Q&A: John McEnroe Takes A Swing At Federer, Wozniacki, BNP Paribas Showdown And The Future Of Tennis
By Barry Janoff
March 2, 2012: Back in the day, they called him "The Brat" because of his on-court outbursts and shoot-from-the-hip attitude.
These days, John McEnroe, 53, remains at the forefront of tennis, promoting the sport, in particular among American youngsters, as a commentator on national telecasts and through his John McEnroe Tennis Academy, located at SporTime on Randall's Island in New York.
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, McEnroe spent 170 weeks ranked No. 1 in singles, was a four-time U.S. Open champion, a three-time winner at Wimbledon and amassed 77 career titles. He also claimed six career doubles titles at Grand Slam events and spent 270 weeks at No. 1.
On March 5, McEnroe will use his position as a major advocate for the sport at the BNP Paribas Showdown at New York's Madison Square Garden. That night, youth tennis will be featured during the Wilson 10 and Under Tennis demonstration. Following that, four of the world's top tennis players will take center court in two exhibition matches: Maria Sharapova vs. Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick.
The fifth annual BNP Paribas Showdown is also part of a larger national happening, “Tennis Night in America,” which began in 2009 as a means to raise awareness for and promote tennis among youngsters.
McEnroe, who played against Ivan Lendl in the 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown, is the national spokesperson for “Tennis Night in America," which is a partnership among the U.S. Tennis Assn. and BNP Paribas Showdown promoters StarGames and MSG Sports.
NYSportsJournalism.com spoke with McEnroe during a youth tennis clinic on Feb. 29 at Sportime.
NYSportsJournalism: Are more people in general, and specifically youngsters, becoming more interested in tennis because of the rivalry between No. 3 ranked Roger Federer and No. 2 ranked Rafael Nadal, and also the success of top-ranked Novak Djokovic?
John McEnroe: We need to do a better job of promoting that. A lot of kids [in the U.S.] aren't even aware of that. We have two of the greatest players ever [Federer and Nadal] playing right now and another player who has broken into the mix [Djokovic]. Some of the complaints, which we can understand, is 'Where is the next American guy?' The interest level is not the same as it would be if we had an American doing this.
NYSJ: Is there another sport that does this to its advantage?
JM: If you look at some of the other sports, basketball is a good example, where you have a lot of foreign players in the NBA. In baseball you see it quite a bit. So there is no reason why we don't have American [tennis players] winning Majors. To make people aware of what is happening. Because it is a good time [for the sport], particularly in men's tennis. Clearly what you see in other countries, in my opinion, is better athletes playing tennis. So we need to find some of those kids who have turned to other sports — football, hockey, soccer, basketball — and try to get them to look at tennis. Get them to say, 'Tennis is something I want to do.' And then, obviously, make it affordable for them.
NYSJ: Will the Summer Olympics in London this year help to drive awareness of tennis?
JM: Anything that we can do to take advantage of that would be helpful. [But] I don't really think that makes much of a difference for us. I still believe that the players feel the Major events — Wimbledon's, the U.S. Open's — are our biggest events. Clearly, everyone wants to win an Olympic gold medal. That's another situation where we haven't done enough to make people aware that it can be an avenue into tennis. That's a whole other conversation. It doesn't work as well for us as it does with other sports. It's a tricky one to figure out.
NYSJ: What do you anticipate from Reger Federer this year?
JM: It's not getting any easier for him. He has lost the aura [he used to have]. He has worked hard at [tennis]. He has been a perennial Top Ten, a 16-time Grand Slam winner. But you can see that the game has become incredibly athletic, the power game not quite as debilitating as it once was, perhaps, so that the other players have gotten on to him.
NYSJ: Can Federer move up or is he, at this point in his career, working to keep from moving down?
JM: It's going to be difficult for him to move up in the rankings. I would think he would curtail his schedule this year, focus on winning the Grand Slams. He has to pick his spots more. He and his wife [Mirka] have [two-and-a-half-year-old] twin girls, so there are other things on which he is focusing. So if he doesn't play as much, that usually precludes you from getting the points you need to move up in the rankings. Even staying at No. 3 would be impressive because [No. 4 ranked] Andy Murray wants to move up. I suspect [Federer] will continue to be the threat we know he can be. But obviously, at this point, and he won't admit this, but if he gets one or two more Grand Slam titles he would be pretty darn happy.
NYSJ: What do you expect from him at the BNP Paribas Showdown?
