Tennis his way: John McEnroe starts academy

John McEnroe wants a hand in reviving American tennis. He wants

to do it his way.

Neither of these statements should come as a surprise to anyone

who has followed McEnroe’s career over the last four decades –

either on the court or in ”retirement,” where he has remained

every bit as fiery and unapologetic behind a microphone as he is

with a tennis racquet in hand.

The day after the U.S. Open ends, McEnroe’s new journey will

begin in full – a journey with the ultimate goal of making sure the

headline that appeared this summer is never seen again: ”No

American in top 10 for first time since rankings began in

1973.”

On Sept. 13, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy will officially

welcome its first class at the revamped, 20-court, $18-million

tennis complex on Randall’s Island – a strip of land between

Manhattan and Queens that also houses Icahn Stadium, where Usain

Bolt set his first world record.

It’s not particularly easy to get to. Then again, almost

anything worth doing in New York – McEnroe’s hometown and the

center of the tennis universe during the U.S. Open – involves some

sacrifice. And besides, nothing about Johnny Mac’s journey back

into the languishing grass roots of his sport has been simple.

”Hopefully, I can jolt things and get things going here

again,” McEnroe said of his goal to revive tennis in New York and,

by extension, in the United States. ”Hopefully I can be a regular

presence and hopefully Patrick and the USTA will support what I’m

doing.”

”Patrick” would be his youngest brother, the longtime Davis

Cup captain who the U.S. Tennis Association hired two years ago to

run an elite player development program that gets mixed reviews

from tennis insiders. The McEnroes have similar goals, but

different ideas of how to get there.

While Patrick McEnroe and the USTA enjoy the luxury of what his

brother calls ”unlimited money” – about $15 million a year for

the development program – money that is sometimes used to filch

players from the for-profit tennis academies, John McEnroe is

starting from scratch. He’s hoping to revive the youth tennis scene

in New York and prove that, yes, it’s still possible to build

champions without sending them away to tennis camp and taking them

out of their normal lives.

For a tennis prodigy, McEnroe enjoyed a relatively normal

childhood. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, was schooled at

Trinity on the Upper West Side, took tennis lessons at Port

Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island under coach Harry Hopman –

who never made tennis larger than life – then spent a year at

Stanford before going pro full-time.

Now, he is putting his own time, his own money and bringing in

the middle McEnroe brother – Mark, the lawyer – to an effort he

hopes will produce plenty of college players, a handful of pros and

maybe, just maybe, the next American tennis champion.

”That’s our bet,” Mark McEnroe said. ”John thinks it’s

realistic that we can find a top-10 player.”

The odd relationship between John and Patrick has been

described, in some parts of the tennis world, as a rift. The

brothers, seven years apart, say family is more important than

tennis, but are on record as not always seeing eye to eye.

And indeed, there are differences. Most notably:

– John thinks it’s possible to become a great tennis player the

way he did it back in the day – by making the sport part of a

typical American childhood that includes living at home, going to a

school nearby, a few soccer games and friends. Patrick believes in

more repetition and full-time commitment, the likes of which you

see at the many academies-slash-boarding schools in Florida, Texas

and California.

– John has a long, well-known history of wanting to team up with

the USTA to put his name behind a development program. Patrick has

questions about how long John could stick with the bureaucracy that

comes with the USTA.

”There’s probably some skepticism on Patrick’s part, as we all

have, is John really going to do this?” Mark McEnroe said. ”John

wanted to do something like he’s doing here at the USTA and that

wasn’t available.”

What John and Patrick can agree on is the pain they feel when

they watch the sport they grew up in, starred in and made careers

out of, get relegated to page 4 in the sports section on good days

and completely out of the American consciousness for much of the

time.

”Alarm bells have been going off for a while, but there’s been

enough success that it hasn’t been a cacophony of noises,” John

McEnroe says, crediting the Williams sisters – who also didn’t

attend tennis academies and are known for taking long breaks from

tennis – with the lion’s share of American success over the past

decade. ”Clearly, there’s a lot more that needs to be done and

there’s a great level of concern.”

The concern is even greater during weeks like these, when, for

instance, Nike holds a publicity function featuring its top stars

and it trots out Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova –

but only one active American, Serena Williams, who is out of this

year’s tournament because of an injury.

It grows when Andy Roddick, who moved back as the only American

in the top 10 after his brief drop to No. 12, finds virtually no

company around him. Sam Querry is at No. 22. Mardy Fish just moved

up 15 spots to get to No. 21. John Isner is at No. 20 after moving

up 35 spots from this time last year, but still needs a

breakthrough to be known for more than his famous 70-68 fifth-set

win at Wimbledon earlier this year.

And it grows when Gilad Bloom, the former touring pro who will

run the day-to-day teaching operation at McEnroe’s academy, points

out startling stats such as these: In 1980, there were 41 American

men ranked in the world’s top 100. By 1996, that number had dropped

to 13. Today, it’s seven.

”It’s not an aberration. It’s a pattern. And the pattern is

very clear,” Bloom said.

McEnroe knows he can’t arrest this slide all by himself. All he

can hope is that his name – and the spark and fire it conjures –

might inspire some young, athletic kid to pick up a tennis racquet

instead of a basketball or football.

”The long-term project is, what would tennis look like if we

had a Michael Jordan or a Terrell Owens or someone else like that

get steered toward tennis when they were a kid?” Mark McEnroe

said.

In the short term, John McEnroe and the company he’s in

partnership with, Sportime New York, are teaming with Nike to fund

scholarships for the academy. While USTA programs are run on that

so-called ”unlimited money” that McEnroe rails about, most

players at his academy pay tuition bills – ranging from $3,600 to

$4,800 for 34 weeks of two-hour lessons – that help pay the bills.

In the long-term, McEnroe is hoping for greater contributions from

Nike or other corporate sponsors.

Among the promising students at McEnroe’s academy is Alex

Kovacevic, ranked 11th in the 12-and-under division in the East. He

followed Bloom from his old school in the Bronx to Randall’s

Island. His parents don’t want to put him in a full-time academy

down in Florida or Texas.

”We want him to do the school thing,” said his mother, Millie.

”We want him to still play soccer, though he’ll probably do that

less seriously as time goes on.”

Bloom has big plans for Alex – the kid they call ”Little

Federer” because of his smooth footwork and whippy topspin

groundstrokes. He’d also like to get Alex’s younger sister signed

up.

John McEnroe will not be feeding balls to the kids. But it’s his

vision, even if it’s not the exact same as the one his brother and

the USTA have.

”It’s awesome for tennis,” Patrick McEnroe says. ”We’re both

from New York. We both have tremendous pride in American tennis,

but also a desire to help tennis in New York. I certainly see it as

a total bonus that John has thrown himself into it. It’s a total

win-win.”