Sports | May 11, 2022 7:00 am

Tennis Legend John McEnroe Is Facing His Toughest Opponent Yet: Himself

In a story straight out of the metaverse, McEnroe is taking the court against his younger self using AI technology

John McEnroe at Lo Presti Park in Boston in 2021
John McEnroe at Lo Presti Park in Boston in 2021.
Clive Brunskill/Getty for Laver Cup

Though they played far fewer matches against one another than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (40), Federer and Novak Djokovic (50) and Djokovic and Nadal (58), Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were recently voted the best rivals in all of sports, let alone just tennis.

As tough of an opponent as Borg was for McEnroe, who played 14 matches against his rival from 1978 to 1981 and won his final match against him at the ’81 U.S. Open in Queens, the 63-year-old is taking on an even tougher challenge later this month on behalf of Michelob Ultra: a younger version of himself.

Streaming later this month on ESPN+, the former World No. 1 and seven-time major champion will hit the court against an adaptive AI-created recreation of himself that will be physically represented by a robotic return system. Designed to mimcic McEnroe’s style of play from five different pivotal years in his career using hundreds of hours of historic footage as reference material, the AI-enhanced opponent is going to be tough to beat. But that doesn’t mean McEnroe, the real one, isn’t going to try. That being said, he’s not expecting to do to himself what he once did to Borg.

“I’m over 60 years old and I have a lot of experience, but that’s like saying I have a good gameplan against Mike Tyson until he lands the first punch,” McEnroe tells InsideHook. “I would assume that my younger self is a hell of a lot more athletic. Even if I could read their mind, it would be difficult. But, I don’t think winning is the point of it, honestly. I think the point is to have some fun. I’m looking to appreciate and enjoy the things I’ve had and still have. When I look back on my career, even when I was the best in the world, I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I could have. There was an emptiness to it.”

As we’ve seen recently with Naomi Osaka, being unable to enjoy being at the top of your game as McEnroe describes is something today’s top tennis stars are struggling with as well. According to McEnroe, tennis being an individual competition (aside from doubles) instead of a team sport contributes to that dynamic and can create a sense of isolation.

“The upside’s bigger because you get all this unbelievable glory if you win. If you lose, you get all the pain and what’s associated with that,” he says. “This is a huge issue. There are too many people who put blinders on about this. I think it’s mainly a fear of failure or a combination of things, but it’s not easy to overcome. You live in a bubble and you just think the whole world revolves around that. You go out and have to compete and risk failure. How do you deal with it? We always tell the kids at my tennis academy that you learn more from losing than you do from winning. But no one likes losing a whole lot. It gets to be chronic and it can also be debilitating as well.”

Luckily for McEnroe, a loss to an AI-powered avatar of himself won’t be the end of the world at this point in his life and career as he’s finally started to loosen up…at least a little.

“I can poke fun at myself and I don’t take myself that seriously. I want to have some fun with life and enjoy it. That absolutely has taken me decades. It allows me to show a side of my personality that I didn’t show on the tennis court,” he says. “I’ve had so many good things happen. I have six kids who are still healthy after the craziness that’s been going on the last few years. I feel like if I don’t thank my lucky stars and if I can’t enjoy something like this, there’s something seriously wrong. I’m enjoying life now. I don’t look at the result as the main thing.”

So who’s going to win? “I feel like I can’t lose. That’s the good news,” McEnroe says. “I’d like to tell you I was, but right now the ’84 McEnroe would be the favorite to overwhelm anyone else.”