In "Hardcourt Confidential," Patrick McEnroe tells what the world of tennis is like, on and off the court.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
The Genius and the Plugger Dad had always pushed hard for John and me to play doubles together. Part of it was that family pride, but his hope was grounded in sound logic, too. I was a solid doubles guy, and it was Peter Fleming who had famously said, upon being asked to name the best doubles team he'd ever seen, "John McEnroe and anyone." So why not me, John's flesh and blood?
Well, there were a few good reasons for John and me to resist playing together, starting with the fact that in some places it was bound to be interpreted as a form of nepotism; some people inevitably would snicker and suggest that John was carrying me, as a blood favor. Neither John nor I needed that. And brothers, with a few exceptions, don't always make the best doubles partners because of the familiar sibling rivalry issues.
It was even more awkward in our case, because John and I were doing the same thing, careerwise, and at the same level if not with the same degree of success. We always had to navigate around that, and it did create problems between us from time to time, going all the way back. But there was pressure, and not just to play together. If Dad thought I wasn't representing the McEnroe name adequately, he'd remind me that other people are always watching extra hard. For my part, I learned to tell early on whether people judged or related to me as John McEnroe's brother rather than as an individual who happened to be a brother of tennis's most notorious hellion.
At times, though, the situation bordered on the absurd. Dad would say, "You've got to act like you're proud to be a McEnroe," and I would roll my eyes and think, Did you see what John just did at this or that tournament? That wasn't very cool. Is that what it means to be a...McEnroe? But on the whole, none of this was really a burden for me; it was more like an occasional irritant.
John also felt unwanted pressure thanks to Dad's lobbying. He bridled against the implication that he had to play with me, and he always did worry about overshadowing me. He almost went too far in the other direction, he was going to beat me as soundly as he could, just to prove that he was giving nothing away. No one was going to even suspect that there was nepotism or empathy in play.
But...overshadowing? I was used to it. What tennis player wouldn't be overshadowed by John? Undue credit? I knew in my heart that I'd earned every W on my record. In tennis, you always do. Nepotism? Any player in his right mind would give his eye teeth for a chance to call John his doubles partner. Winning is a powerful pleasure that makes it pretty easy not to sweat the details, or gossip.
Once in a while, just to keep Dad off our backs, we played as a team. It wasn't always pretty. We played the US Open in 1991 and got cold-cocked by the illustrious Swedish team of Ronnie Bathman and Rikard Bergh. Who was I going to blame, my useless partner, and hold a press conference to say Peter Fleming was full of it?
Of course playing against John was no picnic for either of us. He took no joy out of beating me, even if he refused to let up. I only played John in singles three times, and lost each match; the good news for me was that one of those matches (Chicago) was a tournament final—a big week for me, no matter what happened in the championship match. But I had pretty good success against John in doubles. We had some good matches that went either way. One of the more memorable matches we played was in Madrid, which at the time—spring of 1992—was outdoors on clay. I was partnered with Patrick Galbraith, and in the quarters we met John and Javier Frana, an Argentinian lefty who really ripped the ball.
Altitude is an issue in Madrid, so the conditions were pretty quick. Galby was similar to me, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but a lefty. He needed a solid power player for a partner to put his skills to best use. He was a very good returner, but his serve was shaky. His lack of power kept him from exploiting the natural advantage of a lefty. Galby basically had one serve—he'd kind of slide the ball into your body. It was effective, as such things go, but even back then you could rarely get away with being a one-trick pony.
In our match, Frana kept teeing off on Galby's serve from his deuce court post, setting up John with break point after break point. In one game there must have been six, seven ad-points for them. I'd ask Galby, "Where are you going with the serve?" and he'd hiss, time and again, "Body...the body."
The altitude helped the ball hop around, and it made Galby's serve better than it was. Whatever the case, John had a lot of trouble returning and closing the deal in the ad-court. It was driving him nuts, but Galby kept sliding in that serve, and we kept dodging bullets until we won that match.
John was livid; this guy Galby (he might have been thinking of me, too, for all I know), who from a talent standpoint shouldn't even have been on the same court, had put up a W at his expense. John wouldn't even talk to me after that match. He held a grudge about it for a couple of weeks. Not that I cared about any of that; after beating those guys, Galby and I knew we might win the tournament, and that's just what we did.
John and I also faced each other in the doubles final of Basel in 1991. His partner was the mercurial Czech Petr Korda. I played with Jakob Hlasek of Switzerland. We had some success as a team, and we both had been coached at different times by Gunther Bresnick. Jakob and I had no illusions about what we were in for that day, because just hours before the doubles final, Jakob had beaten John in a thrilling five-set singles final. The big question was which of those two singles finalists would have more gas left in his tank.
As it turned out, both of them had plenty. Jakob and I lost the first set, 6–3. We won the second in a tiebreaker. The third and final set also went the distance. Jakob and I reached match point at 5–6 in the 'breaker, with Korda serving to me.
Korda had a slick lefty slider, but he couldn't really hit it too well up the T. Knowing he'd still try to squeeze it in there to my forehand, I slid over a little—just enough to allow me to step around and hit the return with my backhand. The return went straight down the middle, between them. Game, set, match, Hlasek and Patrick McEnroe. John was disgusted—totally pissed. But on that occasion he didn't sulk. After a few hours, his sense of humor returned. He laughed as he told me the exact words he had spoken to Korda in their mini-conference at the baseline, right before Korda served that match ball.
"Whatever you do," John had said, "make sure you keep it away from Pat's backhand."
