Looking For John McEnroe

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

It's tough enough these days to produce a tennis professional, even if you're willing and able to turn your child over to competent professional coaches and trainers and leave the developmental work in their hands. So imagine how much harder it is if you're bent on bucking the system because your child wants to play a certain way and has a feel for a different kind of tennis than is the norm.

Or if you think that those proclivities in your child could be ruined if she ended up in the wrong hands.

That question recently led me to drive out to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the SPORTIME facility on Randall's Island, just across the East river from Manhattan. I came to have a look at Ingrid Neel, a 13-year-old from Rochester, Minn. (where, as a seventh grader, Ingrid played second and/or third singles on the boys' team that won the state championships last year). 

Many years ago, I had some fun times traipsing around the Pennsylvania mountains with Ingrid's uncle, Carlton Neel (brother to her dad, Bryan), and through him I eventually met the tennis-mad Neels, as well as Ingrid's coach, Brian Christensen. What struck me at that first meeting was young Ingrid's poise (she was all of 10 at the time) and her precocious grasp of the game. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that she liked to come to the net and planned to be an attacking player who won with her volley, or a serve-and-volley combination.

All other issues aside, that already told me that Ingrid was blessed with fine mind of the game. For even the most talented of youngsters mainly like to just run around and whack the ball, allowing whatever style they'll play emerge from experience.

Given that Ingrid's mom, Hildy, grew up a big John McEnroe fan on on Long Island, and had a long-standing friendship with SPORTIME managing partner Claude Okin (who is partners with McEnroe at the academy), it was inevitable that Ingrid would visit and perhaps even choose to train at McEnroe's facility. Here's an excellent backgrounder on that first meeting between McEnroe and Ingrid, including details from Ingrid's junior resume (you can see at the Tennis Recruiting Network that Ingrid is ranked No. 13 among potential college tennis recruits for the year 2016). 

That visit with McEnroe transpired about 10 months ago, since which time Ingrid has played relatively little competitive tennis because of a lingering back injury that she's carried for nearly a year now (she fell on her tailbone while doing a one-legged hopping drill for another game she likes, hockey). But she was back in New York over the New Year's holiday, partly because the Neels have to make a big decision fairly soon. Ingrid needs a level and diversity of competition that she can't get in Minnesota, and both New York and Bradenton, Fla. (the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy) are on the short list.

Ingrid also needs someone, her parents feel, who understands her game and ambitions.

As Hildy Neel told me, "She doesn't hit topspin like all the other kids. She hits flat. More like (Jimmy) Connors. They all say, 'Yeah, but that's low percentage, and I tell them, 'I know it is, but she can do it. Just like Connors was able to do it.'"

The Neels face an interesting problem. The tendency these days is to promote and teach the all-court game, with a solid foundation in the uses of spin. Adamant about preserving Ingrid's flat, aggressive style (she even hits both serves flat, and has tickled the gun at 90 MPH), the Neels are putting a lot of emphasis on how coaches perceive her game—a game that has been facilitated for years now by Christensen.  

According to Hildy, Christensen's least favorite drill is two players hitting volleys to each other, because the whole point of the volley is to jump on it and crush the putaway. And she claims that Christensen never told Hildy to take a step back on a tennis court. "Even if she's pulled up to no man's land, she'll stay there. She'd rather hit the volley, or take the ball out of the air, than move back." 

Chirstensen, too, admired McEnroe. The tricky part is that there hasn't been a single player on either tour who has played anything like McEnroe in a long, long time. And, in another tribute to the mind of little Ingrid Neel, her description of what it was like to hit with McEnroe is not just perceptive, it's original. Someone may have said something similar at some point, but I wasn't aware of it.

"It's like he hides the ball," Ingrid said. "You don't even see it because it's behind him when he turns to hit it. And then he doesn't hit it until the very last second, so you really never have any idea of where it's going to go."

The Neels have flirted with the USTA, but believe that its basic training template is too defensive. Ironically, the general manager of the USTA's Player Development program is that other McEnroe, Patrick. And he worked very closely with Jose Higueras, his director of men's tennis, to develop a philosophy geared toward success in today's game.

