He can be -- he is -- serious. By opening the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the Sportime club on Randalls Island in September, the man who has described his tangential fits of anger as "about par for the course" during his playing days, wants to subject local kids to the kind of competitive development he experienced almost four decades ago at the Port Washington Tennis Academy.
That is, a nonresidential tennis hothouse with an inspirational leader, elite coaching, an emphasis on reasoned strategy -- all within a concept that there is life beyond the court.
There is an intriguing duality to this search, just as there is with McEnroe himself. Passionate about tennis, he nevertheless is convinced that the Port Washington template is preferable to the tennis boot-camp style of Nick Bollettieri, which "had I done -- and this is me; me -- I would have burnt out," McEnroe said. "I don't want to see kids burning out."
Also, for a man whose soul seemed to be brought to its knees each time he lost, he contends that "Teddy Roosevelt said it best: It's better to try and fail than not try at all. And so, if we can get into their heads that, by trying, they're winning on some level, I believe that to be true. It doesn't matter whether you win or lose -- until you lose, which is the other side of the coin."
McEnroe, now 52, of New York City, wants to be what Harry Hopman, the Hall of Fame mentor of Australian tennis greats, was to him and other future pros at Port Washington in the 1970s -- the personification of the students' possibilities. He wants top-notch coaches such as his Israeli-born tennis director Gilad Bloom, with 13 years' experience playing the pro tour, imparting the kind of tennis smarts McEnroe absorbed from Mexico's two-time major tournament doubles champion Tony Palafox.
Still intimately involved in the sport as a television commentator and celebrity masters player, McEnroe is motivated by the realization that "I don't know a single player from New York, since my brother Patrick, who's made it in the professional tour; that's more than 25 years ago. And, because I live in New York, and I'm biased, and because the U.S. Open is played in New York, I just think it's a shame we're not producing more, and it seems there's ways we could try to make more inroads."
He noted that, at one point this spring, for the first time since world rankings were introduced in the early 1970s, not a single American -- male or female -- was among the top 10, compared with the early '80s, when McEnroe was No. 1 and as many as four other U.S. men joined him in the top 10. "So this isn't getting any better," he said. "This is getting worse."
Looking out for prospects
With the sport more global than ever, and the American tennis boom of the 1970s long gone, there are no guarantees of another New York kid who will win seven Grand Slam tournaments, as McEnroe did.
Furthermore, "There aren't many people who became how great John was the way he did," said Mark McEnroe, the middle (and least visible) of three McEnroe brothers, who now serves as the academy's business manager. "But he firmly believes that six days a week, six hours a day is not the way to go. One of his core beliefs is that we can give people who live in this area a credible alternative to sending their kids to Florida, California or some situation where it's tennis first, second and last."
The theory at McEnroe's school is to take a young player who has demonstrated a level of skill and interest and subject him or her not only to the game's mechanics but also to options. (According to Mark McEnroe, fees for a school year can reach as high as $20,000, but the academy has granted a pair of full scholarships and another 25-to-40 players receive various amounts of financial assistance. Nike and Dunlop are corporate sponsors and the academy recently received tax-exempt, nonprofit status and hopes to raise up to a million dollars a year "and act like a Division I college," he said.)
Higher physical demands
John McEnroe, meanwhile, is involved with parents of academy members, regularly playing sets against some of the better prospects and discussing strategy with the kids -- how to play angles, use the entire court, vary shots.
Just the type of thing Palafox taught McEnroe long ago.
The father of six, John McEnroe argued against "focusing exclusively on one sport. I think it's unhealthy, not just in tennis, but a lot of sports. The physicality is such that you see kids, way too young, even lifting weights or doing off-court training, all types of craziness at unprecedented levels."
Again, he referenced his own experience -- taking up tennis at the relatively old age of 81/2, playing two years of high school basketball and four years of high school soccer, going away to college for a year, allowing him to "refresh" and "be like every other kid."
Tennis, he said, has "become more athletic than ever and it's become more physical. But that doesn't mean you have to live and breathe it from the time you're 7, 8 years old."
Inevitably, this search has its shortcomings. Yet McEnroe, a perfectionist doomed forever to deal with life's imperfections, appears to be enjoying it. "I do like it," he said. "I like it a lot. I do have to figure out a way so they can figure out what the hell I'm even talking about. Eventually, there'll be kids who actually listen to me. And understand."
After all, he did.