If you look up the last singles title John won on the main tour you'll see it was in Chicago, in February of 1991, and the guy he beat, 6–4, in the third was me. John played with his usual intensity that night; the only thing that made it different from the two previous times we'd played was that it was no beatdown. It was a match I could have won. I can only imagine how John would have reacted had that happened.
John was near the end of his career, and I was playing as well as ever. If ever I had a chance to win a big singles match from him, this was it. But I remember thinking, Shit, if I win this match, he'll never talk to me again. I knew that losing the match would hurt him a lot more than it hurt me. At one point early in the match, I glanced at the courtside boxes, and there sat our father, proud as a peacock. He had flown in from New York, just to be part of this great family event—life as it should be for the McEnroes, the first family of men's tennis. If he only knew—really knew—that it was never quite as joyous an event for us as it was for him.
I took my foot off the gas in that match, just that little bit that made all the difference in the world. I'm not saying I would have won it had I been playing without inhibitions. I can't claim that I should have won it, on form, either. I just know I was thinking, Do I really want to win this? It would be such a hard pill for John to swallow.... I don't begrudge John for beating me that night, or spanking the tar out of me in our other two singles matches, at Stratton Mountain, Vermont, and Basel, Switzerland. You play tennis to win; you owe it to yourself, and you also owe it to the paying customers, as well as your support team. John always played to win, and there's a beautiful kind of integrity in that—it's honest. I just didn't have the same degree of ruthless, blind drive. Down deep, I knew I didn't want to beat my brother.
I also learned that night that if I lacked anything in my career as a singles player, it was that extra dose of desire, or maybe it's need. John wanted and needed to win every match. If he lost, it was never because he went soft, or let anything undermine his desire. That night, he flew back to Los Angeles, into a marriage that was beginning to unravel. I flew in the other direction, back to New York, seated next to my dad, who was still feeling euphoric about that great day for the McEnroes.
On the way, we flew through one of the worst storms I ever experienced on an airplane. The plane was pitching and wallowing through the night. I clutched the armrests with both hands, hoping that we'd make it home.
Down and Out in Paris (Bercy)
The middle of 1992 was a very tough, turbulent period for John. He was isolated; his marriage with Tatum O'Neal was on the rocks, and our father was too busy managing the industry called John McEnroe to be emotionally useful to him. At one point, John asked Dad to back off a little bit. He told him, "I need you to be a father, not my lawyer or manager."
Our family circled the wagons and tried to help John work through his difficulties, although that McEnroe ineptness at communication hampered the effort. I offered to fly out to Los Angeles to spend some time with John, but he wasn't the type to unburden himself to anyone. We all knew that the greatest source of his anxiety was the custody of the two children he had with Tatum. Knowing her personality and family history of substance abuse, John feared for the safety of the kids in the event that the courts determined that they ought to be with Tatum.
I got along fine with Tatum, although I knew she had issues. When I brought home my college girlfriend one time, Tatum treated her like shit. Here was someone young, pleasant, eager to please, beautiful, and smart—a coed at Stanford. I guess that was the problem, because Tatum reacted like a child who feels threatened. I guess down deep she was like a child.
I met Tatum's dad, Ryan O'Neal, a few times. I thought he was a son of a bitch but he could be really friendly, too. He seemed very unstable, a real up-and-down guy. One time Ryan and Farrah Fawcett stayed with us in Cove Neck. I walked in to find Ryan in our little TV room. He was watching some news report about suffering children in Africa, and he started crying. He certainly had a tender side, but he also was into boxing and had a temper that made you give him a lot of leeway.
It was probably hard for Tatum to join our family; it's hard for any wife to marry an entire family. We were tight and bound together by tennis, something about which she knew nothing and couldn't care less. I don't think Tatum liked my parents very much. Because of her own family, she knew a lot about alcoholism; I think she felt that our family had that problem as well, but was in denial about it. And she was volatile, much like John.
When John married Tatum, he was seduced by that whole LA thing. It got him away from tennis, and into that celebrity sphere that was Tatum's world. In all fairness, I'm not sure she led him into it by the nose. It was just her life, and he'd fallen in love and started a family with her. It wasn't that different from what Andre Agassi went through when he married Brooke Shields. It's probably a lot more sensible, and certainly a lot easier, for a big-name player to marry a woman who didn't have competing ambitions.
John was a wreck by the fall of 1992, and he expressed what desire he had to connect with his family at a tough time. That meant tennis. He declared that he wanted to play doubles with me in the big Paris Indoors tournament in early November. It started just days after John and Tatum made their final decision to divorce, and he was so devastated that he was barely functioning.
John lost early in the singles in Paris, a particularly cruel blow for someone who always found haven in the game. But he still had doubles, and I was surprised by how well he performed despite his anxieties. Maybe feeling like he was taking care of his little brother took his mind off his own problems. Whatever the case, he took me under his wing to an unusual degree. One night early in the tournament he took me along on a night out with his buddy, the French tennis and pop music superstar Yannick Noah. "Take care of my kid brother," he told Yannick. The next thing, poof, I was surrounded by gorgeous girls, including a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. She and I hit it off and had a great time in Paris; it was certainly good incentive to keep winning that week. The doubles were played at night, so we'd be out until three or four in the morning, I'd sleep until one or two in the afternoon, and then John and I would play our matches at night.
Not bad, I thought, a swimsuit model, Paris, John McEnroe for a doubles partner. Life may suck for John, but at the moment it sure is good for me....
On paper, John and I had the makings of a good doubles team. It was a natural fit: a lefty and a righty, a shotmaker (him) and efficient server with a steady partner who could set him up for the kill with precise returns. But the pressure was too great, because the shadow of our father loomed over the enterprise, no matter how much he tried to downplay the pride he took in seeing us as a team or his expectations.