"Ingrid takes the ball on the rise," Hildy told me, "But the USTA method would have her back up. But there's no back-up in her."

Pat McEnroe disputes this assertion. He told me that Ingrid is certainly on the USTA's radar, and the organization would be happy to help her if the coaches and Ingrid's parents felt it was the right move. "What we teach is smart tennis—to play offense at the right time and defense at the right time. Any player who's going to try to serve-and-volley his or her way to the top is preparing for a game that is not being played. Today, if you can't rally for 30 hits, you have no shot—no shot—at making it."

Here's another irony: The Neels feel that thus far, the coach whose shown the best grasp of Ingrid's game and nature is the coach who took baseline tennis to new heights through protégés like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, Nick Bollettieri.

The venerable but ever exuberant coach is 80 now, but still very sharp. He has always liked what he sees in Ingrid—with one caveat. "The girl is a brilliant, brilliant, thinker on the court. There's no defensiveness in her, but she is small (presently, 5-feet tall, and an even 100 pounds). To make it with that kind of game and her kind of size these days, she has to be the exception to the exception to the exception."

Still, Bollettieri would pull out all the stops and welcome her to the academy as a scholarship student in a heartbeat. However, the Neels are committed to keeping the family intact; wherever they go, it will be as a family of five (Ingrid has a brother, Harry, now 10, and a sister, Rafael, 3), and Bryan Neel will have to find work (he currently works as a financial planner with many of the physicians and staff at the Mayo Clinic). That reality militates against moving to New York, where the cost of living is so high.

"Nick really got the best out of Ingrid's game," Hildy said. "He sees her exactly as we do. She's going to come to the net, that's how she will do it—whatever she's destined to accomplish in tennis."

When I walked into SPORTIME to catch up with the Neels, Ingrid fairly leaped up from the table where she sat and ran over to say hi. A freckle-faced brunette with elastic features inherited from her mother, she's a delightful, aware kid who lugs a Prince racquet bag that stands almost as tall as she does, and is certainly wider. She flat-out hates school; when Christensen told her that she could almost surely get a scholarship to a fine college, she cried, "No, no, anything but college!"

Ingrid plays exclusively with older girls. On this occasion, she worked out with McEnroe's elite girls' (18-and-under) group, in which she was dwarfed by some of her companions. Hildy looked on with some skepticism as the youngsters rallied, and seemed to be thinking out loud when she said, "I know you have to be able to hit 50 balls the same way if you want to be a pro, but that's boring for Ingrid. Most kids do that 70 percent of the time. We do it 30 percent of the time and spend the other 70 percent doing something something fun. But now that may have to change a little."

It was obvious that Ingrid has great athleticism. She moves very well, and is light on her feet—something that's easier to be when you barely weigh more than a golden retriever. She looked less mechanical than some of the other youngsters on the court; her swing is free and loose and easy. Controlling it for the required number of swings or amount of time will be an interesting challenge as she moves forward.

But it's hard to tell very much of serious importance from watching drills and rallying; so much of a player's ultimate success—or lack thereof—is determined by mental and emotional factors. 

"There's that whole different side to it," Bryan Neel told me in a phone conversation. "Ultimately, tennis is a game, and all you have to do is beat the opponent across the net. I have a feeling Ingrid really has a great handle on that. Whatever else can be said about her, she's a gamer."

It's an interesting claim. Let's remember that for all of John McEnroe's genius, his greatest weapon was his mind, or perhaps his heart. Whatever it was that enabled him to pop up out of the junior ranks, where he wasn't ever hailed as a prodigy, to take tennis by storm. Nobody, but nobody, could have predicted the way McEnroe just exploded on the pro scene and never looked back. And it certainly didn't happen because of his technique, although it couldn't have happened without it, either.

That, more than anything, may be the best rationale for the way the Neels are going about things. They're really rolling the die, and why not? Many people will tell you that there can't be another McEnroe, much less a female one. To which the natural answer is, "There certainly won't be one coming from the ranks of those who believe that."

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