Monday, August 25, 2003

Loved or loathed, McEnroe demands everybody listen

By Jane McManus
The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

The U.S. Open wouldn't be complete without certain characters, none more so than John McEnroe.

During his Long Island childhood he was a ball boy at the Queens tournament, where he went on to become notorious.

McEnroe won four U.S. Open singles championships and four doubles titles. From 1977 to '92 he won 17 major titles and was either loved or loathed by the public. He was a racket thrower, a yeller who was disqualified from the fourth round of the '90 Australian Open for abusive language.

To supporters he was Bart Simpson with Tony Soprano's mouth. To detractors he was a pox on the game.

Either way, McEnroe drew fans to tennis and to the Davis Cup, which he played with passion. Two of his Davis Cup singles matches lasted more than six hours - one a win over Mats Wilander, the other a loss to rival Boris Becker.

He was married to actress Tatum O'Neal and is now with wife and former "Scandal" frontwoman Patti Smythe. Fatherhood - he has three children with O'Neal and two with Smythe - has given him a different perspective. His son Kevin joined him this summer on the bench at a World TeamTennis match.

Late in his playing days he made a guest appearance on the USA Network. He was so blunt and witty that he is now the highest-paid tennis commentator, holding long-term contracts with NBC, CBS, USA Network, the BBC and Australia's Channel 7.

With all the exposure, the 44-year-old has been reincarnated as a beloved curmudgeon. ABC even hired him to host the short-lived "The Chair" based on his broad appeal.

He holds strong opinions about the game he played so well, and he has no trouble speaking his mind. Here are a few of the issues he is most passionate about, in his own words and, in some cases, the words of those who know him best.

Issue: Why the U.S. Open is compelling without Pete Sampras.

• Background: Defending champion Sampras will officially retire Sunday night, and the Open will be without one of its most recognizable stars. McEnroe knows there need to be story lines to get the public involved, and there are plenty this year.

• He says: "It's fairly open and unpredictable, but at the same time there's three or four guys - Andre (Agassi) one, (Roger) Federer, (Juan Carlos) Ferrero and even (Andy) Roddick - that have a chance to be No. 1 at the end of the year. If Roddick, for example, who I think is the favorite going in and playing the best tennis, is able to pull it off and then goes on and wins the Masters, he has a shot at being the No. 1 player for the year, so that makes it exciting from that perspective. And Andre started off by winning the Australian, and obviously the other two winners were Ferrero and Federer, so I think from that standpoint the fact that all four of these guys have a chance to be No. 1 is good for the men's side."

Issue: Can Roddick beat Tim Henman?

• Background: Roddick is the favorite going into the Open with a 20-1 record on hardcourts. He has lost to one player all summer - Henman - and will face him in the first round.

• McEnroe says: "When you become one of the top guns and the favorite to win, suddenly you look at the draw and the last guy you lost to, there he is right in the first or second round just to test you, just to see if you can get over the hump. This is a typical thing that happens in tennis. It's not going to be handed to you. When you win your first major, like Roddick can do here at the Open, it's not going to be easy."

Issue: The famous McEnroe temper.

• Background: During his playing days, McEnroe was genuinely disliked by some for his venomous outbursts. Now he even riffs on himself with the title of his 2002 book, "You Cannot Be Serious." But that old anger is still there. "I'm so sick of how ... lame you are!" was his dead-serious remark to a chair umpire during a World TeamTennis match this summer.

• He says: "It's sort of become part of the act when I play now. It's disappointing if people don't see it on some level. So I get sort of my cake and eat it too because I still do get angry when things aren't going too well."

• They say: "He's just very competitive, but it's not that tough to get under his skin," brother Patrick McEnroe said. "He definitely gets annoyed. We've seen (at World TeamTennis) more is he's having fun with it. People want to see him argue with the referee but more with a wink."

Issue: Martina Navratilova's comeback.

• Background: In their careers, McEnroe and Navratilova didn't have a lot of fans on their side. That has changed over the years, and Navratilova, 46, recently won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon.

• He says: "I take it as a compliment. People root for the underdog, so we had to be doing something right. But they also appreciate people that love the sport, I think. You can see Martina loves to play, so she's sort of inspirational from that point of view. She keeps herself in great shape, and that's got to be motivating for people to see how hard she works after what she's done. I don't play as much as she does but I enjoyed playing the senior's tour and competing hard and it's a similar type of thing. Slightly different agendas, but it's still nice to be out there."

