QUEENS, N.Y.— “It’s a chilly, metal-bright April afternoon, but the atmosphere inside the tennis facility is cozy. The high-tech lights create an ideal combination of bright and soft—a little like Centre Court at Wimbledon when its roof is closed.
Some of the kids racing around courts that stretch away into the distance in the cavernous hangar, merrily banging forehands and backhands, may one day get to play there. But most of them won’t, and that’s just fine with the man standing beside me. John McEnroe is thin as a credit card, even though his shoulders are wide enough to win the approval of Phil Jackson. He has military-short steel-dust hair, and now he addresses a kid playing on the court before us:
“If that had gone in, look where you were,” he admonishes. “Were you ready to spring back to the center of the court if that had gone in? It looked like you were just watching.”
The child nods and mutters some sort of apology, and the drill continues here at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which is housed at the Randall’s Island branch of Sportime NY multi-sport academy franchise.
I went out to visit with John just to see how things were going at his academy, to find out what his intentions were and how satisfied he is with the results so far. It is, after all, hard times for American tennis. And many people either hoped or assumed that in starting his academy, McEnroe would set himself to the task of finding and shaping the next . . John McEnroe.
That assumption, while arrived at logically, isn’t entirely accurate. Baby Boomers who tend to think of McEnroe first and foremost as the driven, combative, often angry champion might be surprised to learn he is the last person to claim possession of some magic bullet to cure America’s tennis ills. In fact, he’s become something of a lone voice in the wilderness, calling for parents and tennis coaches to retain some kind of perspective—to resist the temptation to run their kids into the ground in pursuit of athletic glory.
When you look at how much older some of the most prolific ATP champion now are—they include Roger Federer, David Ferrer, and Tommy Haas—you might be tempted to give a little more thought to McEnroe’s point of view.
“Roger Federer came out of some nice Swiss country club, he was pretty well off I think,” McEnroe had told me, while we sat upstairs in his office. “(Rafael) Nadal isn’t from some normal tennis thing, but an island resort. (Novak) Djokovic—okay, he had to leave Serbia because of the war. That must have toughened him up. But I didn’t particularly come from tough circumstances myself. That’s pretty good variety right there, and it just goes to show that you can get a great player out of almost any environment.
“I don’t know what Nick Bollettieri had, because at the time I pretty much thought it was bull****. But he certainly did something that worked. So you gotta give him credit. For us, it was Harry Hopman (the guiding light of the Port Washington Tennis Academy, at which McEnroe trained). He really inspired us. I’d like to inspire some kid that way—inspire him to have that hunger, because in the end this (success in tennis) is all about effort and will.”
To “inspire.” It’s different from “develop.” Or even, “train.”
It’s a novel idea, but appreciating the difference makes it easier to understand what McEnroe is trying to achieve, as well as his resistance to becoming a tennis factory.
“I want to be a platform for sending kids off to a good college, and for giving them a good overall tennis experience. I still recommend that they play other sports, even some of these kids that are already just playing tennis here. I don’t think that’s the right thing, even though they’re good athletes. I just think it’s better for them overall—as a person—at least for a while, even if eventually they have to start playing just tennis.”
McEnroe paused, then added, “Of course, I would like to be part of getting a great player, I can’t deny that. And I still believe I would be better off inspiring a kid than some other people that are out there.”
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Article written by Peter Bodo – Tennis.com.