in a lot of ways—our personalities, the way we deal with people and our intellectual levels." In private, say friends, both John and Tatum are shy, loner types. "When he's away from tennis, he's a different guy," says Rashad. "It would be hard to be like that all the time." Says a friend of Tatum's: "She's bright, inquisitive and she has a sense of humor. The things she worried about were the things other young women worried about: her boyfriend, her makeup and whether or not the next bite of pizza would blow her up." John has never been comfortable with the hoopla surrounding him, and Tatum, suggests another friend, "has helped him adjust to the limelight."

There are other signs that he is mellowing. After the French Open, he and Tatum stayed in Paris with his parents and friends, even taking in a Renoir exhibit at the Grand Palais. On the afternoon of his loss to Wilander, when anybody would have forgiven John some pouting, he and Tatum arrived back at the hotel smiling. There he stumbled upon Brett Connors, the 5-year-old son of arch-rival Jimmy. As Brett waited for Dad to exchange some money, McEnroe grabbed the boy in a playful bear hug and swooped him across the Louis XV-style lobby.

"How ya doing?" asked John.

"Dad lost!" Brett wailed.

"What about me?" growled John with mock ferociousness. "So what are we going to do about it? Practice a little more?"

"He's not as single-minded as he once was," notes Gene Scott, a former pro and publisher of Tennis Week. "But he would probably say, 'So what? I'm more complete.' " Rashad concurs: "John is at the point where he's discovering there are other things in life."

Like shopping, for example. During the first week of the French Open, Tatum attended only a match or two, preferring to drop in at Dior or cruise the fashionable Champs Elysees and Saint-Germain-des-Pres with Connors' wife, Patti. Other times, John shepherded Tatum to Bulgari and Cartier, where she would try, try, try jewelry and assorted pricey trinkets—which he would buy, buy, buy. "He spoils her a lot," says one friend.

Another time they turned up in Valentino's where John shed his shirt in mid-store to try on new threads. A Paris magazine suggested that Tatum was "tired of seeing John in jeans" and was spearheading a fashion makeover.

Her impact stretches beyond fashion into table manners. "Tatum has definitely been a calming influence," says an eyewitness to tennis social history. "At last year's French Open dinner he sat next to [former Wimbledon champ] Virginia Wade and he had a spoon next to his plate which he kept banging on the table." This year Tatum was at his side, and the two talked almost exclusively to each other. "John did most of the talking, and she beamed a lot," said the eyewitness.

In the early stages of this relationship there were reports that Ryan was furious with Tatum's choice of beaux, that he had called McEnroe a "hooligan," that the two had duked it out. John later declared, "That's bull. We got along fine." Now there are rumors that it's his parents who are unhappy with her. (Dad John Sr. is a lawyer with the high-powered New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and takes care of all of John's business affairs. Mom Kay takes care of Dad.)

Their family backgrounds couldn't be more dissimilar. Stormy relations at home gave Tatum an ulcer at 7. Her battling parents divorced in 1967, and by 1971 she had moved into her dad's Malibu house to get away from her mom, Joanna Moore, then a pill addict. Surrounded by adults, Tatum was forced to act the mother hen for her troubled younger brother, Griffin, and later conceded, "I feel I have grown up faster than a normal child." She and her father grew protective of each other (some have said overly protective), and at one point she said, "Daddy is the greatest influence on my life." She had few friends in private boarding school because her peers were jealous. Noted Tatum at 15, "Basically it's kind of a lonely life, my life."

McEnroe, the oldest of three boys—youngest brother Patrick, 19, is a promising player on Stanford's tennis team; Mark, 23, is an assistant editor at World Tennis magazine—grew up in a happy, tightly woven family. He loves music—he relaxes by playing guitar—and excelled in soccer and academics while at Trinity School in Manhattan. "He was always full of zip, an achiever, a perfectionist," his mother has said. He zipped out to Stanford on a tennis scholarship but dropped out after a year to join the circuit.

McEnroe has set out to improve his public image and earn the respect he feels he deserves but hasn't received. (It's not unusual for even New York crowds to boo him.) The John McEnroe Scholarship Fund at Trinity pays tuition for inner-city youths. His ads for Bic razors poke fun at his own reputation. For the past two years at Christmas he has donated $10,000 to a New York Times charity fund and, unlike most of his self-absorbed colleagues, he has steadfastly refused to play in South Africa.

Away from the tennis pressures and the paparazzi, he and Tatum retreat to Malibu, where they divide their time between cavorting on the beach and throwing sand in the faces of prying reporters. Is Tatum his permanent love match? Time will tell; they certainly won't. Asked during a tournament in Chicago if the huge ring on her finger was of the engagement species, Tatum told a reporter, "Mind your own business!" This is a couple made for each other. Or maybe they just deserve each other.

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