John McEnroe Sounds Off On Tennis
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 15, 2006

JOHN McENROE will take the court tonight at the SAP Open in San Jose in doubles, which is on life support in men’s tennis these days, to the detriment of the sport.

In the past, the top players played both singles and doubles, but McEnroe is the last superstar to play both. Very well, I might add. He has both 77 singles titles and 77 doubles titles, a combined ATP record that will never be broken.

McEnroe understands the reasons that top singles players don’t play doubles. That doesn’t mean he likes it.

“There’s so much money in singles play these days that their agents discourage them from playing doubles,” he said in a telephone interview. “There have been champions in recent years – Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick – who haven’t played doubles, so the kids coming up don’t see that.”

In fact, one of my endearing comic moments from tennis came from seeing Borg try to play doubles when he was on the Cleveland team in World Team Tennis. He didn’t have a clue.

In Australia, where they have a rich tradition of top doubles teams, fans still appreciate doubles play. “It was a given in Australia for so many years that guys coming up played both singles and doubles,” said Barry MacKay, who ran this tournament for so long and is now a consultant for it. “They appreciate doubles in England, too, at Wimbledon,” said McEnroe.

But elsewhere, doubles matches are usually late in the program. Tonight, McEnroe and Jonas Bjorkman, who has 42 doubles titles himself, will play Australians Wayne Arthurs and Stephen Huss in the second match, after the singles matchup between Lleyton Hewitt and Paul Goldstein. Hopefully, fans will stick around because of McEnroe’s name, but very often, they leave as soon as the singles match is over.

McEnroe thinks he’s benefited from playing doubles. “It sharpened my return of serve,” he said, “and it really helped me with my volleying. I think a guy like Andy Roddick could really be helped by playing doubles. Andy isn’t comfortable coming to the net, and this would help him with his volleying.”

Certainly, there are top players today capable of playing doubles. “I think Federer could do it,” said McEnroe. Federer’s game is much like McEnroe’s in its versatility.

McEnroe has already won five singles titles and eight doubles title in this event, which has often changed names in its various venues around the Bay Area, and he chose to play doubles in this tournament to try to help boost the popularity of the event. “Obviously, I have a history here, with this tournament and having played at Stanford,” he said.

In fact, McEnroe was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame last year, though his only direct connection with the Bay Area was his one year at Stanford.

Having watched him in both singles and doubles, I’d have a hard time saying which I enjoyed more. He has always been a special favorite of mine because of the subtlety he has brought to the game, with a variety of serves and his knowledge of angles. Not to mention what I consider his trademark shot: the little drop volley which hardly bounces after crossing the net.

IT ISN’T just the dropoff in doubles which concerns McEnroe. “I really fear that our sport is being marginalized, that it’s becoming a ‘niche’ sports like soccer,” he said. “The people in charge aren’t doing what they need to do to keep the sport popular.”

Four years ago, in a book on his career, he listed 10 changes he’d like to see in tennis. We didn’t go through all 10 in our conversation, but he mentioned three with which I totally agree:

--“The first thing I think tennis should do is hire the marketing people who work with NASCAR,” McEnroe said. “They’ve done a great job for their sport. The drivers are very friendly. They’re always out among the fans, signing autographs, talking to them, and they’re very cooperative with the media.”

There are tennis players who have been good with media and fans, including McEnroe. Agassi is a charmer, and he’s always been willing to go the extra mile to help a promoter with his tournament. Roddick is another who is very likeable and cooperative. But too many others act as if they can’t be bothered. Pete Sampras was a great champion but seriously personality-challenged, and Borg was no better.

--“I’ve been saying for 25 years that we need to cut down on the number of events and have a real off-season, not just for the players but for the fans,” McEnroe said. “The fans need a chance to regroup, too.”

Instead, tennis is going virtually year-round. This has also taken a toll on players. It’s commonplace to read about players dropping out of tournaments with injuries, as Andre Agassi did from the SAP Open this week. “The game is a lot tougher now,” McEnroe said, “because of the depth of the tour. There’s not a great deal of difference between a top 10 player and No. 150. What that means is that you play much tougher matches earlier in the tournament than you used to. There’s no time to coast.”

--The Davis Cup schedule should be revised. “It should be a no-brainer that you play for your country in the Davis Cup,” he said, “but there are so many matches, that there’s no way players can. Federer didn’t play for his country in the last go-round, Rafael Nadal didn’t play for his, though Andy did play for the U.S. team.

“Fans are confused, too. A lot of them didn’t even realize the Davis Cup was being played in San Diego last week.”

AS A PLAYER, McEnroe has always been controversial, hated by the traditionalists who watch matches, loved by people like me who like the noncomformists. We’re both Aquarians and even share a birthday – tomorrow.

MacKay loves to tell the story of the 1986 match with Kevin Curran in which McEnroe sat down, claiming injury. When the umpire asked what his injury was, McEnroe said, “Brain damage.” The umpire gave him to the count of 10 to get back on the court. McEnroe waited for the first nine counts before getting up. “I could see the tournament going down the drain,” said MacKay, who was behind the court working on the telecast of the event. As McEnroe passed MacKay, he winked and said, “Scared you, didn’t I?”

“There was never a dull moment with John,” MacKay says now.

With it all, though, McEnroe has always loved his sport, and now, he’s trying to do what he can to revive the old tradition of doubles. He can’t do that single-handed, but at least, I hope he adds another title to his collection this week.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later this week.

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