Photo by Powersharesseries / Rob Loud
When John McEnroe comes to the Siegel Center on April 23 with Jim Courier, James Blake and Andy Roddick for a one-night tournament as part of the 2015 PowerShares Series, it will mark the continuation of a legendary tennis career that has included a number of stops in Richmond. We talked with the 2014 PowerShares Series champ about Arthur Ashe, staying competitive in his 50s and the future of the sport he still loves.
Richmond magazine: You’ve played senior tennis pretty consistently since your retirement. What keeps you playing competitively?
McEnroe: One, it keeps me in shape; two, it gives me a better perspective for commentary work, as far as the feel of how the game’s been changing. … I don’t play the same way, obviously, as a lot of these guys, but I get a feel for the speed a little bit more, the technology. Also, in a way, I almost like it more than I did when I was trying to be the best. You appreciate it more.
RM: When you’re up against somebody like Roddick or Blake who’s a couple of decades younger than you, what’s your strategy?
McEnroe: One of the things the rackets allow you to do — I don’t place it as well, but I serve potentially harder than I did before. So if you’re still capable of hitting your spots … there’s a reasonable chance that you can hold [your serve] on a number of occasions, try to keep it close and hope you get lucky. … Look at how big Roddick serves — it’s not like I’m going to be breaking his serve a whole lot.
RM: You won against your old rival Ivan Lendl in Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. Does beating him still bring you as much joy as it did in the past?
McEnroe: It doesn’t bring me as much joy, but it does bring me joy. I will have to admit that. Not as much, but there’s a certain beauty to that, still.
RM: You played for Arthur Ashe on the Davis Cup team for a number of years. What was that partnership like?
McEnroe: We obviously were extremely different on the court. He was basically just chasing me around, trying to get me not to yell at umpires. There wasn’t a lot of coaching, per se, on the court. Those were the four years that I finished No. 1 in the world, so he sort of felt like, “Well, what do I need to tell him?” more or less. We had a much better relationship off the court, talking politics or life, and other things.
RM: How do you see the future of men’s tennis?
McEnroe: We have issues that have to be looked at in terms of the long-term interest in the sport. … It’s getting less viewed than ever. If you had told me in the ’80s that golf would have double the ratings of tennis, I would have laughed at you. And now we’re hoping to get somewhere near golf.
RM: Is the lack of highly ranked American players feeding into that?
McEnroe: That definitely hurts. … [The] Djokovics, the Nadals, the top guys … they’re superior athletes in their own countries. Our athletes are good athletes, but they’re not maybe the supreme athletes that some of the basketball players or football players are. We need to be able to make the game more accessible so that more kids want to play and can play. And I think that will help.
RM: You’re doing something to address that with the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York. Do you have any players that you’re looking at as having a chance to turn that around?
McEnroe: This is a long-term project. We had a kid from my academy who just won junior Wimbledon.
RM: That would be Noah Rubin?
McEnroe: Yeah. I think he has a good shot at being a very good professional. … My goal is to get some great athletes and players committed, and hopefully over time turn it around. But there are some young kids hopefully coming up — things can change.
RM: In your heyday, when it seemed as if much of the tennis establishment had a problem with you, could you have predicted that you’d become something of a respected elder statesman of the sport?
McEnroe: No. It’s as simple as that. I never would have thought I would have done a number of things, including playing on the seniors tour, commentating, having a tennis academy — you could go on and on. But what you think at 20 is different than what you think at 55.