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Called ‘McEnroe’ at Alabama, tennis-lover Mac Jones is ready for NFL
He'll be one of the first quarterbacks selected on Thursday night, and he sees a strong connection between the sport he grew up with and the one he currently plays.
Published Apr 29, 2021
Editor's Note: With the No. 15 pick, the New England Patriots selected Jones in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft Thursday evening.
Today marks the first day of the NFL draft, an extravaganza of springtime optimism when football teams aim high and hope even higher. As incoming pros don their new team hats and fans witness promising new connections between athlete and city, one expects to hear many draft picks cite the influence of such legends such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
But it’s surprising to hear one surefire early pick reveal an affinity for Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic—and then describe how one of his football coaches invoked John McEnroe as a behavior modification tool.
Mac Jones was the starting quarterback for the University of Alabama’s 2020 national championship team. But while football players frequently speak of their parallel passion for sports like baseball and basketball, Jones cites tennis as a major influence.
“If you’re a tennis player, you want to be a quarterback,” says Jones, who is projected to be selected as high as No. 3 in the draft, to the QB-needy San Francisco 49ers. “You’re touching the ball every play, you’re making all these decisions.”
Jones isn’t the only quarterback to have a significant tennis background. Recently retired New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees played junior tennis; at 11, he twice beat a high-energy nine-year-old, Andy Roddick. (Back in 2014, Roddick tweeted, “I finally beat him and he quit tennis. You’re welcome football.”)
Josh Rosen, the 10th-overall selection in the 2018 draft, was nationally ranked as a 12-year-old, competing in the ultra-competitive USTA Southern California section.
Jones’ connection to the sport stems from his upbringing, his family boasting a superb tennis pedigree. His father, Gordon, was an excellent college player who earned an ATP career-high singles ranking of 322 Jones’ sister, Sarah Jane, lettered at College of Charleston.
Mac played frequently from ages seven to 12, propelled most of all by a highly competitive nature and a grip-and-rip forehand the family dubbed “The Anaconda.”
“I love tennis,” says Jones, who then provides a frank self-assessment of his strokes today. “My forehand is very good, backhand not very good. Serve has gotten better.”
As the examples of quarterbacks Jones, Brees and Rosen demonstrate, there’s a distinct connection between tennis and a player’s desired spot on the gridiron. Jones also believes the footwork it takes to learn how to play tennis is a great asset when it comes to maneuvering around the pocket.
Those ideas are echoed by former Grand Slam doubles champion Luke Jensen, who in his childhood was groomed to be a quarterback well into his teens, before finally opting for a life in tennis.
“All those little steps, all those split-second adjustments the quarterback has to execute,” Jensen says, “are just like the movements a tennis player takes to get to the ball properly.”
The image of McEnroe surfaced soon after Jones arrived at Alabama. During practices, Jones would lose his temper.
“My coaches joked about it and started calling me ‘McEnroe,’” Jones says. “But I’ve become more calm. I didn’t think it was OK to make mistakes. But just like in tennis, you’ve got to go on to the next point. And in a team sport, your attitude affects your teammates. That’s different than when you play singles.”
While Monfils’ eclectic brand of athleticism appeals to Jones as both tennis player and viewer, when it comes to football, he’s far more self-contained. Such words as accuracy, discipline and consistency are used to describe Jones’ quarterbacking style. Less La Monf, more Nole.
“I’d say I’m a little bit like Djokovic—serious, locked-in, strategic,” Jones says. “I prepare really well. My goal is to get the ball to the person who’s most open. It’s very systematic, very much about the percentages.”
Who among current tennis players would be able to read modern-day defenses and execute a two-minute drill? Start at the top, according to Jones.
“Federer would be a great quarterback,” he says. “He does everything systematically and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He fits that quarterback mold, like Joe Montana.
“Nadal would be a bit more fiery, athletic, like a Mike Vick who could improvise plays—roll to the left and throw it 80 yards, like that wraparound forehand he hits that goes around the net.”
As for quarterbacks, Jones has two he thinks would be intriguing tennis players: the highly disciplined Brady and, for the love of shot-making, Brett Favre.
These days, Jones only plays tennis twice a year. But after his NFL career is over, he intends to get back into league play.
Before that, then, he’ll continue to ponder the similarities and contrasts between the two sports.
“Tennis is taxing,” he says, “But football is a contact sport. You can get knocked on your butt ten times in a row. But they’re both very mental.”