Sunday, April 13, 2014

John McEnroe Q&A: U.S. tennis needs athletes

John McEnroe talked to reporters at the Champions Shootout
in Sacramento in late February. Photos by Paul Bauman
   John McEnroe may be a nightmare for chair umpires, but he's a dream for journalists.
   Talkative, knowledgeable, outspoken and funny, McEnroe long has been perhaps the best interview in sports. Just ask a question, sit back and enjoy the show. 
   Before playing in the Champions Shootout on Feb. 26 in Sacramento, McEnroe fielded questions from a small group of reporters in the bowels of Sleep Train Arena. At one point, a public relations man implored the journalists, "Just a couple more minutes with John." Eleven and a half minutes later, McEnroe was still going strong. If the PR guy hadn't cut off the interview to usher McEnroe to another appointment, the legend would have happily continued holding court.
   Shortly afterward, McEnroe took the court.  In the one-set semifinals, he defeated Jim Courier, and James Blake topped Pete Sampras. Blake then beat McEnroe in the one-set final.
   McEnroe grew up in New York, but the left-handed wizard is no stranger to Northern California. He won the 1978 NCAA singles title in his only year at Stanford and captured five ATP singles titles in the San Francisco Bay Area, tied with Andre Agassi for the most in the Open Era (since 1968).
   Known for his shotmaking artistry and volatile temper, McEnroe won 17 Grand Slam titles (seven in singles, nine in doubles and one in mixed doubles) and played on five Davis Cup championship teams.
   McEnroe won won 77 singles and 78 doubles titles overall (fourth and tied for fifth, respectively, in the Open Era) and holds U.S. Davis Cup records for total victories (59) and singles wins (41). He was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999.
   McEnroe, who turned 55 on Feb. 16, looks older with his gray hair but plays remarkably well with his still-magical hands. In addition to competing against other legends in the PowerShares Series, a 12-tournament circuit in the United States in February and March, he works as a highly renowned tennis commentator for ESPN and runs a junior tennis academy in New York that he founded in 2010.
   McEnroe has five children -- three with his first wife, actress Tatum O'Neal, and two with his current wife, singer Patty Smyth -- and one stepchild.
   ESPN announced in February that McEnroe would expand his role beyond tennis on television and radio. He made headlines last December when he suggested eliminating doubles, which struggles to attract singles stars and fans, and giving the prize money to lower-ranked singles players.
   Following are highlights of the interview with McEnroe:
   Q: Can you see yourself in a coaching situation where you're traveling like Stefan Edberg (who's working with Roger Federer)?
   A: I suppose it's not impossible in a supporting role or part-time. That would be ideal.
   Q: Billie Jean King said recently that tennis is a kind of art form that shapes time and space ...
   A: That's very heavy.
   Q: You're known so much for your touch. Do you enjoy the feel of the game and the artistry of it?
   A: Yeah, of course. It's sort of what my thing was. Seeing what I see now (on the tour), it's a lot different.
   Q: Is there a real gap in the game now?
   A: Because of the rackets, the technology, the size of some of these guys and the strings ... if you have better control when you swing harder, that seems counterintuitive. But the harder you swing, the more the ball dips. Before, the harder you swung, the more chance you took.
   I don't get that, but that's the way it is, so you see guys taking crazy swings. Because the string is so stiff, you don't have that feel at the net that maybe you had. That's part of why you don't see guys coming in, in addition to the fact they hit it so much harder.
   Q: Regarding the state of the American game, there are three or four theories: the internationalization, we're not getting the athletes, the entitlement culture and cycles. What do you think is the most important?
   A: Athletes.
   Q: You're working on this a lot in New York. How can we get them from football and other sports?
   A: I think about that a lot, and I haven't come up with a good enough answer. With the women, it's different because the playing field is so much more level in tennis. Actually, the first sport maybe girls would go into is tennis. They don't play football. There's no baseball. In basketball, they get 1/50th of the money. So it seems like in tennis you would get better (female) athletes.
   Two of the best athletes in the history of women's tennis are the Williams sisters. They're so far above what I've seen. It's pure athleticism. They're learned more as time's gone on how to play.   
   Q: Does it depress you that we're so down? The Bryans said to Sam Querrey, "Hey, you got to the third round of the Australian Open," as if that were a good result.
   A: I try not to get too down or too angry, because I was somewhat of an expert on at least one of them. (We can't) pretend we don't have issues. Tennis is healthy in Europe, and there's a lot of money to be thrown around in certain parts of the world, like the Middle East and China. But that doesn't mean there's a thriving tennis community. I don't think more kids are playing. I'm pretty sure that the studies are showing there's less tennis being played. That's not a good thing to me.
