I peaked at twenty-five. Twenty-six is when I realised, "Wait a minute, something's wrong with my leg." I lost my number-one ranking and began a slow but steady downhill spiral professionally. But I'd like to think that now, at fifty-eight years of age, that I'm in a much better position to appreciate what happened, what is happening, and what hopefully will happen in the future while not taking it for granted. When the commentary thing came along, people were like, "Wow, you're better at commentary than you are at tennis." What? Are you kidding me?
I like to play tennis now more than I did when I was the number-one player in the world. At that particular moment, in 1984, I felt like I had taken the game to another level. But there was an emptiness to it. [Roger] Federer is able to shrug off defeats a lot more easily than almost anyone else, and I respect that. It's amazing how much he actually loves the game.
"I was the number-one player in the world. I had taken the game to another level. But there was an emptiness to it."
It's unhealthy to just focus on one thing. The repetition of it, the pressure, hurts you growing up. Look at Rafael Nadal. That guy's definitely one of the top three, at worst four, greatest players that ever lived. But he'll talk at press conferences and it sounds like he never won anything. At my tennis academy, I espouse the idea of being able to blow off steam playing other sports. That way, kids have an emotional outlet—if they lose, they can feel like they've lost together and it's not all on them.
If that 1 percent means the difference between losing in the finals of Wimbledon and winning, you would understand someone willing to live a monklike life, like [Ivan] Lendl, or [Pete] Sampras. You have to say, "No, thank you" to some of the perks that come your way to keep that focus. I wasn't able to do that myself, but I respect it. My goal was to have it both ways. If you can be a Hall of Famer and get some of those perks—you know, Forget the tour in Rotterdam, let's go on tour with the Stones!—I'll take that one.
I look back on certain decisions and I'm like, Why did I do that? No one knows the answer, including myself. You gotta call Sigmund Freud. Maybe some part of me felt like I was getting too big for my britches. In retrospect, self-sabotage is a bad way of humbling yourself. But you make these decisions, and you keep trying to learn from them. That's all you can do. Because you can't change what happened forty years ago, or twenty—or ten, for that matter.
When I grew up, it was boys don't cry. So my way of dealing with wanting to cry, with this feeling of weakness, would be to lash out or scream—the best defence is a good offence. There were many times where I knew the moment I did it, Oh, my God, you just made the situation worse for yourself—and that's not what you're even feeling! In a crowd of 15,000, I would be dwelling on the 100 people that would be getting on me as opposed to the 14,900 that were respectful or positive. They'd go, "You're a bum!" And I'd say, "Screw you!" They were taken aback that I would even speak to them. It was an addiction, like smoking cigarettes. I really didn't want to do it, yet I found myself doing it. It was counterproductive, shall we say. But I was afraid I'd lose my edge.
To keep your concentration is way more important than how good your forehand is or how good your serve is. I was always envious of [Björn] Borg's complete and utter control. He didn't show any emotion at all. I couldn't get through a practice session without getting agitated. I played yesterday and I was frustrated, and I'll play Sunday and I'll be frustrated. Every time you play, you're frustrated.
My wife [the musician Patty Smyth] has an even hotter temper than I do. It's funny, because everyone assumes that I'm the hothead, but I'm the one calming her down.
This interview appears in the August '17 issue of Esquire US.