JM: When he plays Andy Roddick, he has to bring his 'A+' game. The good news is that indoors, if he gets hot, he still has one of the biggest serves that I have ever seen. I see that he is consciously trying to be more aggressive with his forehand, in particular. And I would assume that the crowd may be behind him, knowing that he is an underdog at this stage [in his career]. But, to me, Roger is the most beautiful player I've ever seen. And he likes to rise to the occasion and show what he has. It's going to be tough.
NYSJ: Regarding Caroline Wozniacki, she dropped to No. 4 in the world following her loss in the Australian Open after having been No. 1 for most of the previous 67 weeks. Is she motivated and skilled enough to regain the No. 1 ranking and win a Grand Slam?
JM: I've heard someone say this before, and I think it was accurate, that now that she's not ranked No. 1, she can take a step back to work on her game. It makes sense. She definitely felt the pressure and wasn't performing as well as perhaps we had expected her to or thought she was going to. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that she has been consistent and that she was there for most of the time. The gap is very close among the top women's players. There is a fine line. But I don't think anyone in the women's game doesn't feel that if Serena Williams (currently ranked No. 11] or Kim Clijsters [currently ranked No. 35] played a full schedule that they would be ranked No. 1 and No. 2. And Venus Williams would be Top Ten. Maria Sharapova (ranked No. 2 behind Victoria Azarenka) has gotten back to where we expected her to be.
NYSJ: Wozniacki is still looking for her first Grand Slam win. What is the outlook for her this year in the remaining three Grand Slam events?
JM: She was in [the 2009 U.S. Open] Grand Slam finals. She has been successful. So it's not like she has fallen off. Honestly, I don't believe that anyone ever said that Wozniacki is a better player than Serena Williams. I never did. And I'm pretty sure that [Wozniacki] didn't feel that way. The WTA [Women's Tennis Assn.] needs players to play. So in certain ways they are thankful that Wozniacki plays as many tournaments as she does. So she should be given credit for trying to drive the Tour. She's a very nice girl. She's a pretty girl. She does a lot of good things. But the focus is on the negative. Perhaps she has gotten too much criticism.
NYSJ: How important has Madison Square Garden been to you?
JM: I played there [against Ivan Lendl in the 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown]. I'm available [again]. That was, for me, something I never thought was going to happen again. It had been 15 years since I'd played there. Anyone who knows me at all, and is from this area, knows that I go to the Garden quite often. I've been going there since I was eight. I was there last night [for the Van Halen concert]. I love going there, whether it's to see a concert, tennis, the Rangers . . . I'm a long-time Knicks fan. I was lucky because when I was coming up [though the tennis ranks], our major year-end event, the [Grand Prix] Masters, was at the Garden. It was a big mistake by our sport to let it leave. It was a great for me, certainly at my age, that I had the opportunity to play at the Garden again [in 2011] in front of 17,000 people. Unfortunately, I sprained by ankle two hours before I went on the court. But I gave it a go.
NYSJ: What do you think about the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will be the new home of the NBA's Nets but also plans to have tennis events after it opens in September?
JM: I grew up in Douglaston, Queens. Queens guys and Brooklyn guys usually don't mix that well! [Laughs.] But it's good because, potentially, it could make [the tennis scene in New York] a lot better. When I was growing up, the Nets and Dr. J [Julius Erving] were playing at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders played there. So for me, it was not that much farther away than coming into [Manhattan] to go to the Garden. So when you have the type of proximity [Barclays Center] will have, and you have that natural rivalry that takes place between Manhattan and Brooklyn, I'm thinking that can only help drive interest in tennis as well as basketball.
"My goal is to have kids thinking that tennis is cool. Certainly, everyone could do more. But when you get into specifics, it's easier said than done."
NYSJ: What are the biggest challenges in trying to get more kids in the U.S. to become aware of and to play tennis?
JM: We're still trying to figure it out. It's going to be an on-going effort for many years. We're trying to get as many kids as possible to play the sport. A lot of people are trying to think out of the box. The game has been inaccessible and not affordable for many of them, so it's good when you see kids getting the opportunity to play. The more we can do this now, the better chance we'll have at success in the future - getting kids to think they want to play tennis before the think [about playing] some other sports. If we can get kids to think of tennis the way they think of basketball, to try to become the next Michael Jordan but in tennis. My goal is to have kids thinking that tennis is cool. Certainly, everyone could do more. But when you get into specifics, it's easier said than done.
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