We did have one significant technical problem. John and I both preferred to play the ad (left) court. Although the steady player usually takes the deuce (right) side to set up opportunities (most of the break points are played in the left, ad court), I preferred the ad side because of my excellent return, especially with the backhand. It was hard to get that wide serve by me, and rule no. 1 on break points is: Make sure you get the return back into play. John groused about my desire to play the ad court, but he grudgingly agreed to move over to play the deuce side on the grounds of his superiority and experience. He was more likely to adapt successfully if forced out of his comfort zone. The alignment worked out well.
We played all of our matches at night, before huge crowds. In the quarterfinals, we played a good French team, Arnaud Boetsch and Olivier Delaître. It was a very tight match that came down to a third-set tiebreaker. At five-all we got the benefit of a truly bad call against the French. The cavernous arena at Bercy was packed and it just erupted. It was pure chaos. The French team was hopping mad, arguing with the umpire. The fans were booing and jeering us. I got a taste of what it was like to be John, for whom this kind of anarchy was business as usual.
John was patiently waiting to serve the next ball, but the scene was out of control. He stood there with his hands on his hips: What's the problem with all you whiners? After a few moments, he called me back to the baseline where he stood. He paddled the ball against the court. He grinned slyly and said, "Don't worry about it. We've got this thing in the bag."
Don't worry about it? The arena was full of hostile fans. The French team was motivated by righteous outrage and egged on by their countrymen, and support from a home crowd can make you capable of nearly superhuman feats. The way I saw it, these guys wanted to be heroes, the scene was set for them, and John and I were in deep doo-doo.
Finally, some semblance of order was restored. As a hush descended on the arena, John stepped up to the line. He went through all the familiar shirt-tugging and lip-licking rituals. I could almost feel the perverse pleasure he took at that moment—the feeling Pete Sampras has described as the intoxicating, exhilarating pleasure of being in the position to give a stadium full of fans the equivalent of a big, fat, middle finger.
John went into his signature, radical service stance with his back almost to the net, coiled up like a cobra as he tossed the ball, and snapped around to hit an unreturnable serve.
Game, set, match, John and Patrick McEnroe. As we walked off the court, John had this evil little smile on his face. He was flat out loving it. He shook his head in disbelief and started laughing. It was the happiest he looked all week.
We went all the way to the final, where we won the first set easily and broke our opponents in the second. I remember thinking at that point, Wow, this is easy. We've got this in the bag. But John wasn't about to let me relax. He was hyped up, and he kept saying things like, "Come on, we gotta get a break here...We gotta bury these guys....Don't let up."
It really hit me then, how his intensity level was just always so insanely high. Sure I was trying my hardest, but it was like playing with house money and I felt a little complacent, a little satisfied. I was enjoying myself, thinking, Great, we got another break, let's just cruise on through.
Not John. He wasn't buying into that. Maybe he remembered that long-ago US Open qualifying match with Zan Guerrey; maybe he thought of that French Open disaster with Ivan Lendl. This was a final. He wanted to demolish and bury those guys, and that's just what we did, winning 6–3, 6–1.
We never played doubles together again.
Larger—and Smaller—Than Life
When the job as general manager of the USTA's player development program came open, I felt I was a good candidate. You could substitute the words "parent management" for "player development," because the road to success with a promising player, especially in more recent times, runs through parents. Tennis was in many ways the glue that kept our family close, although my dad might, with some justification, flip that and claim that family was the bonding agent that enabled our success in tennis. Either way, we'd lived a typical tennis family's life, and stood out mostly because of John's extreme talent.
My job as a television commentator also seemed an asset. Some of the lifer coaches, especially formerly high-ranked players, are a little out of touch with the game and how it's changed. They're going to impose a dated template, which is fine for some of the foundational stuff, if not good enough to keep pace with change. I'm pretty sure that some of the iconic names in tennis haven't even hit balls with a racquet strung with today's newer polyester strings. But being relatively young and a broadcaster, I'm in touch with the day-to-day changes, issues, and controversies in the game, sometimes in a way that puts me in a conflicted or uncomfortable position, as was the case after the ladies' doubles final of the US Open of 2009.
The 2009 US Open ended with a Monday final because of rain. And anyone who watched the event, or even read about it in the media, knew what happened on Saturday night. Serena Williams, taking umbrage at a foot fault called against her while match point down, went medieval on the foot-fault judge (whose main job is to call the baseline at her end). Serena totally lost her cool and threatened the woman in an expletive-laced tirade. The linesperson followed the rules and reported the menacing abuse to the umpire. The violation called for a point penalty.
The tournament referee, Brian Earley, came on court during the heated discussions that followed Serena's outburst. Serena had already used up her one allotted warning when she smashed her racket up after losing the first set. This next infraction automatically meant a point penalty, ending the match. As big a deal as it was, Earley and the USTA were lucky. I can only imagine how the crowd would have reacted had Serena gone gonzo at 3–all in the third set, long before that highly competitive and entertaining match was close to finished.
