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
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
”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
– 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
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
”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
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
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