   One of the reasons I did the tennis academy was I felt I had been given a lot. I've gotten better perspective, so it would be nice if I could leave the sport in a great place, too. Right now, I feel like I'm not doing a very good job.
   And then I get people asking me about this doubles thing, like (when I said the players) are slow. Then it's like, "My God, I made some great revelation. Doubles guys are slower than singles guys! Did you hear that? That's amazing!" That's what we focus on.
   (U.S. athletes choosing other sports) is a really tough thing to try to overcome. I'm willing to try anything and everything to try to figure out a way to get people to (play tennis). I was lucky. Now I look back, and I'm like, "The '70s, '80s, this is unbelievable." I was blessed to be a part of that. I look at it now, and I'm like, "I'm sorry. We have arguably the two greatest players who ever lived, and the other one (Novak Djokovic) is in there." And yet, we're sort of, "Where are we right now?"
   Q: You have so much going -- the new ESPN thing and your incredible play as a senior ... 
   A: (You could be) my PR guy.
   Q: Just talk about being John McEnroe.
   A: Being John McEnroe is pretty good. I've been pretty lucky that my second wife helped make me a better person, blessed me with a couple more kids, been the glue with my other kids and helped me be a good husband and father.
   It's an ego trip in a way. Let's face it. I come out here, and it's 2,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 people, and I get a chance after just turning 55 to try to do my thing. Obviously, it's better (to play) a set or short period of time. If one of us can inspire a couple kids, we've won in that way. So we have an excuse because we're sort of searching and trying to keep some interest, and we get our egos massaged a bit.
   I like having a tennis academy. I like to get out there and play with the kids. I've always been a big sports fan, (but) my main goal with this ESPN thing is to get people to want to talk tennis a lot. In the meantime, I'm no expert on other sports, but I know something about what it's like to be out there. I just love sports in general, so it would be nice to spread my wings a little bit. We'll see what happens.
   Q: But your role is not necessarily commentating about tennis. You're doing other things.
   A: Having me at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open was probably more important than whether I did a stint on "First Take." At the same time, it would be fun to do some of this other stuff. But there are other (tennis) events. We'll see if I get mixed into Australia. Hopefully, at some point that will work for both of us and tennis. We'll do everything we can. They have a lot of coverage of tennis.
   There are different ways of doing it. I don't want to be at every tournament, and they've got other guys. They've got my brother (Patrick).   
   Q: Will Rafael Nadal, who has 13 Grand Slam singles titles at age 27, eventually break Federer's record of 17 and go down as the greatest player of all time?
   A: I don't know. Once he loses the French -- he may never lose one at this point -- but if he does, it'll be tough to win another, even if he's Rafa Nadal, because of that edge you get. And then health is an issue. But if he stays healthy and he's still into it ... there's a very, very short list of people who can beat him on clay, maybe one that I see right now. That would be (Novak) Djokovic. I don't know about Stan "The Man" Wawrinka on clay, although Stan "The Man" pulled it off in Australia.
   That would be a story that hopefully people will find interesting that we can talk about, because that's a legitimate question. There's a definite argument. I remember when I said Nadal has a real argument to be the greatest player ever, and after he lost in the first round at Wimbledon (last year), people said, "What are you talking about? How can you even say that?" And now, it doesn't look quite as bad. All of a sudden, it looks a little more feasible.
   Q: Does Nadal at least have to tie Federer?
   A: I wouldn't say he has to tie, because he has such a one-sided head-to-head (23-10). I would be pretty pleased with either one of those guys. ... One person says it's Nadal, and the other guy says it's Federer. It's like, "My god, I'd be happy to be talked about in that light."
   Q: The dominance over Federer is amazing, plus (Nadal's) singles gold medal in the 2008 Olympics ...
   A: And (four) Davis Cups. No one cares about Davis Cup. Well, to me it meant something. I'd like to be mentioned as part of five Davis Cup (championship) teams or whatever, but I don't sit there and go, "How dare they not say I won five Davis Cups?"
   Then they say I'm short-changing doubles. I'm the one guy that played doubles. That's the funny part. It's like, "McEnroe attacks doubles." No one gives a rat's ass (about doubles), and all of a sudden, I try to say, "Well, we've got to do something here."
   Q: What gives you more pride, being a singles player, doubles player, commentator or senior player?
   A: The combination is pretty good. I hate to say this -- this is going to ruin the story -- but singles. As much as I love doubles, I would go with singles. 

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