The controversy intensified when Serena issued an official statement the following day through a public relations firm, admitting that she "handled the situation poorly." It was a self-serving statement, and while various officials were still trying to decide what further punishment to dole out, critics jumped all over the fact that nowhere in her statement did Serena actually apologize to anyone. On Monday morning, Serena released an "amended" statement, in which she did apologize, after, unbeknownst to most, her arm had been sufficiently twisted by interested and influential parties. Darren Cahill and I were scheduled to call the Monday men's final between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro for ESPN, in case the network wanted to rebroadcast it almost immediately. I also had a long-standing commitment to speak at a charity luncheon put on by the Eastern Tennis Association earlier in the day. As the men's final was scheduled to start at around 4:30, I was in pretty good shape—until US Open tournament director Jim Curley's assistant Cindy called and asked me to host the women's doubles awards ceremony, preceding the men's final. It was a pretty standard request—the USTA likes to have its own people serve as award presenters, and two of my jobs are USTA positions. I had already backed out of one such commitment earlier in the tournament, owing to my obligations as a commentator. So I agreed to do it, but as I rushed down from the luncheon in Westchester County to do my turn, the wheels started turning in my head. Venus and Serena were almost certain to win the doubles. And I was a familiar face on live television, and to everyone in the stadium, as an ESPN journalist.
The way I saw it, I was duty bound to ask Serena about the repercussions of the Saturday night incident and its aftermath. If I didn't, it would impugn my integrity as a journalist. The awkwardness of my situation dawned on me. I called Jamie Reynolds, our ESPN coordinating producer, and explained my misgivings. If I were to go on live television to present the trophies and ask two or three questions, I would have to ask about the Saturday incident and its aftermath. Normally, my colleague Mary Jo Fernandez would have done the on-court interview and presentation, but she wanted no part of it. Mary Jo is the Fed Cup captain, and she wasn't willing to risk damaging her relationship with Serena by putting her on the spot—not with Serena having agreed to play the Fed Cup in a final against Italy later in the year.
I couldn't blame Mary Jo; if it had been Andy Roddick in the midst of a similar mess, I would have felt equal reluctance. Furthermore, ESPN was aware that some of us in tennis wear multiple hats, but they didn't want one of their people out there if the relevant questions were not going to be asked.
So at the morning meeting between various stakeholders, including the USTA and ESPN, it was agreed that the subject would be avoided altogether. And then I came into the picture. Jamie Reynolds understood my bind; if anything, he was ticked at this apparent back-door move that got me mixed up in it. He also agreed that if I were doing the on-court interview holding an ESPN mic, I just had to ask about the incident and the apology controversy. Next, I called Jim Curley. I told him I'd be happy to go out and present the trophy, but if I were to do the on-court interview as well, I was going to ask the uncomfortable question. I had to do it, for the sake of my credibility as a journalist. Jim said, fine, do what you think is best. I then called Gordon Smith, the executive director and COO of the USTA, and told him the same thing. He had a great attitude, and said, "Fine, it's a great opportunity for Serena to apologize in a more public way, on television."
On my way into the stadium, I was lucky enough to bump into ESPN producer and behind-the-scenes reporter Willie Weinbaum. He's a pro; he would understand my bind. He suggested that after I congratulated the women, I should ask a nice, soft question about the incident to give Serena an opportunity to talk about it. But I should have a good, tough backup question ready to go, in the event that she stonewalled.
When the time came, I was ready. After rendering kudos, I acknowledged that it had been a tough forty-eight hours for Serena, and asked if she had anything to say to her fans. Willie was right on; she ducked the questions like a boxer ducking a jab.
I followed up by asking if anything had clicked in her head in the past twenty-four hours, to make her amend her original statement and add an apology. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the crowd started booing and jeering. Venus and Serena both broke out their familiar smiles, the ones that basically say "fuck you." And Venus patronizingly interjected: "I think the crowd is saying, 'Patrick, I think we're all ready to move on.'"
Well, I tried.
Over the next few hours, I received an incredible number of emails lauding me for asking the questions that had to be asked. And it was especially satisfying that so many of the messages were from frontline, respected, fair journalists. They praised me for not letting Serena off the hook so easily. Given some of the inherent, inevitable conflicts in my job, I felt really good about getting the thumbs-up from what can be a very tough crowd. Next to it, the boos from the spectators meant nothing.
Venus and Serena Williams are astonishingly talented, enormously successful players—that they're sisters and have both been ranked at the top and won multiple Grand Slams is one of the greatest sports stories of all time. We've lived it, so we're accustomed to it. I know firsthand how unlikely their history has been, and how exceptional they must be in some way I can't even fathom to have come so far and achieved so much.
None of us can really know what they went through as outsiders in tennis, successfully crashing a game that could hardly have been called popular on the mean streets of Compton, Los Angeles, where they grew up.
But I also know that the sisters didn't go from those legendary cracked courts with the holey nets straight to the victory podium at Grand Slam events. They had an enormous amount of help along the way, some of it from people who hoped to cash in as they became famous, others who just fell in love with their talent, or wanted to help because they thought the girls could write a truly inspirational tale for others, particularly among minorities that tennis has a hard time reaching.
I sometimes wish the sisters were a little more conscious of what the game has actually given them in the way of opportunities, material rewards, a platform for their ideas and opinions, and even relationships. But they've been sucked into that shallow narrative that encourages them to think that they doublehandedly conquered a world that was intrinsically hostile to them. The truth is that tennis was dying to have someone like the Williams sisters come along, and not entirely for selfish reasons. Most people love to see the underdog or the disadvantaged succeed, and among those who do, the ones who fare the best are the ones who realize they had a lot of help along the way—that they're part of a pretty good, well-intentioned community.
But let's stop right here for a moment to do something we sometimes neglect because of how close Venus and Serena are, and the extraordinary way their careers have proeeded, like parallel train tracks. Venus and Serena are two very different individuals—as different personally as they are as tennis stylists.
Venus is more diplomatic, as befitting an older sister (and one who's often tried to shield and protect Serena). In recent years, she's become more of a spokesperson for the WTA Tour and stepped to the forefront on a number of gender-related issues (including equal prize money). It's fitting that she's had all of her Grand Slam successes in recent years at Wimbledon; she has a clear appreciation for the traditions and society of tennis.
