Tennis players change. They adopt media-friendly smiles and work on their backhands. They get married and run summer camps. They calm down. One guy, however, remains unapologetically the same: John McEnroe. He's still feisty, still outspoken and still as braggadocios as ever. Holding court at a Delta Airlines event commemorating great moments at Madison Square Garden, McEnroe explains his most searing Garden memory: It's his first match in the arena and he's beating Jimmy Connors and feeling pretty damn good about it. Then Connors defaults to end it.
"Son of a bitch wouldn't even give me the satisfaction!" McEnroe barks, nailing the punchline, but also betraying the fact that he's still pissed.
In the lead up to his McEnroe Challenge for Charity, which takes place this weekend, and the BNP Paribas Showdown at MSG on Tuesday night, McEnroe spoke with MAXIM about how to develop the next great American star, why parity spoils the sport and giving up on the Knicks this year.
If you were the czar of American tennis, what would you do to develop the next great talent?
I'm biased, but I don’t think there’s any question that in a lot of people’s minds, including my own, that New York City is the best city in the world. So we have this ability to sort of change the way people think now, which is more along the lines of what my bother felt, which is, 'Everyone’s got to move to Florida when they’re 12 because you have access to 24/7 tennis and you live and breath it.' I think that there’s been studies done that disprove that. I think that’s unhealthy for a lot of kids.
So you want to see kids on courts in the city.
I look at a place like Harlem and other tough neighborhoods, where I’m assuming there’s a lot of great athletes that I’d like to try to be able to bring in and create a buzz and an energy that over time would bring that sort of cache back to playing. This is a long-term project. If you look at basketball 30 years ago, there were some tough times. Baseball’s not in the place it was. Football is bigger than ever. There’s nothing to say that it can’t turn around, but you’ve got to provide options; you’ve got to make the game cooler to people; you’ve got to try to make changes in order to excite kids. Tennis is a game that requires a lot of concentration and these days peoples’ attention span is less than it’s ever been.
So there’s a lot of great things about tennis, but there’s a lot of things that have to be confronted. You combine what we have already and then you’ve got to keep tinkering. We don’t do any of that.
Does tennis have to find a way to be cooler and more fun for kids?
II think it’s fun, but it’s tough when you’re out there by yourself. If you look at the average kid, he’s out there, he might be cocky, but deep down most kids are insecure in some ways—almost all of them. It’s hard not to be when you’re growing up trying to find your place in the world. So we have to provide some nurturing for these kids. You mentioned it being cooler. Absolutely. So somewhere down the line you have to get some of these kids that look at basketball and say, ‘Wow, I want to be like LeBron James.’ And maybe it would be cool to play tennis. We haven’t done a good job of having them look at this and say, ‘Look, this is something I want to do.’”
What exactly is tennis supposed to do to be cooler?
These other sports have a big advantage. Football, most high schools have it and the cost to a parent may be very little. Basketball’s the same thing. Tennis is different. That is a big problem.
You’ve trained Noah Rubin intimately in New York. He’s been a pet project of yours. It sounds like you don’t think he’s the next great American tennis star.
It’s difficult. He’s 5'9''. You’re talking about someone who’s going to have to play a style that’s a really hard way to make a living. You’ve got to be super fast and the will has to come up a couple levels. I think he has a chance to be a good professional, but when you’re talking about a top-10 player in the world, physically he doesn’t—it’s like a point guard that’s 5'7'', 5'8'', that’s the equivalent. It’d be pretty tough. We’ve got David Ferrer, who’s No. 5 or 6 in the world, who’s a great competitor. That should be his model, his idol. He could become a guy that people respect competitively, but he’s not going to intimidate you physically.
You’re a huge New York sports fan. The scene is pretty bad right now. What’s your take?
Fortunately, I'm a hockey fan. Deep down my favorite sport is basketball. Football’s been pretty rough. I’m sort of… fair weather would be the wrong way to put it, but I sort of head in the direction of whichever way something is more positive. And over the years I've know more hockey players personally.
Do you have a way to fix the Knicks?
Ah. I wish I had that way right now because this is pretty tough. I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams could’ve predicted this. This is pretty tough. This is pretty hard.
Do you hold Phil Jackson accountable?
I’m counting on the Zen Master, but right now he’s got to come up with some good moves.
We’re finally seeing the traditional top four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray get supplanted. Is this the beginning of parity and the end of their dominance?
Well, that’s inevitable. The key is that someone - this guy [Nick] Kyrgios from Australia, that’s the type of guy that we need to make that breakthrough - is in that mix. We’ve got guys that are sort of the one-offs or contenders, but they’re not the real champions, not the real memorable players. They’re not going to make that difference. We need in this sport someone that’s going to stand out.
That’s what I'm looking for. That’s what we need. And we haven’t had enough of that.