Mr. Deeds

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 /by
Photo by Adam Wolfthal
Photo by Adam Wolfthal

QUEENS, N.Y.—It’s a chilly, metal-bright April afternoon, but the atmosphere inside the tennis facility is cozy. The high-tech lights create an ideal combination of bright and soft—a little like Centre Court at Wimbledon when its roof is closed.

Some of the kids racing around courts that stretch away into the distance in the cavernous hangar, merrily banging forehands and backhands, may one day get to play there. But most of them won’t, and that’s just fine with the man standing beside me. John McEnroe is thin as a credit card, even though his shoulders are wide enough to win the approval of Phil Jackson. He has military-short steel-dust hair, and now he addresses a kid playing on the court before us: 

“If that had gone in, look where you were,” he admonishes. “Were you ready to spring back to the center of the court if that had gone in? It looked like you were just watching.”

The child nods and mutters some sort of apology, and the drill continues here at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which is housed at the Randall’s Island branch of Sportime NY multi-sport academy franchise.

I went out to visit with John just to see how things were going at his academy, to find out what his intentions were and how satisfied he is with the results so far. It is, after all, hard times for American tennis. And many people either hoped or assumed that in starting his academy, McEnroe would set himself to the task of finding and shaping the next . . John McEnroe.

That assumption, while arrived at logically, isn’t entirely accurate. Baby Boomers who tend to think of McEnroe first and foremost as the driven, combative, often angry champion might be surprised to learn he is the last person to claim possession of some magic bullet to cure America’s tennis ills. In fact, he’s become something of a lone voice in the wilderness, calling for parents and tennis coaches to retain some kind of perspective—to resist the temptation to run their kids into the ground in pursuit of athletic glory.

When you look at how much older some of the most prolific ATP champion now are—they include Roger Federer, David Ferrer, and Tommy Haas—you might be tempted to give a little more thought to McEnroe’s point of view.

“Roger Federer came out of some nice Swiss country club, he was pretty well off I think,” McEnroe had told me, while we sat upstairs in his office. “(Rafael) Nadal isn’t from some normal tennis thing, but an island resort. (Novak) Djokovic—okay, he had to leave Serbia because of the war. That must have toughened him up. But I didn’t particularly come from tough circumstances myself. That’s pretty good variety right there, and it just goes to show that you can get a great player out of almost any environment.

“I don’t know what Nick Bollettieri had, because at the time I pretty much thought it was bull****. But he certainly did something that worked. So you gotta give him credit. For us, it was Harry Hopman (the guiding light of the Port Washington Tennis Academy, at which McEnroe trained). He really inspired us. I’d like to inspire some kid that way—inspire him to have that hunger, because in the end this (success in tennis) is all about effort and will.”

To “inspire.” It’s different from “develop.” Or even, “train.”

It’s a novel idea, but appreciating the difference makes it easier to understand what McEnroe is trying to achieve, as well as his resistance to becoming a tennis factory.

“I want to be a platform for sending kids off to a good college, and for giving them a good overall tennis experience. I still recommend that they play other sports, even some of these kids that are already just playing tennis here. I don’t think that’s the right thing, even though they’re good athletes. I just think it’s better for them overall—as a person—at least for a while, even if eventually they have to start playing just tennis.”

McEnroe paused, then added, “Of course, I would like to be part of getting a great player, I can’t deny that. And I still believe I would be better off inspiring a kid than some other people that are out there.”

There’s that word again. It turns out that the man legendary for his perfectionism is also an idealist. And that’s some potent combination, as we well know.

So there’s McEnroe’s dilemma: In today’s environment, parents of 10- and 12-year-olds sit watching them practice, their noses pressed to the glass of their dreams, missing nothing. But one of the main reasons they were, dare I say it—inspired—to be there in the first place is the man running this show. And he puts a much higher premium on the quality of the experience, as well as the character-shaping and building aspects of the training and playing regiment, than some of the parents do.

It isn’t as if McEnroe neglects the building blocks of successful training, either. He’s assembled an outstanding staff, including Director of Tennis Lawrence Kleger, former ATP and WTA pros Fritz Buehning, Peter Fleming (McEnroe’s partner in many Grand Slam and Davis Cup conquests), Hana Smorova, and Martina Sucha.

McEnroe has plenty of talented kids at his academy. Noah Rubin and Jamie Loeb, both from the New York area, are respectively seeded No. 1 in the boys’ and girls’ 18s at the prestigious Easter Bowl tournament this week. Noah is a Top 20 ITF junior who just turned 17, but made the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open junior event. Loeb is in the U.S. Top 10 and made the finals of an ITF tournament last week in Carson, Calif. She’s going to the University of North Carolina next year.

Sound familiar? McEnroe himself had already been to the Wimbledon semifinals before he attended Stanford University for an academic career, cut short after a year by his outright genius for tennis.

“It gets tougher and tougher for the kids to keep their options open, even for college, because they play a lot more tournaments than they used to,” McEnroe said. “That means they’re afraid to miss out, to fall behind. They think they’re missing out if they’re not playing six, seven days a week, where I think they’re playing too much. They’re just kids. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen—they’re out there and the concern is that they might burn out. But the parents are up there, watching them.”

McEnroe is caught between a rock and a hard place. His success and ever burgeoning fame is like honey to parents with ambitions for their kids, but his philosophy doesn’t necessarily jive with their Tiger Mom mentality, or their fears that if they don’t embrace the system and all its demands, they’ll fall behind and ultimately fail.

There’s another, more parochial dimension to McEnroe’s efforts as well: He’s keenly aware that it’s been 30 years since New York produced an elite male player.

“My main job is running the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, but I would like to see a guy who started at this academy be number one, or high up in the pros. We had multiple pros out of the Port Washington Tennis Academy, and part of my effort is to try to figure out a way to get a buzz back into the sport in New York. This is where the U.S. Open is, it would be nice to feel like I was part of starting something that made tennis talked about and exciting again.”

One of McEnroe’s greatest challenges is wooing potential prospects away from basketball, baseball, and all the other A-list sports that captivate youth in New York’s urban environment. “At least if I could convince them that it’s okay to play tennis,” McEnroe said, sounding a little world weary. “That would be a start.”

But the world moves fast these days, and such choices and commitments are made at an increasingly early age. And tennis itself has very much become a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport—despite the current trend suggesting that an 18- or 19-year-old kid is really in over his head on the pro tour these days. He’s up against players who mature in their mid-to-late 20s, and have a combination of strength, self-knowledge, well-calibrated training, and experience that a youth lacks.

But it’s a hard sell, convincing some parents of that, when they hear the siren song of fate, or simply remember that McEnroe himself was, after all, a prodigy. Their kids are something else. In some cases, they are only vaguely aware of who McEnroe is, and what he’s accomplished. “Yeah, a lot of them have no idea,” McEnroe said, chuckling. “They see me and say, ‘Look, look—it’s the guy who was in Mr. Deeds! (a recent Adam Sandler movie in which McEnroe had a part).’”

That’s the way of youth, and it’s interesting that McEnroe—who sacrificed so much of his own on the altar of fame—has become one of the outstanding voices urging parents that kids ought to enjoy it while it lasts.

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