Serena has brought a lot to tennis, no doubt about it. But she doesn't seem to recognize that tennis has brought a lot to her, too. Serena has the star power and name recognition to be a female Andre Agassi. She could win big events for many years, and she's at the age when maturity and self-awareness might transform her into a comparably iconic figure.
Like Andre, Serena at one stage longed to be "more than a tennis player." She thought she wanted to be an actress, and took her best shot. It went nowhere. But she hasn't yet connected the dots the way Andre eventually did, and come to accept that life can be pretty good if you recognize that tennis is your destiny, and on the whole that isn't all that bad. It offers some enormous advantages and power to do some good, or at least make people feel really good about, if nothing else, being tennis fans.
At this point, Serena still isn't really tuned in to the power she could wield. She's got a deep instinct for showmanship; has anyone else so thrived on drama, and so often proved critics and detractors of her game, or fitness, wrong? She did it once again at the 2010 Australian Open, laying to rest the notion that she was number 1 only because Justine Henin of Belgium had taken a surprise leave of absence in the spring of 2008. By surviving a few serious threats, and weathering a patch of brilliant play by Henin to end her comeback dreams in the final in Melbourne, Serena showed that nobody could claim that the best female player on the planet had taken a break.
Serena has a big, big game—she takes the WTA game to another level with her serve, bold returns, and steely nerves. And she has a personality as big as that game. She's like the young Muhammad Ali, convinced that she's "the greatest" and happy to let the world know.
But Serena is no folk hero, like Ali was for the baby boomers of the 1960s. And she's a tennis player, not a prize fighter; she's held to a different standard in a sport that still values grace and good manners. Serena often rubbed people the wrong way after suffering a loss, because her typical reaction precluded giving her opponent any credit. It was all about how badly Serena had played, how lucky the winner was, yadda-yadda-yadda. She's gotten a lot better about that lately; you can see her making an effort to be a gracious loser, so maybe she's figuring it out. The Fed Cup is the women's version of Davis Cup, and while it isn't nearly as popular, especially in the U.S., it's still an important event to most nations, and playing for your nation is always an honor. At the end of 2009, a surprisingly feisty U.S. team led by Mary Jo Fernandez clawed its way to the final with no help from Venus or Serena. Serena had agreed to play if the U.S. made the final; in fact, she said that Fed Cup was terribly important to her. Serena is especially prone to pledging her undying devotion to Fed Cup, and then reneging when it comes time to play. The lucrative and prestigious WTA year-end championships were played in Doha, Qatar, the week before the Fed Cup final. Not long before Doha, Jill Smoller, Serena's agent, called and asked if we would send a coach to the championships to work with Serena. She specifically requested Mike Szell, who worked mostly with our boys but had once been coach to Monica Seles.
Our USTA policy is to help any American player, male or female, famous or down on his luck, if it makes sense. I was happy to send Mike to work with Serena, with just one caveat: He would only go if his full services were needed. If Serena just wanted a hitting partner (many women hire male players with whom to hit), I didn't want to waste Mike's time or our resources.
Jill agreed, and Mike went with Serena. She had a great tournament, ultimately winning the title. The USTA and the Fed Cup team had been holding its collective breath, hoping that Serena would indeed make the trip to Italy as promised. But after her semifinal match in Doha, she abruptly announced that she wasn't going to travel to Italy to play Fed Cup. She was too banged up.
Serena's abrupt about-face was a severe disappointment, particularly for the U.S. team, which had accorded her special treatment (and rightly so). Serena was scheduled to do a photo shoot in London right after Doha, meaning she didn't even have to join the team until a day or two before the balls started flying in earnest. It was a tough schedule, for sure; on the other hand, the travel wasn't horrific and the tie was, after all, a weekend affair against Italy, a nation that isn't exactly an international powerhouse, played on a forgiving outdoor clay surface. I thought it particularly galling that Serena pulled out of Fed Cup before she had even finished playing in Doha. I wrote Jill an email and said Serena certainly didn't look very hurt to me. Jill wrote back that I should see what bad shape Serena was in, how much treatment she needed, just to keep going. But I wasn't buying it. I knew Serena wasn't at death's door, and was certain she'd make her photo shoot. She just didn't want to go to Italy. At some level, I have no problem with those who choose not to play Fed or Davis Cup. But at least have the decency and honesty to come right out and say it doesn't work for me, I'm not interested. Instead, Serena kept everyone waiting, including the captain and teammates who were counting on her presence. And then she just bailed.
I wrote back to Jill: I guess that's the thanks we get for sending Mike over there.
She fired back haughtily: I didn't know there was reciprocity involved.
I replied, That's the point, there wasn't. We just did it on good faith, knowing that Serena had also committed to Fed cup. And this is what we get....
But it was pointless to nag the issue to death. If you don't want to play, say so. Don't yank everyone's chain. The thing that bothered me is that I had a suspicion that she had no intention of going, from the get-go. And it occurred to me that maybe she had said all those nice things about going to Italy to suck up to the USTA at the moment when the organization was part of the group debating what further punishment was appropriate for Serena's transgressions in that semifinal US Open match with Clijsters.
When the Grand Slam Committee finally did act on Serena's actions at the US Open, fining her $82,500 and placing her on a two-year Grand Slam probation, her reaction was that the decision was somehow "sexist." That if a male player had done such a thing, he would have gotten off with a slap on the wrist. But I'm still waiting for the incident in which a male player gets off lightly for physically menacing and threatening an official; there's an order of magnitude issue here, and it was discouraging to see Serena reach for that sexist card. Her outburst at the Open wasn't unforgivable, and it could have been resolved and forgotten if only Serena took ownership of her actions. It would have made it easier, to borrow an expression from Venus Williams, to "move on."
