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John McEnroe discusses Tatum O'Neal in memoir

Break point

"I'm still the same person," says McEnroe (in his art gallery in Manhattan's SoHo) of his life today. "But I'm trying to smooth the edges."  

(PEOPLE) -- The holder of a record 154 professional tennis titles, John McEnroe spent much of the early 1980s ranked as the No. 1 player in the world. Those achievements were often overshadowed by his on-court temper tantrums (earning him the nickname Super Brat). But it was McEnroe's romance with Hollywood wild child Tatum O'Neal that turned him into a paparazzi staple. "It felt like open season on me, on her, and especially on the two of us together," McEnroe writes in his new autobiography, "You Cannot Be Serious." "Suddenly, wherever I went, it felt like a spectacle."

The scrutiny added to the pressures -- including drug use and career setbacks -- that plagued the couple's stormy time together. In 1992, after six years of marriage and three children, they split. "Someday you'll thank me for this," McEnroe recalls O'Neal telling him. "I wondered about that for a while," he writes. "Then I understood what she'd meant. I think she'd realized she was such trouble, and so incapable of being the wife that I wanted, that eventually I'd be happier with someone else."

Today McEnroe's relationship with O'Neal remains "very up and down," he says, "and more down than up." Asked if O'Neal, now 38, has read the book, McEnroe laughs and says, "I haven't seen any court papers yet." But her prediction proved right: McEnroe, 43, has been happily married to his second wife, singer Patty Smyth, 44, since 1997. They live in the top four floors of a Manhattan apartment building with their children: Ruby, 16 (from Smyth's first marriage, to musician Richard Hell); Kevin, 16; Sean, 14; and Emily, 11 (McEnroe's kids with O'Neal); and Anna, 6, and Ava, 3, McEnroe and Smyth's daughters together.

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Fulfilled by family life ("To me, the ultimate is sitting around a dinner table and it's just all of us there"), McEnroe now owns a Manhattan art gallery and does tennis commentary for the USA network while he figures out his next professional move. In fact, after initially resisting writing an autobiography, McEnroe changed his mind because "I was at a crossroads," he says, "just feeling that the actual writing of the book would help me move forward by looking back." In the exclusive excerpt that follows, McEnroe does just that, recounting his doomed relationship with O'Neal, whom he met at a party in October 1984.

Meeting Tatum O'Neal

I walked into the party and almost had to laugh -- there wasn't anyone who wasn't famous. However, my eyes went across the room to an intense, sharp-featured girl with dyed red hair, and then her eyes locked with mine.

I went over and introduced myself, even though no introductions were needed. I knew very well that Tatum O'Neal had been the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, in 1974, for "Paper Moon." I was all too aware that her father was Ryan O'Neal, the Tom Cruise of his day.

Was I overly impressed? A bit star-struck? Maybe.

Maybe Tatum was too. As I'd learned, famous people are fans too. They're just more sophisticated about hiding it -- and hiding things and assuming you have a lot in common without looking too far underneath isn't a great way to begin when you're trying to get to know someone.

McEnroe talks about relationships, career setbacks and drug use in his autobiography "You Cannot Be Serious."  

Of course Tatum and I didn't know any of that then. We were physically attracted, and we each knew and liked what the other had done. Maybe my fiery spirit reminded her of her father's own famous temper. For my part, I liked her confidence, her ease in the midst of this star-studded evening. While the party buzzed around us, we sat in a corner, talking and talking. From time to time she leaned over and whispered something funny about this person or that person around the room. The conspiracy was sexy, the whispering was sexy and the way she smelled when she leaned close was sexy too.

Soon afterward McEnroe headed to the Stockholm Open, where he received a three-week suspension for calling an umpire a jerk and smashing a soda can with his racket. He used the time off to visit Tatum in L.A.

I had to get back to [Tatum]. It was also Hollywood I had to get back to. At the end of 1984 I'd gone from someone who'd had trouble getting into Studio 54 to [being] on the Hollywood A-list. Tatum knew that world like the back of her hand.

Playing tennis for seven years

After having played an insane schedule for 7 1/2 years, I felt I was slipping. I couldn't control my behavior (on the tennis court) anymore. I couldn't stay on the merry-go-round. I thought Tatum could help me, and I thought I could help her. As the daughter of a famous father and as someone who had had early success and a tough time afterward, she had obviously struggled with her identity. Now she was trying to break out and find herself.

She talked constantly about her father. I began to feel I was in a kind of competition with him: that what Tatum was looking for in me was a better version of her dad. When I first met him, he could be extremely charming. He could walk into a party and wow a room. He would crack jokes and tell you how terrific you were. You'd say, "Man, this guy is wonderful company."

And then there were moments when it seemed he could tear your head off. I sensed that during one of the first times Tatum took me up to Farrah Fawcett's place in the Hollywood Hills. Her father was living with Farrah, whom Tatum hated. I got the feeling that he and Farrah were so obsessed with their looks that they'd spend the whole day doing fanatical workouts. I remember seeing Ryan running on the beach all the time -- the guy would run for five or six miles, but he wouldn't eat the whole day; he'd get the munchies, but he still wouldn't eat, and then he'd take a steam or a sauna and sweat some more. By the time they said, "Do you guys want to come up for dinner at six?" Ryan was probably at the point where he'd eat anything!

We went to the house, and he said, "Let's play racquetball." Before dinner. I'd only tried racquetball a couple of times. I saw that he was pretty good. Ryan would hit a shot and plant himself right in front of me. So I was forced to lob the ball to try and keep it away from him -- then he'd put it away. I could have put welts in his back, but I never laced into him, because I thought, "I'm not going to risk getting into a fight with this guy." In retrospect it's lucky that I didn't. He'd been a Golden Gloves champion as a kid.

Read more from "You Cannot Be Serious" on PEOPLE.COM: Tempestuous relationship | Ryan O'Neal | Being good parents | Patty Smyth

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