McEnroe's tenure one to remember
Patrick McEnroe is in Colombia this weekend, trying to ensure that his young team keeps the United States from falling out of the Davis Cup World Group and into the regional zones. It will be the last time he sits in the captain’s chair.
McEnroe announced during the U.S. Open that he would be stepping down from the longest stint of any U.S. Davis Cup captain in the competition’s 110-year history to concentrate on his main job as Director of Player Development for the USTA, his secondary job as frequent announcer for ESPN and his family job of helping to look after three young children.
The professional pride McEnroe will take with him into Davis Cup retirement is obvious. After a gap of 12 years, he led the U.S. to its 32nd Cup triumph when they beat Russia in Portland, Oregon in 2007.
But there is personal pride, too, one that he won’t brag about in public. Having decided to take the plunge and try to make a career in the same line of business as his infamous and hugely successful older brother, Patrick ended up doing something in tennis better than John. He actually took over from his brother in 2000 after the former world No. 1 had discovered that getting players with inferior skills to himself to raise their game and commitment to the levels he demanded was not what he did best.
Although a perfectly good player in his own right — Patrick rose to No. 25 in the world and reached the Australian Open semifinal in 1991 — the younger brother was blessed with a calmer, less fractious disposition and that allowed him to deal with the two stages of his captaincy.
The first, in the early years, was to coax Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi back into the Davis Cup fold and learn how to deal with superstar egos. But, being as astute as he is, McEnroe soon decided that trying to wring the last vestiges of interest and ability out of ageing athletes offered a limited short-term gain.
So he created his own era by identifying a new group of American players in Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish, moulded them with the already established doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan, and set about building for the future.
“I saw him grow from a rookie captain into a great Davis Cup captain,” said Fish on hearing of his retirement. “He was always straightforward — sometimes brutally straightforward as far as where I stood and I also respected that.”
Tony Trabert, one of the great Davis Cup players and captains from a previous era who had John on his team, gives the younger McEnroe credit for making a tough decision.
“He was smart,” Trabert told me. “He realized he wasn’t going to have Sampras and Agassi around for long and so he went with the young guys. They liked each other; were loyal to each other and were loyal to Patrick. And eventually it paid off.”
Loyalty and friendship were the hallmark of the Patrick McEnroe years. He made a brave decision in going for a bunch of greenhorns but he was lucky in that their personalities gelled and bred a real camaraderie that took them through the dire moments, like trying to win in cold autumnal weather against France on clay at Roland Garros or the searing heat of a bull ring in Seville.
That luck ran out when Spain began producing an army of clay-court specialists — led, of course by Rafael Nadal, who proved virtually invincible on their own red soil.
Now, in Colombia, McEnroe has laid down a marker for the future by resting the Bryans and adding the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison to the team. He believes that his new top two — Sam Querrey and John Isner — are good enough to maintain their World Group status and that building for the future is, once again, the right thing to do.
The chances are that either Jim Courier or Todd Martin will succeed him, but Patrick’s job, of course, is not over. From the USTA headquarters at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, McEnroe will be busy seeing to it that his successor has a proper stream of talent to draw from as the United States tries to maintain its position as the most successful Davis Cup nation of all time.