Instead, the whole episode only served to make Serena look worse and worse, which is too bad. She has a riveting, charismatic personality, and an enormous platform in the public arena. She has a great deal to give, if only she could forget about the taking.
The Era of Heresies
My role as Davis Cup captain adds to my credibility as the head of the national development effort. Young players are focused on the here and now; as familiar as the names Sampras, Evert, or Connors might be, they're names from the past. Kids don't connect any more immediately or naturally with them than they do with Willie Mays, Ronald Reagan, or B. B. King. But it probably helps when they see me high fiving with a James Blake, or huddling with Andy Roddick during a Davis Cup match.
I learned many valuable things growing up with and playing alongside and against John, but great training was not one of them. One time while I was still on the tour John asked to join Jared Palmer and me in one of our regular practice sessions. I told him we had an indoor court booked at 10 in the morning, and he said he'd come an hour later. That was fine, it would give Jared and me time to do our drills and get in a good hit.
John showed up a little on the early side, and stood watching us through the big glass window overlooking the courts. When he came down to play, he was shaking his head: "What the hell were you guys doing?"
He warmed up for five minutes, max, and suggested that we get it going. We took turns playing points, sometimes going two-on-one. After John had enough, he showered up, took up his place by the window again, and watched us doing various drills. Finally he came back down to the court and said, "Let's get out of here, man."
"What?" I said.
"This is the biggest waste of time."
"What do you mean?"
"Tell me, when are you ever gonna hit balls like that in a match?"
He was right, at least partially. You never play a match in which you assume that the next twenty balls you hit will all be crosscourt backhands. But John was like a genius of improvisational jazz denigrating musicians who spent a lot of time rehearsing published scores. And the art of drilling has changed, dramatically, in the span of a few years. I'd seen and learned things in Europe that I thought we in the U.S. could really incorporate into our plan to get back up to speed as a tennis power.
Jim Courier, one member of that golden Sampras generation, understood what I wanted to do, because he knew the man I had quietly sized up as the right person to lead the charge, Jose Higueras. Jim's decision to hire Higueras as his coach early in his career was prescient. It came about almost by accident, when Jim realized that he couldn't get the support he needed from his coach at the time, Nick Bollettieri. Nick was too wrapped up in another of his protégés, Andre Agassi.
The wisdom of Jim's decision was manifest in the French Open final of 1991. Andre was the odds-on favorite to win Roland Garros; he had beaten Jim en route to the final the previous year, which Andre then lost in a shocking upset to thirty-year-old veteran Andrés Gómez of Ecuador, a first-time Grand Slam finalist.
A year later, Andre raced to a 6–3, 3–1 lead over Jim in the final, blistering the ball. He had a break point that was a de facto set point when rain stopped the match. In the locker room, Agassi would later reveal, Bollettieri said absolutely nothing to him. Higueras, huddling with Jim, advised him to take a few steps back, especially on his service return, to buy a little more time and make Andre play more shots. He boosted Jim's confidence with his faith and advice. Jim went on to win that match, which launched him on the three most prolific years of his career. Jose was one of the notorious "clay-court specialists" of an era awash with them. He was legendary for his work ethic, setting standards that a fleet of Spanish stars would soon emulate. I felt that the New World desperately needed a dose of his Old World work ethic.
Cross-cultural projects easily go awry, but Jose had immigrated to the U.S. near the end of his career, settling near Palm Springs with his American wife. They ran horses—and the occasional tennis player, like Jim. When I got the job as head of player development for the USTA in the spring of 2008, Jose was the first man I wanted to call and the last one I did call after interviewing other candidates and half-a-dozen long talks with Jose himself. He agreed to be my Director of Coaching.
Jose was such a grinder in his heyday in the top 10 that some people thought he was just a "pusher," and would teach our kids to wage dull wars of attrition from the baseline. Nothing can be further from the truth. First of all, there's a big difference between a defensive pusher whose only real weapons are consistency and stamina (the species is now extinct) and a grinder, willing to do whatever it takes, all day, to get the job done. Second, Jose had limitations as a player, but to me he's shown none as a coach. If anything, his own shortcomings as a player left him keenly aware of how much more you need than the ability and willingness to grind.
But I still like to get Jose going by saying stuff like: "Just remember, we're still Americans. We still want to pound the fucking ball." Put more politely, I'm telling him that I want to retain that basic American tradition of playing aggressively—playing to finish the point rather than prolong it, playing aggressively to create opportunity. Jose's vision could be called Spanish, although guys like Jimmy Arias and Jim Courier, both out of the Bollettieri Academy, were also pioneers of the aggressive baseline game and violent racket-head acceleration. On a broad, institutional level, the Spanish were the first to pick up on that trend, and they were flexible and wise enough to give their budding players intensive training on hard courts. The technological advances in strings and rackets also enable players to take huge cuts, and the Spanish emphasis on topspin, especially on the forehand side, ensured that the players got sufficient clearance over the net to have a built-in margin of safety no matter how viciously they attacked a ball.
The contemporary player who best represents the ruling style is Rafael Nadal, even though his technique is stylized to the point of seeming radical. You know the guy is no ordinary baseline grinder because of his success on all surfaces, including grass. Granted, Rafa is a rare individual talent. But Jose saw that much of what he did was based on general ideas that could be taught.
