Tennis Talk: An Interview with John McEnroe
DELRAY BEACH, Fla.—Looking lean and relaxed—but still intense—John McEnroe took to the streets of Delray Beach on Feb. 18 with fellow Hall of Famer Mats Wilander, playing an exhibition super-tiebreaker while joking with the crowd and, of course, mixing in devious shots with beguiling topspin.
McEnroe, an art gallery owner, was presented with a custom-made sculpture by local artist Jeff Wyman prior to the match. The American spoke about the common connection between athlete and artist, in that both are striving for creative self-expression to connect with their audience.
These days, the audience McEnroe engages ranges from fans who see the 52-year-old play—and often beat—much-younger senior tour opponents to the juniors the seven-time Grand Slam champion coaches at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York City.
Many of McEnroe’s best assets as a player—his eye-hand coordination, reflexes, anticipation, quickness and court sense—are qualities not easily transferred from coach to pupil. Asked if these qualities are innate or can be taught, McEnroe replied: “That’s a great question. I’m not sure I have a great answer.”
“Some if it is innate, there’s no question about it,” McEnroe said. “Part of that is movement, but also your mental strength, tennis IQ and ability to think about where you need to be, strategize about the next shot, and flowing all that with your feet. One of my great rivals, Ivan Lendl, turned out to have a phenomenal career. But if you looked at him at first you wouldn’t say ‘Oh this guy moves like [Roger] Federer.’ He worked extremely hard to get himself to be this incredibly fit, almost machine-like player and turned out to be intimidating and quite successful. So I think to some degree you can teach that stuff.”
McEnroe and Lendl will renew their rivalry that produced 36 encounters between 1980 and 1992 (Lendl leads 21-15) at Madison Square Garden on Monday when they face off in the BNP Paribas Showdown. The pair will play before archrivals Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras square off.
Several of their most memorable matches took place in New York City: Lendl beat McEnroe in the 1982 U.S. Open semifinals and the ’82 Masters final, staged at MSG. McEnroe enacted a measure of revenge the following year, beating Lendl in the 1983 Masters final and again in the 1984 U.S. Open and Masters finals.
“Tickets have been selling well—better than any of the events we’ve done [at MSG] since Federer vs. Sampras—people are excited to see these rivalries again in Madison Square Garden,” StarGames CEO and event promoter Jerry Solomon said. “The fact these are intense rivalries and both really want to win gives the rivalry an edginess that tennis fans remember and respond to.”
We caught up with McEnroe for this interview prior to a clinic he conducted for long-time racquet manufacturer Dunlop in Boca Raton, Fla:
TENNIS.com: John, how do you feel about returning to Madison Square Garden and reviving the rivalry with Lendl?
John McEnroe: I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s big. We had a great tournament there [the year-end Masters] for many years and they bungled it up by having it move in the first place. Three years ago they had Federer play [Pete] Sampras and the idea was to hopefully start the process of getting tennis back at the Garden. I’ve been going there since I was 8 years old. I go there regularly. I love it. So for me it’s huge. I live nearby. Lendl didn’t play for 16 years. So he decided, for reasons I don’t know exactly, that he wanted to play some again. We played a couple of times since he came back.
TENNIS.com: You played him once in Paris, right?
McEnroe and Borg, before a 2008 exhibition match in Bangkok. (AP Photo)
McEnroe: Yes, once in Paris and we played in Australia last month. But obviously playing at the Garden is a much different thing. Anyone that knows anything about New York knows that it’s the place to play. I haven’t played there in 15 years. I played a Tim Gullikson charity event in ’97, I think?
TENNIS.com: I remember you played the Nike Cup there with Andre Agassi, Sampras and Jim Courier too?
McEnroe: Yes, that was a benefit. It was a long time ago so this is incredible.
TENNIS.com: Do you have any sense of Lendl’s level from playing him previously in recent months?
McEnroe: I know he’s going to be fanatical about trying to get as far back as he can. He’s a bigger guy than I am. He’s got a couple of inches [on me] and 20 pounds at least in weight; he’s lost a lot of weight. The irony to me was unlike the past, the longer the point went the better chance I had of winning it now. But he hits a big ball and we’re only playing an eight-game pro set, so that throws a little bit more luck to the equation. He hits the ball hard. He can still hit a great ball if he gets his racquet on it. Obviously, I’m better off if I can get him on the run and make him hit tough shots. So it’s going to be more trying to make him earn every point he gets—that’s the key.
TENNIS.com: When you renew these rivalries, does the passing of time filter the intensity and change it at all? Or is it a case of you’re always intense when you play?
McEnroe: Of course for your main rivals you’re going to get extra motivated for it, particularly if you haven’t played him for a long time. I never thought I’d have this chance to play him again so from that standpoint alone, it’s easy to get pumped up. Whenever I go on the court with Bjorn [Borg] it’s special and we’ve been doing it for a while. With Jimmy [Connors] it’s the same thing, and those are my three biggest rivals. It’s been a long period of time since we played so I don’t know what the future is going hold for Lendl and I; whether we will play another match or five or 10 or none, it is difficult to say.
TENNIS.com: There have been other players, like Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden, who played very high-level tennis into their 40s. You’re over 50 and competing and beating many younger players. Do you have a sense of trying to take senior tennis into a new territory, and does that motivate you?
McEnroe: I give credit to guys like Gonzalez. I mean, the guy was winning matches at Wimbledon at 42. This is a little different in that you go out there and play two sets and a tiebreaker, which is different. I do think when I get on a good routine and feel better, I learn more, I suppose, of what’s going to work. There’s definitely a satisfaction.
TENNIS.com: From an equipment perspective your game has always been predicated on quickness, movement, angles and finesse. How has equipment impacted your game?
McEnroe: To be honest, it shouldn’t have impacted it whatsoever. The mistake, if I made one, in the late 1980s, was thinking I needed to change my game. I think I would have been better off playing the way I played because I think it’s a style you don’t see much. It’s sort of playing within yourself and not trying to get out of your comfort zone. Obviously, when you’re playing a guy like Sampras or Boris Becker, two of the biggest hitters in the history of tennis, you felt like everyone was talking about the racquets and the power. Clearly, you’re talking about the difference in the Dunlop racquet I carry now has 30 to 40 percent more power.
I serve harder now, but the standard joke is I just have no idea where it’s going. There’s a sense you don’t see people playing with my grip or going to the net the way I did. One of the things I want to do with the players at my tennis academy, especially if they’re younger, is to try to encourage some to play more like that. You’ve got some kids taking these huge swings, and if they’re on a fast court they might whiff on every other ball. [Rafael] Nadal didn’t go out and start hitting balls over his head with this sort of whip-like forehand. I don’t believe anyone would be strong enough to do that at seven years old. So it remains to be seen what will transpire.
TENNIS.com: Talk about the wood racquets you were playing with.
McEnroe: When I was playing with wood, the racquet I used was 78 square inches and this Dunlop is 98 square inches, so the sweet spot’s bigger. I string a little tighter because it’s a bigger racquet. I just used gut—no polyester—which I think helps keep me healthy and prevent arm trouble.
I used to get two racquets a year. As you can imagine, they didn’t last me too long.