Knowing that McEnroe had just returned from covering Rafael Nadal's victory at the French Open, I had high hopes when lunch was suggested. In my mind's eye, I pictured him introducing me to a bottle of a fragrant bordeaux that he had just sampled during his fortnight in Paris.
Instead, we meet at noon at Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center on Manhattan's west side. It is a chain that started on the east side in 1984 and serves the kind of Mexican food that was considered exciting in New York before real Mexicans began moving to our city en masse - guacamole made at the table, yada, yada, yada. Its airy two-story David Rockwell-designed interior creates the impression that you're dining in a fashionable shopping district of an upscale US Sun Belt locale - say, Scottsdale, Arizona. The best I was going to do was a margarita.
In his latest tome, McEnroe writes that he doesn't like to show up early for anything - even live television appearances - so I was ready when he arrived a few minutes late. He was friendlier than the infamous McEnroe of Centre Court - who called an umpire "the pits" and so appalled the crowd that he was booed when we walked on to play Borg in the 1980 final. But he wasn't much for small talk, either, and I could imagine why.
McEnroe and I both grew up in the glass-half-empty New York of the 1970s - he the son of a corporate lawyer, me the kid of a crime reporter - and my attitude is just as bad as his. When I asked why anyone should care about his life in recent years, he said he wondered about that himself. He appeared uncomfortable playing the literary game. No one, after all, is going to compare his latest offering to Remembrance of Things Past.
He was dressed casually in blue jeans, a blue V-neck T-shirt and a black denim jacket, topped off by a New York Mets cap. We talked about the previous night's game and he said he had taken his son. It had gone badly. Matt Harvey, once the best Mets pitcher, had left the game complaining of arm trouble. The worry for any Mets fan was that at 28, Harvey's best days were behind him. Lunching with an athlete who peaked at 25, I figured it best to keep such anxieties to myself.
It was time to order. McEnroe, who lives a few blocks away, is a regular; his wife, the singer Patty Smyth, staged one of his birthday parties at Rosa Mexicano's east side branch. Even before the waitress offered us the tableside guacamole, he acknowledged its greatness. But when she suggested we order some, McEnroe wrongfooted her, asking if they had "the shrimp dish for lunch". Confused, she asked if he meant the shrimp ceviche. "No, the main course one," he said, setting her straight as if she were a nearsighted chair umpire, "with the peppers and the rice and beans. That's good for me."
It was then that I panicked. Cravenly, I suggested that he might look like more of a sport if he indulged in a margarita. He demurred. "Normally, I have margaritas, but it's too early." He was on his way to his tennis academy in Randall's Island later so a television crew could film him playing and wanted to be at his best.
"I'll get an iced tea," he said.
I ordered one myself - and that sealed my fate. I was led astray by a soft drink. Whatever opportunity I had to order food had passed, although I only realised my error when the waitress returned a few minutes later with a single order of Alambre de Camarones. A dish from Veracruz, Mexico, according to the menu, it featured grilled prawns marinated in garlic vinaigrette with tomatoes, onions and chiles, served over achiote rice, with salsa verde picante on the side.
McEnroe offered to share, but I declined for fear of interrupting his flow. I asked the waitress for the same thing, and kept quiet as he held court. As he spoke, I noticed that he sat at the table in much the same way as he serves in tennis - with his body at an acute angle.
McEnroe's life, in his telling, is a classic case of too much, too soon. He says he missed his high school graduation ceremony to play his first Wimbledon semi-final in 1977. His epic battles with Borg came between the ages of 19 and 22. He met his first wife, actress Tatum O'Neal, when he was 25 and she was 20. When he was introduced to Diana, Princess of Wales, he was surprised to learn that she felt sorry for him because of the way he was treated by the press. "She said to me, after your initial pleasantry, 'Oh, I can't believe what you have to go through,'" he says. "I was really bummed when she was killed in that car crash, and the way it happened."