Jose has a long-standing friendship with Rafa and his coach, mentor, and uncle, Toni Nadal. He knows Toni's philosophy of the game, and what he did to express it through Rafa. Jose has this one drill he puts kids through that consists of a series of forehands, the last of which calls for the youngster to take a ball that's very low and close to the net. He has to dig the ball out and fire it back over the net, but with enough topspin to make it fall within the court. It's a drill that Rafa did relentlessly, since the time he was about ten.
Many of our top private, developmental coaches, like Robert Lansdorp, are big on penetration—hit flat and clean and try to get an opponent back on his or her heels. The main problem with that approach is that when you get pushed behind your own baseline, you're out of options. I've watched Andre Agassi in slow motion, and could see that the further back he was pushed, the more spin he applied, to give him a more forgiving margin of error as well as to buy time. But that's a very defensive approach.
In our program, we like to develop an ability we call going "in and out." A player needs to know what to do when he's moving in aggressively, or finds himself getting pushed back, or out. It applies to moving and hitting side-to-side as well. The idea is that you play tennis in a circle, and you need to develop sound technique for this 360-degree job. Today's players have to know how to turn the tables and seize the initiative from all points on the court. Net clearance is a big issue for Jose: the farther back you are on the court, the more height you want on the ball crossing the net. The closer you are to the net, the less clearance you want.
We also emphasize decision making under duress. When you're playing in a circle, you need to decide if you're on defense or offense, if you ought to play high or low over the net, if you're better off volleying short, or punching the ball deep. Hit the volley deep and there's a chance the other guy will be able to make his passing shot dip low over the net, forcing you to hit a defensive volley. But if you play the volley short, your opponent has to come up with the ball but still hit it with enough pace and spin to pass you and drop it into your court.
Jose also does these "progression" drills. He'll take a young kid, stand on the same side of the net, and hand-feed him balls. He literally takes the kid—and he did this even with Roger Federer, whom Jose briefly coached shortly before coming on board with the USTA—and tosses a variety of balls in succession. The kid, or superstar, can hit any shot he wants, as hard or gently as he likes.
Jose makes the player run up, or go back. Go to this side or that. What do you do with any given ball? It's all based on decision making and footwork. Sometimes Jose will toss the ball very close to the player, so he has to move away from it before he hits. And because it's a hand feed, you have to make your own pace for whatever shot you choose. That's where racket acceleration enters the picture.
Later, Jose will do the same drill, but this time he'll be on the other side of the net and feed off his racket. He does the same thing, only this time it's tougher because the ball is coming at the student faster. That makes it easier to create pace, an important factor, but it also makes it imperative to know how to receive pace—and we're very big on that. Watch Nadal and you'll see that he's exceptional at hitting a great, hard shot while moving backward.
Some of the kids in our program were already taught what might be called the American way, and it was amazing to see their reaction. They would try to step in, or forward, to meet the ball during a progression drill and of course they would miss it. That traditional and once useful notion of trying to take every ball on the rise isn't as effective as it once was; it represented playing tennis in a straight line, rather than a circle.
Back in the day, the idea of actually teaching someone how to hit an aggressive shot while backing up would have been considered heresy—if the very idea could even have been conceived.
But this is the era of heresy; teaching American kids the Spanish way to play, but with a greater emphasis on finishing points, is just part of it. And while things in the near term look a little shaky for our mature juniors, we're very encouraged by the performance of the kids in our sixteen and fourteen-and-under age divisions. .... My job as head of player development is mostly about management; in some ways, I'm a bureaucrat, reviewing salaries, or trying to figure out what to do about lousy food at our training camps. Meanwhile, guys like Jose Higueras and his two top aides, Jay Berger (head of men's tennis) and Ola Malmqvist (head of women's tennis), are out doing the fieldwork.
As a manager, I'm in charge of budgets and hiring. I know how the USTA is perceived in the coaching community. Everyone criticizes the organization, but everyone also wants its stamp of approval. Everyone thinks the USTA has a huge checkbook, and hopes to collect a big check. The same people criticize the USTA for spending money. And everyone thinks he can help turn the American game around and restore our former glory, but almost every one of them wants to do it on his terms.
That impulse is especially strong among well-known coaches and former players, especially great ones, including my own brother John. The hearts of most of these guys are in the right place. Nick Bollettieri, Rick Macci, Robert Lansdorp—guys like that have an unbelievable passion for the game. Many of them have been critical in the development of players who went on to be great champions. And almost all of them have at some point or another gotten screwed for their efforts—written out of history by a fame-hogging parent who suddenly turns out to be his daughter's only "real coach," or sometimes just because the advisers of the new star are terrified that the coach who invested so much in the player is going to want a cut of the action.
When these prominent names, former top players as well as coaches known wide and far, are asked by the press, they often say they're ready and eager to help the USTA but the organization never calls. That's an easy story to write, and a large institution like the USTA is a high-value target. Robert Lansdorp, who's had a hand in shaping some of the best players of three generations, once complained, "How come you guys (player development) never call me?"
"Robert," I answered. "My guys have called you four times. I kept on top of that. And as I understand it, you never returned their calls."
Great players and top coaches like to be wooed and cajoled. They act and probably feel they have the key to success, and maybe they do. But they only want to reveal it at a price. They don't want to call, they want to be called, and not by just anyone. When the organization does reach out and makes the call, the results can sometimes be bizarre.
I approached one Grand Slam legend about helping us out, partly because I'd read about this player's willingness to help the program if the USTA would only reach out. Well, I reached out, with realistic expectations. I suggested that the player commit to showing up a certain number of days at one or another of our practice facilities. I wouldn't even ask the player to fly or spend a night or two away from his family. Eventually, we got around to talking about money. When I suggested that we'd pay the player $75,000 for a pretty modest commitment of time, staggered throughout the year, the player promised to get back to me.