• They say: "I love watching John play," Navratilova said. "He always does something on the court you haven't seen before, with the tennis ball of course, and he always does a lot of things in between points. I think he's the most creative person who has played the game."

Issue: The equipment arms race.

• Background: McEnroe, a 165-pound lefty, played with a wooden racket and recently petitioned the International Tennis Federation to consider toning down the technical changes titanium and graphite have brought to the game.

• He says: "Ever since these rackets became more powerful the serve has become a bigger and bigger part of the game to the point where people around the sport, including some of the players - it's difficult for players to get in the mix, which is unfortunate but I understand it because they're at the top of their game so they don't want to change anything - but I still think the sport has lost something - some subtlety, some strategy, some of the nuance of the game. Most of the top players would still be great players if they played with wood rackets. ... In baseball kids go though their Little Leagues using graphite bats and when they make the majors they use wood bats."

Issue: Why he doesn't play mixed doubles.

• Background: It used to be a joke: What's the best doubles team in the world? John McEnroe and whoever he's playing with. Still, as good as he was, McEnroe rarely played mixed doubles.

• He says: "I started playing mixed. The first tournament I ever played I won, the French, and then it became personal. I was with my girlfriend with mixed doubles and it was way too much to try to deal with that on the court. The way to win mixed doubles is sort of go after the woman. I had enough of that with the men playing singles and doubles. That wasn't something I felt like doing. ... I played with Steffi (Graf) the one time in '99 (at Wimbledon) and we were in the semis - I think we were going to win the whole thing - and then she defaulted. So that put a sour taste in my mouth, too."

Issue: Tennis bad boy to cuddly commentator.

• Background: Even people who didn't care for his on-court antics like to hear McEnroe talk about tennis because he is so vivid. He can discuss the issues, criticize the USTA, get mad, challenge a line call and then, at the end, he can still turn into a teddy bear.

• He says: McEnroe, after the Wimbledon championship presentation to Federer on Centre Court: "I feel like I'm about to cry. It's so emotional right now. It's beautiful to see Roger so happy."

• They say: "Things occur to John and there's not a lot of editing," fellow commentator and old friend Mary Carillo said. "His synapses fire as soon as he thinks of something. It's pretty much in his head and out past his teeth into the ozone before he's really had a chance to think about whether it should go out there like that. It's very entertaining, often startling in fact. He's lively. He's got opinions and he's not afraid to say them."

Issue: His role as an elder statesman.

• Background: McEnroe once posited a special position to unite all the disparate groups in tennis - the WTA, USTA, ATP, ITF, et al. - with himself at its head. It didn't get far, but he continues to drum up interest in the game.

• He says: "It's nice to serve as ambassador to the game. I think I've been around a long time and I feel that people know I care about the game, and I certainly have knowledge about the game or I wouldn't have been able to win as much as I did. And I've been able to sort of get on the other side of the camera to see how I can hopefully add a little something if possible there. It's nice."

• They say: "He's on television all the time, and as an announcer he can tell people his feelings more, so people feel like they know him," Billie Jean King said. "Everyone is much nicer to old people."

Issue: On the men's senior tour.

• Background: McEnroe was a regular at the New York stop on the men's senior tour, which no longer exists in the United States. McEnroe has long been an advocate of competitive senior singles at the Grand Slam events.

• He says: "There's always hope. Times are tough, 9-11 happened and there was supposed to be a (senior tour) event in New York. ... I don't know if I'll still be around when (it comes back to the United States) but I think the seniors thing is a good addition to events. I think there should be singles at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon I think it could be utilized in a positive way."

Issue: The Davis Cup fiasco

• Background: At the U.S. Open in '99 McEnroe was named Davis Cup captain and lobbied on the air to get Sampras and Agassi back on the team. A year later he was so frustrated that he quit. For someone who had been so vocal about the event, his short tenure as captain was disappointing to many observers.

• He says: "I have some regrets, I don't have a lot of regrets. I have regrets that the Davis Cup isn't taken more seriously in general and that three years later very little if any change has been made for something that meant so much to me. It's a great thing to be able to represent your country. It's disappointing to see the lack of interest, not just from the players and not all of the players, but just generally there doesn't seem to be a priority in the sport."

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