The response was this terse text message: "Add a zero."
Like I said, on their terms...either financially or in some other fashion. Few of the iconic figures in the American game have stepped forward and said, "Listen, I want to help. Tell me how I can be of most use to you, and maybe we can work it out." Maybe I'm nuts, but that seems like the way it ought to work. But everyone wants to be the chief, not the Indian. I lose interest quickly when a big-name player says he or she wants to help, but only if his name is on a tennis stadium somewhere, or on a big check that I could never justify cutting—not even in my own mind. One exception to this trend is the former two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin. I approached her cautiously, wondering whether she'd buy into the philosophy of our program. Tracy was one of Robert Lansdorp's first great success stories. She hit incredibly clean, precise, flat strokes—all Lansdorp trademarks. And unlike many of Robert's other protégés, Tracy remained loyal to him, partly because they were in some ways kindred spirits: frank, outspoken, tough. What if we hired Tracy, because of her background and status, and she went rogue there and told the kids something entirely at odds with what they'd been hearing every other day of the week from our full-time coaches?
And there was the ever-present compensation issue. What if we couldn't afford her? What if we went through our discussions and she came back with, "Add a zero."
My concerns were unfounded, and it made me realize it wasn't me who was out of step. Tracy listened, asked all the right questions, and decided that she could endorse our approach and help promote it—and she quickly developed into one of our most valued assets, bringing enthusiasm and passion to the job. Tracy wanted to be paid, but it was mainly because she knew that you get what you pay for—getting a check would take her sense of responsibility to the next level.
We quickly agreed on a reasonable amount, after which I had to go back to telling high-profile coaches and former players (many of whom couldn't carry her racket as competitors or coaches) that no, I wasn't interested in paying them $250,000 a year for sharing their wisdom and experience. And certainly not when I have great coaches out there, busting their asses for these kids on a 24/7 basis for less than half of that. Those coaches are the ones who have the biggest impact on these kids; if I'm going to take care of anyone first, it's them.
If some of Tracy's mental strength and determination rub off on the youngsters, we'll be in good shape. But that's even tougher, in some cases, than teaching someone to play tennis in a circle.
I was also open to bringing Tracy's mentor Robert Lansdorp into our tent, but anyone can tell you he's a tough nut to crack. Robert has a history and well-earned reputation as a lone wolf; he's the classic guy who's got a basket of balls in the trunk of his car and a résumé that enables him to ask whatever price he wants for a half-hour or 60-minute lesson. You can do pretty well for yourself, getting two or three hundred bucks for an hour lesson.
Also, the prototypical Lansdorp product is a vanishing breed on the tennis landscape; it's about topspin and fitness these days. Robert is a very smart guy, and he's made some adjustments to keep up with the times. But he was by no means an automatic fit with the program I conceived.
Some of Robert's ideas are original and provocative, great starting points for debate, even if they run counter to our own view. Among other things, Lansdorp believes that the only way to create champions is on a one-on-one basis. A great player, he believes, needs someone to serve in a hybrid role as coach-manager-authority figure. For Jimmy Connors, it was his own mother, Gloria. For Bjorn Borg it was Lennart Bergelin. For Rafael Nadal, it's Toni Nadal. And the women's tour is awash with parents, almost all of them fathers, whose control over their daughters is comprehensive.
But a strong protégé/mentor relationship, while common, is by no means the only path to success. As valuable as Tony Palafox was to my brother John, he wasn't a towering figure in his life. Nor was my dad, at least not in a tennis context. Many of the fine French players bubbled up out of a state development program, while Roger Federer didn't have an omnipresent coach-manager—nor did Lindsay Davenport, despite the critical role Lansdorp played in shaping her game.
We don't want to get into the business of these intense one-on-one relationships, although we'll support them as a third party in any way that makes sense. And we don't write checks under the assumption that the money will be well spent by a kid's mentor. That's like plonking down your money, squeezing your eyes shut, and rolling the dice. But you'd be surprised to know how many parents or coaches come to us for help and pretty soon make it perfectly clear that the only thing they really want is cold, hard cash. Often, there's a streak of paranoia under the surface—the coach or parent is afraid that we want to steal the kid and get all the credit for his or her subsequent glory. So they try to keep us at arm's length, while appealing to us for help.
While we aren't trying to buy champions or create a tennis welfare program, we'll help anyone. Lansdorp's right when he says that intense mentor-protégé relationships can pay off. If a talented kid chooses not to live and train under our supervision at one of our main training centers, we'll look for some other way to help him out. It may mean financing his or her trip to Europe, where the player can compete in minor league events; it may mean sending one of our coaches on the road with the kid, or underwriting a two-week training session at camp in Spain, so the youngster can get a taste of a different culture, and immerse himself in clay-court tennis.
Ryan Harrison, one of the U.S.A.'s outstanding prospects, is affiliated with the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy; his father, Pat, is a teaching pro there. That's just fine with us. The last thing we want is to go into competition with successful private academies or pros. And we still want to do whatever we can for Ryan and others like him. Our approach is very disappointing to parents and coaches who just want to tap into our financial resources. Then they go and complain to the press, and the story becomes one about our institutional indifference, or alleged refusal to help this poor, starving tennis player. Most people would be shocked to know the extent to which the USTA helped some players who never uttered a public word of thanks, even after they became very successful.
With us, it's not a matter of "our way or the highway." It's more like, "We're willing to spring for a tank of gas, but we want to know where the bus is going."
From HARDCOURT CONFIDENTIAL by Patrick McEnroe with Peter Bodo. Copyright (c) 2009 Patrick McEnroe. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.